Texas Longhorns: Kenny Vaccaro

AUSTIN, Texas – Mack Brown didn’t grab a Sharpie and circle Aug. 5, 2013, on his calendar.

He didn’t believe all his problems would be gone by this date, that he would step onto Texas’ practice fields Monday evening and behold a team well-suited to compete for a national championship.

But he had to know the pains and progress of the past two seasons were preparing him and his Longhorns for this date. After responding from the disastrous losing season in 2010 by going 17-9 and winning as many Big 12 games as they lost, the Longhorns coach can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

How quickly and painlessly they’ll reach that light is still anyone’s guess, but Brown likes the makeup of the team he’ll resume coaching when fall practices start Monday.

Mack Brown
AP Photo/Eric GayTexas coach Mack Brown is more confident in his team's ability and experience level this season.
“I am more confident this team will be the best we’ve had in the last two years or three years,” Brown said Sunday. “We’ve improved each year and we’ve tried to win every game. But we also knew we were going to take some hits by playing young guys. Now we’ve got an older team, and it should be fun to watch them play.”

He believes being settled at quarterback with third-year starter David Ash is an advantage, if not a must.

He believes a program chock-full of freshmen and sophomores playing early the past two years has produced a program chock-full of experienced players.

He believes this Longhorns team will have tangible player leadership, the kind Brown has struggled to find in recent years.

He said last season’s leaders -- seniors Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro -- didn’t become vocal in the locker room until midseason. He likes that the burden now falls on Ash, Jackson Jeffcoat, Jordan Hicks and seniors in the secondary and on the line.

“All of them have got their jaw set to make sure we fix it this year,” Brown said. “I just feel like the attitude of the entire team is that we hit this thing now and we’re older and you’ve got to have discipline from within. It seems like they’ve done that this summer. They’ve had a very accountable summer.”

These are all good components, and Brown could have predicted they’d eventually come together two years ago. But he doesn’t agree with the notion that 2013 being The Year has been the grand plan.

“It sounds like we just said, ‘Ah, let’s not be good for two years but plan on the third one.’ That’s not the case at all,” Brown said. “We tried to win the 5-7 year, right after a national championship game. Who would’ve ever thought of that? But it is what it is.”

He knows now not to assume these pieces will come together all by themselves.

A 2012 defense that was statistically Texas’ worst looked stout in preseason practices. Brown says now that his offense couldn’t pick up first downs on that unit last August. Then the season hit and the confidence went missing.

He hopes experience is the antidote to that kind of inconsistency. The four weeks of practice ahead will give Brown and his staff a better sense of whether 2013 really could be the next big year. But there are no guarantees.

That’s where coaching comes in, and where the challenge falls on Brown.

“This year, it’s been a fun challenge for me. I like fixing things,” Brown said. “I don’t like messing them up. And obviously, I was involved in messing it up for whatever reasons. We can all spend hours going back and looking at what was done and what should’ve been done. The only reason I do that is looking at ways to fix it, more than anything else.

“I think we’ve got it fixed. We’re not there yet. But we’re back to where we’re going to look like a good team walking out of the tunnel.”

Will that Texas team be able to stop the run? Will its transition to an uptempo offense pay off? Will this team start playing as good as it looks?

Brown has been talking about these questions for months. His players will start answering them in the next four weeks.

“Now we’ve got to shut up and do it,” Brown said. “I can sit here and say all I want, and I’ve heard it. We have improved. Anybody who knows anything about football would say we’ve got a better chance going into this season than we did two years ago or last year.”
AUSTIN, Texas -- Mack Brown has his own designs on what it takes to win the national title.

And given that the Texas coach has been there and done it, his methods are hard to bring into question. But for those questioning just what criteria it will take for Texas to make it back to the title game in 2013 and then, maybe, win it, well, there are a certain number of boxes that need to be ticked.

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Each week Sean Adams looks at a few topics around the Texas Longhorns and college football.

First down: What really matters at Texas?

It is hard for anyone to look at what Texas is doing in recruiting with the 2014 and 2015 classes and not be excited about where the program is headed. Texas has momentum in the state with the best players. It is hitting need positions and hitting them earlier than just about every other school.

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Question of the Week: Horns on the verge 

June, 6, 2013
AUSTIN, Texas -- It’s difficult to fathom that a team such as Texas, a squad so meticulously picked over and scrutinized from every angle, could have any under-the-radar players.

But there are still players to be found who have not lived up to their potential but are on the verge of doing just that. And, like always, there is plenty of debate over just who those players might be. For our weekly debate at HornsNations, we decided to take on the question of just who would be the next player or players to step from the shadows and into the spotlight.

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Every Friday, HornsNation's Sean Adams will answer questions from readers. Send him a question on Twitter here.

@ChickDill on Twitter: Best new recruit and where will the majority of the improvement come from?

A: The best recruit in my eyes with the most impact will be junior college offensive lineman Desmond Harrison. He is at a need position that he could start immediately.

Most of the improvement should come on the defensive side of the ball, where Texas had the worst defense in the history of the university. Even missing draft picks in Kenny Vaccaro and Alex Okafor, depth on the defensive line, health at the linebacker spot and experience at safety will prove useful for a defense trying to get its swagger back.

@johnjohndyer on Twitter: Is there any chance [Tyrone] Swoopes ends up as the #2 on the depth chart?

A: There is always a chance. The question is how much of a chance. I’m on the record hoping, for his sake and for the sake of the program, that he is allowed to redshirt. But there are a dozen scenarios where Swoopes could end up No. 2 on the depth chart.

Among the scenarios: If Ash were to sustain an injury, Swoopes could end up moving up the chart and having his eligibility used. If the Longhorns get into fall camp and the summers have not gone as planned for the two redshirts and Case McCoy. That could create the opportunity as well.

Again, about the chances, I say he has about a 25 percent chance of the being the No. 2 QB this season, and if that happens I would have to assume the position is in trouble. I really like Swoopes as a player, but as Texas has proved under coach Mack Brown, redshirting a QB is healthy for their long-term development.

@xrayvyzn on Twitter: Last year was a disaster of decommitments, & this year lost a top RB & OL already. New policy will help or hurt?

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Kenny Vaccaro, Alex Okafor and Marquise Goodwin already have stopped thinking about what was -- the NFL draft -- and started to work on what will be -- their respective NFL futures.

Really it’s that type of drive that is what made the three Longhorns NFL players in the first place.

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Kenny Vaccaro wanted to wait a year.

The simple reason was that the Texas safety wanted to be the best, the first safety taken in the NFL draft when his time came. That time was Thursday night as Vaccaro, after a four-year career at Texas, was indeed the first safety selected -- the 15th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

"I have been grinding my whole life, literally since I was 4 years old, for this opportunity, and it is finally here," he said.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
John Albright/Icon SMITexas safety Kenny Vaccaro is the Longhorns' 10th top 20 pick in the last 10 years
And now he will go to the New Orleans Saints and go down as Texas’ 10th top-20 pick in the last 10 years.

"Kenny Vaccaro is one of the best football players we have ever had,” said Texas coach Mack Brown. “He is tough, he’s smart, he’s a playmaker and he practiced like he was in a game every day. He is very passionate about football. He brings leadership and he brings toughness."

Vaccaro was one of the few who brought those qualities to a Texas defense that suffered through the 2012 season. In that defense he was pushed into several different positions as well as a leadership role.

"When we’ve approached him with some tough defends, or some tough ideas, asking him if he thinks he could do this, he was always willing to take on the difficult role to maybe make things a little bit easier for a younger player that we’re trying to take care of within the scheme of things," said defensive backs coach Duane Akina. "Ultimate team player. Very flexible. He can play man-coverage, in the deep-half or deep-third. He can blitz."

All of those qualities and a few more piqued the Saints' interest.

"I think he’s got that toughness and that suddenness that you’d like at that position," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I think he brings a physical dimension to the game he plays with. He’s been well-coached. They do a great job there defensively. There were a lot of things we liked about him. That versatility is unique, and something that I think is beneficial."

The NFL draft continues today with the second and third rounds. Texas defensive end Alex Okafor has been projected to be taken somewhere within those two rounds. Texas wide receiver Marquise Goodwin has been projected to be selected somewhere in the draft, but in a later round.

But for Vaccaro, the wait is over.

Video: Saints select Texas' Kenny Vaccaro

April, 25, 2013
Bill Polian breaks down the Saints' selection of Texas defensive back Kenny Vaccaro.

Sport Science: Texas' Kenny Vaccaro

April, 6, 2013
How quickly can Texan Longhorns safety Kenny Vaccaro react to a quarterback? Host John Brenkus measures his speed and in-game jumping skills in the lab.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Manny Diaz was the master of disguise defense.

Remember, back in the halcyon days of 2011, when Kansas was fretting about preparing for the first-year Texas defensive coordinator and his supposed 130 blitz combinations?

Given how subterfuge gave way to substandard performances in 2012, those times have long been forgotten. The Texas defense was laid bare last season. So, it stands to reason, there is no hiding anything in 2013.

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AUSTIN, Texas – Quandre Diggs wants to quell all the rumors.

"I feel like we can put those rumors to rest about me playing safety this spring because that’s not what I’m doing," said the junior defensive back. "I’m playing nickel and corner. I don’t have a problem playing safety, but that is not where I’m needed right now."

[+] EnlargeQuandre Diggs
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisThe Longhorns experimented with playing Quandre Diggs at safety but he's sticking at cornerback.
There was a thought back in December that -- with Kenny Vaccaro leaving and the remaining safeties underperforming throughout 2012 -- Texas could move Diggs to safety. He even took some reps at that spot in bowl practice. Texas appeared to be deeper at corner and therefore could afford to make the move.

But there has been steady improvement, and as a direct result much more faith, in returning safeties Adrian Phillips, Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner. Phillips is expected to be the leader of that group and the one certain starter. Many of his problems in 2012 were pinned on a shoulder injury that hampered his development.

"I have a lot of faith in those three guys in safety so we can put those rumors to rest," Diggs said.

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Video: S Kenny Vaccaro on LHN

March, 27, 2013
All-American Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro finished his career with 264 tackles, tops among active Texas players.
Perhaps the biggest name in attendance at Texas’ pro day on Tuesday aside from Vince Young was Texas’ All-American safety Kenny Vaccaro.

The lone defensive back working out, Vaccaro surprised NFL scouts with his weight of 217 pounds. But he did so in a good way.

Take what he gathered from Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who was the only NFL head coach in attendance.

“He thought I looked great,” said Vaccaro, who checked in at 6-foot. “Mainly that I pushed through everything and said I carried my weight well. He didn’t know I weighed 217.”

Vaccaro was a little disappointed that he wasn’t able to run the 40-yard dash because of a hip flexor injury, but was able to participate in individual drills in front of Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

“I think I was explosive out of my breaks,” he said. “I was real happy with how my hip held up. I think I did a good job.

“[The scouts] said I did a great job. They said the most impressive thing was just pushing through, working out by myself and also having that hip flexor.”

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videoAUSTIN, Texas -- Texas has its pro day today and, yeah, Vince Young will be there, but so, too, will someone more important. Seriously.

In fact, make that much more important. It’s Kenny Vaccaro.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesSafety Kenny Vaccaro will likely end Texas' streak of not having a player taken in the first round of the NFL draft.
The former Texas safety represents a chance for Texas to put a player into the first round of the draft for the first time since following the 2009 season. His selection -- which should be right around the middle of the first round -- will signal an end to a two-year draft slide in which Texas produced one second-round player, a third-round player and five others selected in the fourth round or higher. Before that slide, Mack Brown had not gone two consecutive years without producing a first-round pick. (Defensive end Alex Okafor is currently not in either of the first-round mock drafts done by ESPN’s Todd McShay or Mel Kiper.)

So let’s see here: Brown had two of the worst years of his tenure at Texas in 2010 and 2011. And then neither of those drafts produced a first-round pick. Anyone else see the correlation?

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Manny Diaz's first mistake, the one that would lead to 112 more in the form of missed tackles, was believing, or at the very least not tempering, the hype.

"The mistake I made last year was that I was aware that expectations were higher for our team than they should have been," the Texas defensive coordinator said. "I think there were too many assumptions made. We said, 'Well, this guy is bigger and faster than the guy who graduated, so he must be better.'

[+] EnlargeManny Diaz
Patrick Green/Icon SMIManny Diaz believed in the hype of Texas' defense last season. He won't make the mistake again.
"The mistake I made is I should have said, 'Forget about it, it’s your turn now,' " Diaz said.

Their turn is coming up again; most of the same players in all of the same positions. And that is where the worry lies. Not much appears to have changed at Texas. Same players. Same coach. Oh, wait a minute: There has been some change. The two best players on a defense that was the worst in school history in 2012 are off to the NFL. So the team is without its leading tackler from a year ago, Kenny Vaccaro, and without Alex Okafor, who took over the Alamo Bowl and led Texas in sacks. And now there is supposed to be some excitement about the "turn" this group is about to take? Try hand-wringing worry.

"Understandably, we will have lost trust from people from our performance last year, and we understand that," Diaz said. "There’s nothing we can do until we go back out and play in the fall to regain that trust. Our job right now is to get these guys as good as they can be to become a physical, hard-nosed defense."

The first step in doing that is remembering, not who they were collectively a season ago, but who they were when they were at their best, when they were freer, faster and more fearless on the field.

"We can’t carry around the ghost of last year," Diaz said.

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All Access Wired: Chris Vaughn
Defensive Backs Coach & Special Teams Coordinator Chris Vaughn wired during 2014 spring practice.Tags: Texas Longhorns, All Access, Longhorn Network, Chris Vaughn, NCAA Football