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Texas Longhorns secondary showing DBU-like tendencies once again

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The ballhawking isn't quite there yet, but in one important measurement, the Texas defensive backs are among the elite of the elite.

John Weast

As the Texas Longhorns defense struggled in recent years, the DBU moniker seemed less and less apt, especially as the LSU Tigers passed the Horns in producing NFL talent in the secondary.

But DBU at Texas is back this season, helping the Longhorns defense rank No. 7 nationally passing S&P and No. 4 in yards per attempt (5.6). And after recording only 10 interceptions in all of 2013, the team currently sits at 12 with three more games remaining.

Despite all the interceptions, however, head coach Charlie Strong still wants his players to come up with more after several drops against Texas Tech last Saturday in Lubbock.

"We need to make some of those interceptions," he said after the game. "We had our hands on the ball and we didn't get the interception. You look at the one -- I told Dylan Haynes you are going to get hit anyway, might as well catch the ball, just come down with it, the one he didn't come down with. Then Mykkele (Thompson) makes a big one on the sideline, Duke (Thomas) had one that he dropped. Turnovers, we need to get the turnovers just to change the field position for our offense."

The cornerback who has received the fewest targets this season is probably senior Quandre Diggs, who came up with the important tipped interception in the end zone against Kansas early, but hasn't had many other opportunities.

In lieu of those chances, he's been giving his teammates a hard time about their ability to finish plays.

"I laugh at them because I tell them they don't have any hands," Diggs said after the Texas Tech game. "I feel like I got the best hands on the team, including John, so I give those guys a tough time all the time and Duke, he's racking up PBUs, and when you wrack up PBUs, that means your hands are terrible. I just give those guys a hard time, and I expect them to go out and make those plays, and I know if they get the opportunity next week, they will go out and make them."

Thomas leads Texas in interceptions with three, but Diggs is right -- he also has eight passes broken up, more than a few of which could have turned into turnovers with better hands.

Overall, the Longhorns broke up a season-best 10 passes against Texas Tech, with four of those attributed to Thomas, who has at times suffered from the propensity to give up big plays, as evidenced by the double moves he gave up to UCLA and Kansas State in situations that demanded more conservative play.

The overall numbers are still extremely impressive for Texas and one way that the secondary has accomplished such lofty rankings in pass defense S&P and in the yards per attempt by opposing quarterbacks is by limiting big plays.

In that category, the Longhorns are the elite of the elite -- Texas hasn't given up a single pass play of 40 or more yards this season, one of only two schools in the country to accomplish that feat, along with Georgia.

Here's a look at the longest passing plays each team has put together against Texas this season:

Opponent Longest passing play
North Texas 7 yards
BYU 27 yards
UCLA 30 yards
Kansas 35 yards
Baylor 30 yards
Oklahoma 24 yards
Iowa State 34 yards
Kansas State 29 yards
Texas Tech 37 yards

The trade off that the defensive brain trust has been willing to make is to not only give up some shorter completions, but also to refuse to overwhelm the box with numbers to stop opposing running game, especially when going to three down linemen.

And what's truly remarkable about the ability to limit big passing plays is that Texas is doing it using two players who never played defensive back in high school in Thomas and senior defensive back Mykkele Thompson, a former walk on in sophomore Dylan Haines, and a true freshman safety in Jason Hall who wasn't even ranked among the top 100 safeties in the 2014 class by 247Sports.

Of course, the Horns also have essentially three defensive backs coaches in Strong, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, and defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn, so perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise.

Moving forward, there are two challenges. In the short term, the task is stopping star West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White, who is No. 3 nationally in receiving yards. In the long term, the task is finding the type of blue-chip talent that has been heading to the SEC in recent years instead of playing in burnt orange.

Through nine games, the results indicate that the Longhorns should be in solid shape to accomplish the former and can get by without the latter.