“Hell of a football player. Hell of a football player.”
Tom Herman’s Saturday evening sentiments regarding his true freshman safety Caden Sterns carry so much weight that he had to say it twice.
Such praise for the Longhorns budding star was certainly warranted.
The role of Sterns role in Texas defensive backfield proved to be paramount in what amounted to a 31-16 upset victory over No. 17 TCU, which marked the first Horns win over the Horned Frogs in their last five tries. There’s a convincing case to be made that the latest Texas win, which lifted the Longhorns to 3-1 (1-0) and No. 18 nationally, doesn’t come to fruiting without the contributions of Sterns; namely, his two interceptions.
The first of his pair of picks came in the second quarter, as a TCU trick play backfired when Sterns flew in from midfield in a Michael Griffin-esque fashion and tip-toed out of bounds to force the first of four TCU turnovers, which likely prevented speedy receiver Jalen Reagor from strolling into the end zone and capturing the lead.
The second interception was even more significant from a momentum standpoint.
Just moments removed from Collin Johnson’s leaping 31-yard touchdown grab to give Texas a 17-16 edge, Sterns’ often-praised instincts were on full display during TCU’s first play from scrimmage on the following series. Sterns jumped in front of a pass intended for Jarrison Stewart and dodged defenders to return it 33 yards to the TCU three-yard line, which put Sam Ehlinger in position to walk into the end zone just seconds later to push the lead to 24-16.
The “Wolf of DKR” — the affectionate nickname for Sterns, who has wolf tattoos blanketing each of his forearms — had 95,000 members of the burnt orange nation howling in celebration, and he’s putting the nation on notice along the way.
Steele DB coach @coach_harvey18 raved about Texas' @lil_STERNS2. And loves the name The Wolf: "It fits him perfectly and he has been fixated on the concept for a good while. He is savage! He is loyal to his “pack”! Finally, he does more than just “howl”. The kid goes and gets it"— Cody Daniel (@CodyDanielSBN) September 24, 2018
Now just the third true freshman in Texas’ storied history to record two interceptions in a single game, Sterns is the newly-minted Big 12 Newcomer of the Week, which complements his first appearance on the Pro Football Focus Team of the Week. When his two-interception effort against TCU is paired with his first career pick on the first play from scrimmage against Tulsa, Sterns’ three quick interceptions are tied for second nationally and are already good for third on Texas’ all-time freshman interception list, trailing only Quandre Diggs and Chris Carter; the two tallied four picks in 2011 and 1998, respectively.
If Sterns can continue at his current pace, he’ll cap his debut campaign with 12 interceptions, which would quite easily surpass Longhorn legend Earl Thomas (8 in 2009), to whom he’s already garnering comparisons.
For as impressive as Sterns’ productivity looks on paper, though, his impact has been felt far beyond the stat sheet and on into the win column.
Prior to his two-pick performance against TCU, which prevented a second-quarter score and paved the way for Texas to add one of its own at the tail end of the third quarter, it was Sterns who stepped up and altered the entire landscape of the Longhorns 37-14 win over No. 22 USC.
In what would have trimmed Texas’ lead to a single possession if successful, a Chase McGrath 50-yard field goal attempt was sent the other way and returned for a touchdown after Sterns exploded through the line untouched. Sterns’ effort was potentially the difference in a slim 23-17 edge and a 30-14 cushion.
It was the difference in the floodgates bursting open for a 23-point win and a fight all the way through the fourth quarter.
“No way,” Herman said on Monday when asked if he’s ever been around a freshman with the kind of presence Sterns provides on the back end. “And you could see in the spring, the minute we put pads on that this kid was always around the ball. And there’s one thing to be around the ball. It’s another thing to make plays on the ball and actually come away with it and PBUs and all that stuff.
“So the great thing about him is he’s always around the ball, run or pass,” Herman added. “And he will come downhill in the run game and he will hit you. And I’m glad he’s on our team.”
The headliner of Herman’s 2018 recruiting haul, the San Antonio-area product arrived in Austin as the top-ranked safety in his class and has wasted no time not only meeting, but exceeding the expectations that came accompanied with his five-star status. With one-third of the season to consider, 247Sports’ Barton Simmons went as far as saying Sterns stands alone as the best freshman in college football.
Sterns’ early success may have taken even some of his most praiseworthy pundits by surprise, but not Cibolo Steele defensive backs coach Adam Harvey, who said he’s seen the star upside Sterns boasts since he started as a sophomore for a state semifinal squad in 2014.
“Talking with Coach [Craig] Naivar, Coach [Jason] Washington, and others throughout the spring I knew he’d be a starter. I knew he’d eventually be the best,” Harvey told Burnt Orange Nation, adding that Sterns has also spent additional time studying film, lifting, working on his footwork, and more. “That’s who he is and what he does. I went to the first day of fall camp and he wanted to spend his off time watching film with me. Ended up, many other DBs came into the safeties meeting room to watch as well.”
His effort is contagious and that makes him the best,” Harvey added. “When he has studs around him, he can really shine.”
And Sterns is shining.
His impact can be directly attributed to Texas rattling off back-to-back wins over ranked foes, and for a young man who’s far from the braggadocios type, his stats speak for themselves, as do his teammates.
After the outcome-altering effort against TCU, Texas wide receiver Collin Johnson called Sterns “the young goat,” per 247Sports’ Chris Hummer. Longhorns linebacker Gary Johnson echoed those sentiments saying, “He has a bright future. That guy gives everything he’s got, in practice, film or whatever. … It’s crazy to have a young guy that’s ready to produce and make big plays in front of 100,000 people.”
For a Central Texas product who grew up dreaming of becoming a Longhorn, Sterns is living the dream, to say the least. He’s produced big play after big play throughout his first four appearances, and as a result, he’s already garnering comparisons to the greats.
The best part?
As Harvey said, “We’ve only seen the beginning.”