With the 2018 season inching nearer, the Texas Longhorns still have some considerably sizable shoes to fill at boundary safety and just weeks to settle on a Sept. 1 starter. In 2017, that role was occupied by eventual Jim Thorpe Award finalist DeShon Elliott, but seemingly as soon as the junior emerged into a household name, his time at Texas reached its end and Elliott entered the NFL Draft.
Although much can change between now and the Longhorns’ season-opening rematch with Maryland, the early returns point towards a true freshman filling the vacancy Elliott left behind at boundary safety.
Former Cibolo Steele star Caden Sterns stepped foot on the Forty Acres as an early enrollee and the headliner of the ‘Horns historically loaded defensive back haul, and time and time again, he’s met and exceeded expectations over the course of the past eight months. Garnering praise as an exceptionally hard worker and a guy who just gets it as early as winter workouts and continuing throughout the spring and summer, by virtually every account, Sterns has lived up to his label as the nation’s top-ranked safety prospect.
#Texas HC @CoachTomHerman with very high praise for former @Football_Steele standout Caden Sterns (@lil_STERNS2) who enrolled early in Austin...Herman adds "I wish we could sign 25 Caden Sterns a year" (via @markmendez) @TexasFootball @SteeleAthletics @SCUCISD #KSATsports pic.twitter.com/k9laeIsUBF— RJ Marquez (@KSATRJ) May 15, 2018
Now a few practices into the fall, nothing has changed.
After largely serving as a second-team safety throughout the spring as Texas tested veterans P.J. Locke III and John Bonney at boundary safety, Sterns reportedly began fall practice with the first-team defense, running alongside Jones in the defensive backfield. Unsurprisingly, considering how productive Sterns was at Steele en route to 239 tackles, 20 pass breakups, 11 interceptions, and ultimately, a final ranking of No. 19 nationally — the highest of any Texas signee since Malik Jefferson (No. 10) in 2015 — he’s hit the ground running with those reps.
The media aren’t the only ones taking notice, either. On Saturday during a post-practice media availability, senior leader Breckyn Hager raved of Sterns’ early efforts.
“He’s a rookie but he’s also like a veteran in a lot of ways,” Hager said of what about Sterns stands out the most. “He’s extremely athletic and aggressive. He’s got all the traits you want in a great football player and he’s continuing to get better and learn and adjust to the defense.”
The following day, Texas head coach Tom Herman echoed those sentiments, detailing the former five-star All-American’s knack for finding the ball.
“Ball skills,” Herman noted of what Sterns has impressed him the most with. “One, he’s physical. I saw that in the spring. The guy’s around the football. He had another [interception] today off of a tipped pass and he was just right there to clean it up with a pick. He’s just always around the football.”
Such traits are similar to those Elliott showcased last season as one of the nation’s top defensive backs, and they’re what Sterns is now utilizing to state his case as one of Texas’ top options in the secondary, leapfrogging the likes of Bonney, Chris Brown, and Montrell Estell. Of course, much can change throughout the next three weeks, but with an eight-month sample size to consider, the staff currently considers Sterns to be the top option to line up alongside Brandon Jones, despite the fact that his first outing as a Longhorn still looms ahead.
Credit his ball skills and how instinctive he’s proving to be in coverage, as he did last season as the top player in Texas, or criticize the Longhorns lack of praiseworthy options at the position. Wherever you choose to place praise — or blame — the early signs suggest Sterns is starting to separate himself earlier than even his most complimentary pundits may have expected.