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Legacy Texas S Dylan Haines excelling in Charlie Strong's meritocracy

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Welcome to the first true defensive fairy tale story of the new head coach's regime in Austin. It probably won't be the last.

Cooper Neill

It was a tremendous risk, jumping that route -- to try for an interception and miss is a cardinal sin for any defensive back.

But Texas Longhorns safety Dylan Haines knew exactly what the Iowa State Cyclones were running because he had seen it plenty of times on film, so he broke on the football just as Cyclones quarterback Sam Richardson released it into the flat, pulling it in before racing towards the sideline, then cutting it back inside and finishing the 74-yard return in the south end zone of the stadium, sending the partisan crowd at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium into a frenzy.

Like junior wide receiver Marcus Johnson the week before, Haines took some ribbing from his head coach Charlie Strong because he cut his interception return inside against Richardson.

"My man Haines, if he just stays straight, he doesn't have to cut back. If he just runs down the sideline it's a touchdown, but he said, 'I wanted to make it interesting, Coach.' I said, 'I see you did.'"

After Haines made it more difficult for himself, junior cornerback Duke Thomas thought that Haines has some conditioning work left to do.

"Man, he better run some more wind sprints, I know that. My boy died with 40 yards to go."

The craziest thing about it all, though?

Haines wasn't supposed to ever be in a position to intercept a pass during a game at DKR because he was a walk on in the 2012 class and walk ons didn't play at Texas under former head coach Mack Brown, just a basic reality of Mack Brown-Texas Football.

The journey of Haines from walk on to scholarship athlete to starter to game-changing player has been an incredible one with roots sown decades ago -- the fact that Haines is at Texas is hardly a coincidence, so let's start back at the true beginning of it all.

Even though it wasn't supposed to happen like this for Dylan Haines, excelling in athletics wearing a Longhorns logo is basically in his genes.

That's because his father, John Haines, was quite the athlete when he was at Texas. At 6'6 and over 260 pounds, he was an imposing presence for the talented defenses of the early 1980s and a four-year football letterman, an All-Southwest Conference selection, a captain, a seven-time game MVP, and a recipient of the Neuhaus Presidential Scholarship Award.

Put it all together and John Haines' resume in burnt orange and white is exceptional.

In an article for the Eyes of Texas, writer Adam Jones described Haines and his contributions to the sterling 1983 defense.

"John Haines played one inside spot and, at six-foot-six, was a nightmare for centers and guards to contain. Good luck to any quarterback trying to find a decent passing lane when Haines came up the middle."

After his time at Texas, the elder Haines played one year with the Vikings after being drafted No. 180 overall and then spent three years with the Colts. In his rookie season in Minnesota, he managed two sacks and a six-yard fumble return.

And sis wife, Sandra, was even a track athlete for the Horns and came from a family of Texas track athletes, though the Texas players would likely joke that Dylan got his speed from his father.

Unfortunately, the pedigree and a productive career just outside of Austin at Lago Vista didn't produce much recruiting attention for their son despite the fact that he excelled in a number of roles for his football team -- corner, safety, receiver, running back, left-footed kicker.

In one game against San Saba as a senior, the all-purpose athlete scored touchdowns on a 75-yard reception, a 15-yard run, and a 40-yard interception return.

Yet, no scholarships offers came in for Haines, not even from a Division II school, leaving him trying to decide which in-state school would provide the best academic environment for him. After looking at Texas State and Texas Tech, it was clear that neither of those schools could compete with his parent's alma mater in that area.

But what about Texas A&M, a notable omission from the above list?

"No, not A&M," Haines said decisively on Monday. "My parents would not have let me go to A&M."

And so his father in particular had a big impact on his son's decision, Haines said.

"I chose to come here because of his influence on me, and he convinced me, he always knew that I was capable of whatever I wanted to do, and when I told him that I wanted to play football, then he said, 'you go play football, that's what you can do.'"

But even after making the short trip to the 40 Acres, walking on wasn't easy for Haines, who called it one of the most difficult decisions he's made, knowing as he did that the upside was as a "tackling dummy" and someone who could possibly play on a special teams unit or two.

After trying out, making the team and then redshirting, Haines said he felt like he never really got an opportunity to prove his potential worth to the team in his second year under Mack Brown.

"My second year I wasn't given the opportunities in practice or in spring ball and camp to really show what I was capable of. I was kind of just limited to running the scout team against the first team offense. I guess, yeah, just a lack of opportunity was the real problem."

That all changed when Charlie Strong arrived, but even though the staff made it clear to Haines and the entire team that there were no superstars, no starters and no backups, that everyone was going to be treated equally, he was confused when defensive coordinator Vance Bedford called his name with the starters during practice.

"I thought maybe he got the name wrong," Haines said.

Bedford had not and Haines has been taking advantage of his opportunities since, playing well enough to start for the Texas team in the Orange-White game and intercepting Tyrone Swoopes' first pass and returning it 23 yards to give his side the ball at the 20-yard line.

It was his fourth snap in the spotlight at DKR.

The ball was overthrown by Swoopes and a good drop by linebacker Dalton Santos helped to force the overthrow, but Haines was in position and made the most of his opportunity, the first public display of that continuing theme. With four tackles on the day and the important interception, Haines helped establish himself as a player who could contend for the rotation given his start with the second unit.

During the summer, Haines was a survivor while the other contenders for the job made poor decisions. Senior Josh Turner was reported to be dismissed during the first great Purge by Charlie Strong, possibly resulting from the round of drug tests that took place after Big 12 Media Days.

Collins was one of the players dismissed during that Purge, having already exhausted his chances in quite a short period of time.

Entering fall camp, then, Haines had performed better in the spring game than Adrian Colbert and he had worked hard and followed Strong's simple core values, unlike the dismissed Collins and the suspended Turner.

Now, having returned an interception for a touchdown against Iowa State to help Texas to a critical victory and having intercepted a pass in his first game game against North Texas and having started every game since that opener, Haines has become the first true poster child for upward mobility in the Charlie Strong era defensively.

Given an opportunity, he's run with it because of his work ethic and preparation. Call it luck, perhaps, since that's the meeting of preparation and opportunity.

"He does everything you ask him to do," Strong said on Monday.

The preparation that enabled Haines to make the game-changing interception against Iowa State was the result of an ability to prepare that has defined him since high school, according to Lago Vista's head coach Alan Haire.

"He's the type of kid who would come in on Tuesday and tell you the other team's favorite routes and, with the kid he was covering, what his routes were depending on splits and alignment," Haire told ESPN early in fall camp. "He was a student of the game. I think he's a late bloomer if you ask me. He didn't reach his full potential until college. To me, he's still developing."

There may be a ceiling athletically for Haines -- his teammates have certainly suggested so after senior cornerback Quandre Diggs ribbed Haines' return as happening in slow motion -- but the ceiling mentally is exceptional. With his preparation ability and instincts, the Longhorn legacy can make up for his lack of ideal speed.

So far, the results have been both special and improbable, yet inexplicably probable because of that combination of opportunity and preparation.

"It's fun to watch him," Strong said. "What's happening now is everybody is taking notice, and because the whole team, when you're looking for that player that you really say, hey, that's the kind of guy that you like to see go play, and because he plays hard, and he gives you everything he's got.

Under Charlie Strong that's more than enough, even for a walk on.