In the aftermath of a mass exodus that included eight starters, the Texas Longhorns defense has its fair share of questions to answer as the 2019 campaign inches nearer.
The Horns’ secondary is certainly no exception.
Gone are 146 career appearances and 90 starts worth of experience in the form of cornerbacks Kris Boyd and Davante Davis, and nickelback P.J. Locke III, so there’s understandably some concern regarding how Texas replaces three proven products with much fresher faces. But such is life in college football. However, top-tier recruiting, development, and sheer elite-level talent on hand and waiting in the wings has Texas in a position to unveil a secondary that not only boasts tremendous long-term upside, but one that may very well be a team strength towards the end of the season.
That begins with the safety tandem that is Brandon Jones and Caden Sterns.
Jones, a senior who, if absolutely nothing else, serves as an experienced and steady presence, bypassed an early leap to the NFL and has since solidified himself as a leader, not only in the secondary, but among the entire team as a newly-minted captain. But Jones is far more than a mere steady presence. He’s the team’s leading returning tackler (70), and at least entering the season, a sure-fire NFL prospect, which has always been the ultimate expectation for the top-ranked safety in the 2016 class.
Yet, despite the projected path to the NFL, Jones shares the defensive backfield with a safety in Sterns who enters his sophomore slate housing even more hype and expectations than the senior alongside him.
Also the top-ranked safety prospect in his class, Sterns exploded onto the national scene last season, tallying 62 tackles, eight pass breakups, and a team-best four interceptions en route to Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors and placement on various national publication’s Freshman All-American teams. Thus, Sterns set a new standard for himself, as evident with Sports Illustrated listing him as a Preseason First-Team All-American, while USA Today dubs Sterns, who capped 2018 as a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist and enters 2019 as a candidate for the same honor, as the top defensive back in the Big 12 and the seventh-best nationally.
Save for his true sophomore jacket, Sterns, too, would enter 2019 as a legitimate NFL prospect. But, of course, Sterns playing for a paycheck is at least two seasons into the future, so in the meantime, he’ll join Jones in forming what should quite convincingly prove to be the best safety duo in the Big 12, and one of the best in the nation.
However, there is a potential Achilles heel for the two — health.
The once-lingering high ankle sprain that sidelined Jones for nearly a third of 2018 slate required surgery in late February, which, in turn, kept Jones sidelined throughout the entire spring. Similarly, after missing the Sugar Bowl due to a minor knee injury suffered against Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship, Sterns underwent knee surgery for pateller tendinitis in March, which forced him to miss the latter portion of spring practice. More recently, Sterns’ fall camp was cut short due to a low-grade high ankle sprain , though he was largely held out as a precaution to ensure his health for the season-opener.
That all said, if the Horns are able to enjoy more favorable health once the 2019 campaign actually gets underway, Texas will, as noted, boast the best safety tandem in the conference and one of the best in all of college football.
The talent isn’t only at the top of the depth chart, though.
Courtesy of recent recruiting efforts, safeties coach Craig Naivar’s room features four safeties who arrived in Austin with five-star status, per 247Sports, with sophomore DeMarvion Overshown and freshman Tyler Owens joining Jones and Sterns in that regard.
Factor in Montrell Estell and Chris Brown, who are entering their third and fourth seasons on the Forty Acres, respectively, and Texas head coach Tom Herman sees enough starting-caliber talent to construct an entire three-deep at safety.
“We’ve got, really, six starters at safety,” Herman said earlier this month.
Herman’s sentiments don’t include B.J. Foster, also a former five-star safety prospect, who made six starts in 13 appearances as a true freshman and excelled in Texas’ hybrid Joker role en route to 46 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, five pass breakups, one interception, and two forced fumbles. However, due to the due to the depth at the position and the starting roles already solidified in Sterns and Jones, Foster made the move the nickelback, where his hard-hitting, downhill nature around the line of scrimmage has helped him earn the starting nod over the more experienced junior, Josh Thompson.
Foster’s position change is far from the exception, though.
In the mind of defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, cross-training his players to ensure that the best 11 find the field is now the rule.
“We want to play the next best ball player,” Orlando said. “We don’t want to play necessarily, on the depth chart, the second boundary safety if our second nickel is a better ball player; then learn how to play safety.”
Bearing in mind Texas’ well-documented lack of depth and experience at linebacker, this will, at times, mean the Longhorns will replace a linebacker with some of its several starting-caliber safeties. And this goes beyond the typical six-defensive-back Lighting Dime package that Texas has instituted with much success throughout the previous two seasons.
Now, between the depth at safety and the lack thereof at linebacker, Texas has instilled a sub-package that will include seven defensive backs, and yet another that will feature as many as eight during down-and-distance situations, which will leave just one down lineman and two linebackers on the field.
During such instances, aside from the two corners and Sterns and Jones remaining in their roles as the two true safeties, Foster would serve as the Joker — a role he excelled in last season — while Thompson would occupy the nickelback spot and the 6’4, 210-pound Overshown will replace a linebacker as the stand-in Rover, where he’s received reps this offseason. Brown, who’s arguably the team’s hardest hitter and the first true safety off the bench, will likely fill in as the eighth defensive back during these instances, and may potentially even find the field over Overshown as the Rover during seven-defensive-back sub-packages.
“It’s pretty confusing, honestly,” quarterback Sam Ehlinger said of Texas’ sub-package featuring eight defensive backs. “You’ve got guys who are traditional DBs playing in the post on the ends and you’ve got speed all over the place so you can’t exploit any matchups. So you’re not going to beat anybody with speed, so it really eliminates some stuff from the passing game.”
The flexibility for such a package comes courtesy of the sheer size, depth, and talent — both raw and developed — that Texas boasts throughout its safety room. For the most part, that much has been unquestioned throughout the offseason, which is unsurprising given that Jones and Sterns are leading the way.
The concern has been at cornerback, largely due to the Longhorns replacing a pair of senior starters with some still-undecided combination of inexperienced sophomores.
However, Texas cornerbacks coach Jason Washington doesn’t share the same concern that the masses and media have made much of since January.
“Experience is always going to be a question in down-and-distance and different situations going on in the game, but I’m not really concerned,” Washington said on last Thursday, per Inside Texas’ Joe Cook. “More than anything, run and hit, have great effort, trust your technique and trust your training and everything else will take care of itself.”
That said, Texas is still waiting for its cornerback competition to completely resolve itself.
The lone near-certainty of the bunch seems to be Green, cemented himself as the lone true starting corner on Texas’ depth chart.
Yet another former high school All-American in the Longhorns’ secondary, which can also be said of Anthony Cook, D’Shawn Jamison, and newcomer Kenyatta Watson II, Green saw action in 10 games last season, though the majority of his work came through special teams. Once the spring arrived, Green made the most of significantly more reps, unseating Boyce as a starter validating that decision during the spring game, when he was targeted nine times, yet allowed only three completions for 10 total yards while displaying his often-praised physicality throughout.
Tom Herman said the staff challenged Jalen Green to be more physical, so they have to love this play. Green recognizes the screen immediately and again separates the ball with a huge hit, this time on Jordan Whittington. pic.twitter.com/4J3RHez3z7— Cody Daniel (@CodyDanielSBN) April 14, 2019
The praise for Green has only continued throughout fall camp, including comments coming from the quarterback competing against him, as Ehlinger recently said Green is “a guy who’s got a chance to be extremely elite,” noting that he’s held his own against senior receiver Collin Johnson. Bearing in mind his inexperience, Green being pitted against the likes of Johnson is practice is nothing short of a trial by fire, but Ehlinger’s remarks are also a testament to the truly elite talent the former top-50 national prospect possesses.
Everyone knows that Jalen Green has the physicality and athleticism to be an excellent college CB -- and beyond -- but Todd Orlando said one of the best things about him is that he never gets too high or too low. He's even-keeled. Also extremely consistent in camp.— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) August 28, 2019
Similarly, talent was never really the issue surrounding Kobe Boyce — he ran a 4.49 40-yard dash in high school while posting a 4.12 shuttle and 37.5-inch vertical leap — and at least entering the season, his talent, and seemingly a renewed sense of the confidence required to excel at the position, has Boyce set to start opposite of Green.
“Kobe Boyce has showed us that he can really play the ball well,” Herman said during spring practice. “He’s got a knack for getting his head around on deep balls, breaking on balls.”
Green, of course, unseated Boyce for starting reps at field corner, but in response, it appears Boyce has initially beat out a pair of former top-115 national prospects in Cook and Jamison. That said, while Herman said on Monday that Green has earned his starting job, he added that “the other three will continue to battle.”
So if Boyce has, indeed, addressed the confidence concerns that were so glaringly evident during the Oklahoma State game last season, he’ll need to validate that throughout the early portion of the season and beyond, especially considering that those still pushing for playing time — Cook and Jamison — aren’t lacking in that respect.
Of the three still-competing corners, it was Cook who arrived in Austin with the most hype and the highest expectations. At one point throughout his recruitment at Houston Lamar, where he shared a defensive backfield with Jamison, Cook was a five-star prospect ranked as high as the No. 2 cornerback in his class. And up until the recent weeks, the true sophomore was all but considered a shoo-in starter at boundary corner, where he appears to be an ideal fit courtesy of notable confidence and a reputation as a technician.
While Cook wouldn’t have started against Louisiana Tech in any case due to a targeting ejection late in the Sugar Bowl, it’s still quite possible that he ultimately emerges as the top option in what remains an open cornerback competition. And it likely wouldn’t surprise anyone should that prove to be the case, even within a matter of weeks — Cook simply owns that much talent.
To an extent, Jamison is, however, the surprise of the bunch.
As is the case with Green, Boyce, and Cook, Jamison’s sheer talent was never in question.
Prior to arriving in Austin, Jamison was regarded as a truly elite nickelback prospect with excellent intangibles — in fact, the only real knock on him had been his size at 5’10. Yet despite that, Jamison emerged as a top-115 national prospect and an Under Armour All-American.
But unlike the others he’s competing with at corner, Jamison hasn’t enjoyed extended developmental time at the position, as he was switched to slot receiver for his true freshman season. On the surface, the move before transitioning back to corner this offseason forced Jamison to play from behind, but he’s wasted little time playing catch-up, seeing his fair share of first-team reps throughout fall camp before being listed as the co-starter, along with Boyce, on the depth chart.
Of course, unlike the safety room, Texas’ corners don’t come equipped with much experience to note, as Green, Boyce, and Cook have just 29 combined games and three starts to their names — all of Jamison’s 2018 experience came at receiver.
But as noted, cornerbacks coach Jason Washington is far less concerned to that end than the burnt orange nation at large, and that’s likely because he’s well-aware of the embarrassment of riches on hand.
In fact, the quality in the cornerbacks room is such that four-star newcomers Chris Adimora, who recently earned praise from Foster for his instincts, and Watson, whom Herman said arrived in Austin as prepared as any cornerback he’s ever coached, will likely only see the field for special teams. If it weren’t for the seven- and eight-defensive-back packages that will largely feature Texas’ safeties, the same would be said of multiple highly-touted talents there, as well, and it will almost certainly be said for Owens, who signed with the Horns last cycle as the top-ranked prospect at his position, per 247Sports.
Much has been made throughout the offseason surrounding Texas’ lack of notable experience, which is not only expected, but fair. Nothing can be done to that end until Texas takes the field for the 2019 season.
But it’s worth bearing in mind that Texas will feature nothing short of a mind-boggling amount of talent throughout its secondary, which will only gain that ever-valuable experience with each passing week.
Five of Texas’ safeties — Jones, Sterns, Jones, Overshown, and Owens — were ranks as the No. 1 prospect at their position by one recruiting outlet or another, while each of the four corners set to construct the two-deep, as well as Watson, were high school All-Americans in the not too distant past. And many of those talents are backups to to others who have already polished and proven themselves enough that Orlando and the Longhorns instilled sub-packages to ensure that Texas’ best players — many of which reside in the secondary — see the field.