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Texas needs senior CB Quandre Diggs to be a playmaker again

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Take it from defensive coordinator Vance Bedford.

Scott Halleran

The shortest starter defensively for the Texas Longhorns will have to be one of the biggest playmakers this season for the Horns to return to the defensive production that defined the high points of the Mack Brown era.

Senior cornerback Quandre Diggs considered leaving for the NFL before incoming head coach Charlie Strong sat down for a sobering film session with the younger brother of former Texas star Quentin Jammer.

What Strong didn't see much of on film is exactly what defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said on Friday that Diggs needs to do more of this season -- making plays.

It's the first thing that Bedford pointed to when asked where Diggs can improve during his last season on the 40 Acres.

"You play nickel back, especially the conference we're in right now, he's going to be in nickel obviously 80 percent of the time, that position needs to be your most productive position on the football field," Bedford said. "If he has a productive year at that spot, we are probably going to have a pretty solid season on defense."

No question about it -- Diggs struggled mightily after transitioning from field corner to the nickel, where he wasn't able to deal with bigger blockers in his face on read option plays pulling tight ends or guards. A tough match up, definitely, but one that the player affectionately known as Quandre the Giant was expected to win.

The Texas secondary often failed to come up with big plays in big moments last season and a large part of that was the failure to play the ball in the air. After the disastrous 2012 defense managed to come up with 15 interceptions, the 2013 unit produced merely 10, which ranked tied for 82nd nationally.

How big of a difference is that? Texas finished with a turnover margin of +4, which equated to a .31 turnover margin per game. A Football Study Hall look at turnover margin from 2009 to 2012 found that such a margin per game resulted in teams winning seven games in the regular season.

Without the narrow escape at West Virginia or at Iowa State, that's exactly where Texas would have been.

With a bump to .69 per game, the difference created by adding back in those five interceptions the 2012 secondary achieved over the 2013 unit?

Another win, on average, the difference between the disappointing finish to the season and a Big 12 title. Or at least a much more pleasant non-conference season.

Basically, Diggs is one of the primary candidates to help the defense produce more turnovers and creating more interceptions may have to happen because it's unlikely that senior defensive end Cedric Reed will once again manage to force five fumbles on his own.

Playmaking was the forte of Diggs early in his career -- as a freshman in the starting lineup replacing productive cornerbacks like Curtis Brown and Chykie Brown who had moved on to the NFL, the 5'10, 195-pounder came through with four interceptions and two forced fumbles.

Big. Time.

He was also an important contributor on special teams with 371 kick return yards and 181 punt return yards, including the 29-yard kickoff return against Texas A&M that helped set up the game-winning kick by Justin Tucker that still reverberates to this day. Earlier, Diggs had set up a go-ahead short field goal with an 81-yard punt return.

In 2012, Diggs saw his role on special teams decrease as he focused more on playing every snap for the defense. And his turnovers did decrease, too, as he failed to produce any fumbles, but his four interceptions ensured that his presence was felt by opposing offenses.

From six to four to...zero? Last fall, Diggs failed to record an interception or force a fumble as his special teams production dwindled to less than 50 punt return yards.

Remember that difference between winning the extra game or not? That's basically the difference between Diggs producing the same number of interceptions in 2013 as he did in 2012.

And Diggs is really the only legitimate choice for one of the defense's most crucial positions.

The Horns have worked some other players in the nickel, including freshman John Bonney, and senior safety Mykkele Thompson has spent some time in coverage as well.

But Bonney just got on campus and Thompson has had the well-noted issues with his physicality he admitted to last week, so that leaves Diggs as once again the best option, even if his best position might be back to the field where he can use his quickness to break on footballs.

Speaking of that quickness, Diggs should have some of it back after losing some weight since last season, a change that could help with those playmaking woes.

At the least, Diggs should benefit from a strong relationship with his defensive coordinator, who had a different type of sit-down with his defensive back upon his arrival.

"When I first got here, I had a chance to sit down and talk with him," Bedford said. "I said the most important thing is this, you get your degree. You're close to it so why not comeback because NFL is not going to promise anything. You get that degree from The University of Texas, that's going to mean a lot."

It wasn't just a time for preaching for Bedford, though, just as the relationships that Strong builds with his players is about more than his core values.

"So we started building a relationship right there and we give each other a hard time all the time," Bedford said. "He called me a nickname I can't tell you and I gave him some nicknames, too. We have a lot of fun together. We kind of kid each other all the time.

Anyone else dying to know the nicknames they have for each other? Thought so.

"So right now, I like my man Quandre a lot."

Bedford will like him quite a bit better if Diggs can come through with the type of plays that could raise Texas back up to a Big 12 a title.