After spending his sophomore campaign as a reserve to senior safety Dylan Haines, former Texas Longhorns standout DeShon Elliott needed only 12 games to cement himself as an elite defensive back. The potential that flashed throughout 2016 came to full fruition in 2017 as Elliott stepped into a full-time role as a junior, and just like that, the Rockwall-Heath’s time as a Longhorn was over.
After finishing the 2017 campaign as a Jim Thorpe Award finalist, Elliott elected to depart for the NFL on the heels of a season in which he racked up 63 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, nine pass deflections and six interceptions, which tied for fourth nationally.
Now, not only is Texas tasked with replacing Holton Hill on the outside, but one of the nation’s premier safety talents, as well.
Just how can defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and safeties coach Craig Naivar go about doing that?
Given the pass-happy nature of the Big 12, the most obvious option would be a returning talent with his share of experience. Yes, Texas does have an elite defensive back class on its way, one headlined by five-star Angleton safety BJ Foster, but will he, or any of the ‘Horns other 2018 safety pledges for that matter, be ready to start right out of the gates?
Until proven otherwise, the staff will likely look to a talent already on the 40 Acres to absorb Elliott’s role in the defensive backfield. To that end, the names to know are John Bonney, P.J. Locke III and Chris Brown.
Bonney and Locke, although now mostly nickel backs, began their Longhorn careers at safety and with virtually no proven experience elsewhere, one of the two seems like the most plausible option to return to that role in 2018. Considering Locke has essentially solidified the Longhorns need to a quality option at nickel, forcing him out of that comfort and back into the defensive backfield likely won’t happen unless someone like freshman Josh Thompson steps into that role.
Even if that proves to be the case, the hard-hitting redshirt sophomore-to-be Brown should get his opportunity between now and next September. Brown played mostly on special teams throughout the 2017 season, but has shown flashes in practices and scrimmages as someone that may have a bright future in Austin.
Depending on how Brown handles the opportunity in front of him, the bright lights may be on him sooner rather than later.
Of course, former four-star prospect Montrell Estell will be coming off of his redshirt freshman season and essentially joining a safety class consisting of Foster, Caden Sterns and Demarvion Overshown, although the latter projects as a hybrid outside linebacker. But will the year of sitting back and learning the game be enough to give Estell a step on Foster, the nation’s No. 1 safety and the state’s top-ranked 2018 talent, and Sterns, who is nothing short of an elite coverage option in the secondary?
Will any of the aforementioned be ready to truly take control of the starting safety position throughout the coming weeks and months?
Considering the options above aren’t exactly Elliott, though, largely due to the overall lack of long-term experience, this is a battle that may run on well into fall camp next August.
That’s simply the reality Texas will face with the hand its roster has dealt after The Joker removed himself from play.
Projection: Bonney starts the season, Foster finishes as the starter.