Texas Longhorns: Mykkele Thompson

Before Texas begins its first season under Charlie Strong, we're taking a deep dive into all the talent he inherits in 2014. Our Burnt Orange Breakdown series will take a closer look at each scholarship player returning this fall and what we can expect from them. We're going down the roster from No. 1 Shiro Davis all the way to No. 99 Desmond Jackson.

[+] EnlargeMykkele Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesMykkele Thompson has played in a lot of games in his Texas career but has yet to make a big impact.
No. 2 Mykkele Thompson
Senior safety


Recruitment rewind: Texas was first to offer the San Antonio Stevens athlete and locked him up as early as possible with a junior day pledge in 2010. At Stevens, Thompson rushed for 2,859 yards as a senior and accounted for 5,322 total yards in his final two seasons as a true QB-WR-RB athlete. In fact, the part of his official Texas bio listing his high school accomplishments and best games is 626 words long. The dude came with a résumé, that's for sure. ESPN scouts expected him to play receiver at the college level.

Career so far: Mack Brown and Duane Akina planned to make Thompson a defensive back since he committed, and he's played in all 38 games of his career so far. He led Texas in special teams tackles as a true freshman and has now started 18 games at safety with somewhat mixed results. Thompson has 144 tackles, one career interception and one pass breakup. He's been in and out of the lineup at times but essentially has seen as much game action now as any member of Texas' defense.

Best-case scenario for 2014: A fresh start under new defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and secondary coach Chris Vaughn and a revitalized, more aggressive Thompson. He picked up a reputation in recent seasons that he's too reluctant to hit and make plays, a perception that's somewhat earned but easily reversed if Thompson comes out with his hair on fire this fall. Experience is supposed to breed confidence. Thompson has plenty of the former, and Texas needs him to play with a lot more of the latter.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: Doesn't matter if he's a senior, Thompson can get beaten out for his starting job. If he doesn't impress Bedford and Vaughn, and they lose faith in his ability to protect the back end of the defense and make plays, they'll plug in someone else. Greg Robinson tried it when he took over as DC against Ole Miss, when he inserted Josh Turner over Thompson, but it didn't work. There's better depth behind the starting safeties now, and a young player can win this job if he shows the traits the new staff desires and Thompson doesn't take care of business.

Future expectations: This is it for Thompson, who arrived in Austin as an incredible and decorated playmaker on offense and has spent three years learning how to make a similar impact from the safety spot. He consistently earned praise from the new staff this spring, and that's encouraging. Some said in the middle of his Texas career he might've made a better cornerback, and maybe he'll see some snaps there in 2014. Still, this is his final year to put it all together and prove folks like Akina -- who believed in him all along -- were right.
With spring ball done, we’ve been re-examining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team. Wednesday, we finish up with defensive backs. Once again, these outlooks could look different in August. But this is how we see them post-spring:

1. TCU (pre-spring ranking: 1): Juco safety Kenny Iloka was one of the storylines of the spring in Fort Worth, augmenting an already loaded secondary. In TCU’s spring game, Iloka scored a touchdown off a fumble return and picked off a pass, underscoring pretty much how he performed all spring. Iloka could probably start for the majority of teams in the Big 12. At TCU, he’s a backup. Coach Gary Patterson seemingly praised Ranthony Texada more than anyone else on his roster this spring, and the redshirt freshman cornerback looks poised to step into the starting role vacated by All-American Jason Verrett. At 5-foot-9, Texada isn’t big. Then again, neither was Verrett. Safeties Sam Carter and Chris Hackett and cornerback Kevin White could play for anyone in the conference. In other words, this TCU secondary is stacked.

2. Texas (2): Texas is one of the few teams in the Big 12 without really any position battle in its secondary coming out of the spring. Senior safeties Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner have been up and down throughout their careers, but they really buttoned up their play in the spring. Thompson delivered a pick-six in the Orange-White game. Turner had the hit of the day and intercepted a pass. At cornerback, Quandre Diggs isn’t an All-American, but he’s developed into a solid veteran leader. Duke Thomas can really run at the other cornerback spot. This is a sound group.

3. Oklahoma (3): The Sooners return two proven players in cornerback Zack Sanchez and nickel back Julian Wilson. Sanchez was erratic at times last season, but he displayed mental toughness and usually came back with big plays of his own after getting burned. Wilson will be a three-year starter. Safety Quentin Hayes had a decent junior season, too. After that, things get murky, and that’s not necessarily a negative. Dakota Austin, who was an unheralded two-star signee last year, is probably the favorite coming out of the spring to start at cornerback opposite Sanchez and over more heralded classmate Stanvon Taylor. Sophomores Ahmad Thomas and Hatari Byrd are both talented young safeties, but they have yet to prove they’re every-down players. Steven Parker II will be the player to watch here. Insiders in Norman believe the incoming true freshman has the talent and the temperament to win a starting job by the opener the way Tony Jefferson did in 2010. If he does, that will allow coordinator Mike Stoops to utilize Byrd and Thomas in certain sub-packages where the scheme will be more simplified.

4. Kansas State (4): K-State already boasts one of the best nickel backs in the league in Randall Evans and an up-and-coming safety in Dante Barnett. The Wildcats had a productive spring elsewhere in their secondary, as Morgan Burns stepped up to essentially nail down a starting job at corner. Coveted juco transfer Danzel McDaniel progressed after arriving on campus and exited spring ball on the cusp of earning the other starting cornerback gig. Dylan Schellenberg, who started the two games Ty Zimmerman missed last season, will go into the fall as the favorite to start at safety alongside Barnett.

5. West Virginia (5): The Mountaineers might have the best underclassman cornerback in the league in sophomore Daryl Worley, who locked up Mario Alford in West Virginia’s spring game. Worley was fabulous all spring, and he brings a maturity and attitude that defies his age. Like Worley, Karl Joseph started as a true freshman, and he could be on the verge of turning into one of the best safeties in the Big 12 as a junior. It will be interesting to see if incoming blue-chip freshman Dravon Henry can break into the rotation at cornerback, which would only make this secondary better.

6. Kansas (6): Senior cornerback Dexter McDonald put in the work during the offseason, and it showed in Kansas’ spring game. He's become a technically-sound player. Fellow cornerback Kevin Short, a juco transfer forced by the NCAA to sit out last season, can fly. Safety Isaiah Johnson, who became the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year after picking off five passes last season, had another pick in the spring game. With four starters back from last fall, plus the addition of Short, Kansas’ secondary will be the team's strength next season.

7. Oklahoma State (7): The emergence of Ashton Lampkin was a positive development for the Cowboys. Lampkin had a pick-six in the “Orange Blitz” scrimmage, and after two seasons as a key backup, looks ready to take over as a starting cornerback opposite All-Big 12 hopeful Kevin Peterson. The Cowboys are completely inexperienced at safety, with second-year players Jordan Sterns, Deric Robertson, Jerel Morrow and Tre Flowers basically comprising the position. Only time will determine how effective the Cowboys can be at the back end.

8. Texas Tech (8): The Red Raiders have to feel good about their safeties coming out of the spring. Keenon Ward was the defensive MVP and brought the hammer all spring. J.J. Gaines will soon be completely back from a season-ending shoulder injury. He played extremely well through five games last season. Justis Nelson is oozing confidence after earning a starting job as a true freshman last fall. The biggest question is at the other cornerback spot. Sophomore La’Darius Newbold is currently the starter, but speedy true freshman Nigel Bethel II could make noise once he arrives this summer.

9. Baylor (9): The rebuild of a secondary that graduated four starters remains a work in progress. Sophomore Orion Stewart had the best spring of the young players and looks primed to take over the deep safety role held by All-American Ahmad Dixon. Sophomore cornerbacks Terrence Singleton and Xavien Howard also won starting jobs, but they’ll have to fend off juco transfer Chris Sanders in the preseason. Walk-on senior Collin Brence was the surprise of the spring and is listed as the starter at nickelback. This a group, though, that still has more questions to answer.

10: Iowa State (10): Nigel Tribune, who was the only true freshman to play at Iowa State in the past two seasons, is one of the best young cornerbacks in the league and a cornerstone defender for the Cyclones. The rest of the secondary is a big fat unknown. Juco transfer Devron Moore, whom Iowa State beat TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia for, left school in the middle of spring ball with homesickness. He is dubious to return. That leaves juco transfer Qujuan Floyd, redshirt freshman Kamari Cotton-Moya and T.J. Mutcherson, who suffered an MCL injury in the spring game (he should be back in June), as Iowa State’s only remaining options at safety.
AUSTIN, Texas -- A new coaching staff meant a clean slate and a new start for several Longhorns this spring. Here's a closer look at five Texas players who appeared to help their chances of making an impact in 2014 with their performances in spring ball.

1. WR Marcus Johnson

[+] EnlargeJohnson
AP Photo/LM OteroMarcus Johnson is poised to become Texas' big-play threat this season.
You remember Johnson from his 59-yard touchdown against Oklahoma and the 120-yard day against TCU a week later, but they were just glimpses of the speedster's potential.

After being relatively underused last fall, Johnson seems poised for a breakout year. He caught the attention of his new head coach with plays like this.

"I'll say this, he can run," Charlie Strong said. "I know that he can separate from a defensive back. [He needs] confidence and just continue to work on his confidence. What I told Marcus, I said, 'You have big-time ability. You need to play like that each and every day.'"

Johnson finished fourth on the team in targets last year and caught 22 balls for 350 yards and two scores. It's hard to believe he's already a junior, but that's how it goes when your freshman season gets wasted the way Johnson's was in 2012. He appeared in eight games but didn't record a catch and was targeted only one time.

He has an opportunity, with deep threat Mike Davis gone, to become the kind of impact wideout who makes defenses look silly when they sneak up to stop the run. That's just what this Texas offense will need.

2. OG Taylor Doyle

The more casual Texas fan must've been a little confused when scoping out the new-look Longhorns offensive line at last month's spring game. They've rarely seen the guy who was holding down the first-team right guard spot.

That would be Doyle, a local kid from Lake Travis with just two games of playing experience at Texas. The reason the junior was in that starting spot had a lot to do with opportunity.

He has been sitting behind four-year starters Mason Walters and Trey Hopkins, who departed just in time for new offensive line coach Joe Wickline to show up. Doyle learned enough over three years on the scout team to show Wickline he can compete for the right guard job.

Doyle has to hold off talented redshirt freshman Rami Hammad, who came close to seeing the field in 2013, and it's entirely possible the injured but exciting Kent Perkins moves over and takes the right guard job after moving over from tackle this spring. But at least for this spring, Doyle got lots of first-string reps and opened the door for more.

[+] EnlargeMykkele Thompson
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesIf he can play consistently, Mykkele Thompson could be poised for a big role in Texas' secondary.
3. S Mykkele Thompson

With 18 starts and 20 more appearances under his belt, is now the time when Thompson finally breaks out?

That's not to say there haven't been good days and big plays along the way, but Thompson is one of those guys who might have benefited in a big way from new coaches with new perspectives.

"We played him some at corner and some at safety," defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. "He had an outstanding spring from the first practice to the last practice."

Thompson hasn't been very consistent in the last two years and struggled at times to be a reliable tackler and hitter, but Texas needs him to have a big year in the secondary with Adrian Phillips gone. It wouldn’t be surprising if he's a defensive standout in 2014.

4. LB Timothy Cole

New coaches just seem to like this guy. Installing Cole as a starter was one of Greg Robinson's first moves as defensive coordinator last year, though that plan was short-lived.

Now the new guys running the Longhorns have taken a liking to the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Cole.

"I call him Nat King Cole's nephew," Bedford said. "I mean, he is a big, physical guy."

After having hip surgery in January, Cole was healthy for spring ball and took advantage of the fact so many other Texas linebackers were not, starting with the first-team linebackers in the spring game. He doesn't bring the size of Steve Edmond or Dalton Santos, but he's athletic and figures to make more plays in space than he did in his less-than-stellar first start against Iowa State last year.

Cole was still learning back then, as a redshirt freshman, and has more to learn now with a new playbook. But if Texas' veteran linebackers deal with more injuries this fall (and that seems likely, doesn't it?), Cole could be in for significant snaps.

5. K Nick Rose

Can't forget the kickers. Texas had a near-automatic placekicker in Anthony Fera last year. In Rose, it has a junior whose role has been exclusively used on kickoffs over the past two years.

An open competition this spring to replace Fera resulted in Rose's emergence. If the season started today, he'd figure to be the guy on field goals, extra points and, yes, kickoffs. William Russ would be the punter. There's still time for that to change, with several candidates for each duty.

But we know Rose can boom it, as evidenced by his kickoffs and two solid attempts in the spring game -- a 40-yard make and the 55-yarder he missed. He just needs to be consistent, or else somebody else will have to take Fera's place.

Spring game preview: Texas

April, 18, 2014
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The first Texas football game of the Charlie Strong era will look a lot more like a practice.

The Longhorns hit the field this weekend for the first time since Strong arrived. Even though fans can expect a more scrimmage-like approach to the annual Orange-White spring game, there will be plenty worth keeping an eye on.

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium

[+] EnlargeTyrone Swoopes
Matthew Visinsky/Icon SMISophomore QB Tyrone Swoopes will get a chance to work with the No. 1 offense in a game setting Saturday.
What to watch for:

  • Swoopes' confidence: The last time we saw Tyrone Swoopes in action, he looked like a flustered freshman (he was, in fact, a freshman) trying his hardest not to mess up amid a beatdown from Oregon in the Valero Alamo Bowl. He wasn't afraid to take some shots, and he scrambled for a 28-yard gain, but all in all it was a tough ask for a first-year QB who still had a lot to learn. With David Ash sidelined, Swoopes gets a chance to run the No. 1 offense in the spring game and show how far he has come in 14 practices with Shawn Watson, Texas' new quarterbacks coach. Watson is enthusiastic about the sophomore's future and praises his work as a student of the game, but this is a chance to see how well he can execute with a crowd watching and a No. 1 defense coming after him. Strong says the key to Swoopes' play is confidence and playing within himself. Everyone in attendance on Saturday will want to see if he can do just that.
  • New-look defense: This is going to be a vanilla ballgame on both sides of the ball. Both coordinators acknowledged that after their final practice Thursday. Why give up the good stuff when any Big 12 opponent can DVR the game on Longhorn Network and pick it apart? Even fiery defensive coordinator Vance Bedford will show restraint. But how he lines this defense up, both in scheme and personnel, will be intriguing. Texas coaches say this will be a multiple defense capable of lining up in 4-3 or 3-4, and you could see a little bit of both on Saturday. No, the defenders can't touch Swoopes. But you better believe Bedford will demand they get after him and put up a fight.
  • Playmakers on the outside: The hype is building for this Longhorns receiving corps, and their coaches have had nothing but good things to say about a group that must make up for the loss of deep threat Mike Davis. Nobody will be surprised if Marcus Johnson is the breakout player of the spring game. He's a star in the making. Jaxon Shipley, Kendall Sanders, Daje Johnson and Jacorey Warrick are all said to have had a big spring as well, and don't be shocked if you see tight end Geoff Swaim do some things in the passing game after primarily serving as a blocker in 2013.
  • Rising returnees: A new coaching staff means a clean slate for these Longhorns, and that means a fresh start for players who either weren't playing or were underperforming. The differences will be far more noticeable by August after a long summer of lifting and drills, but there will be some new standouts on Saturday. Guys such as safety Mykkele Thompson, offensive guard Taylor Doyle and linebacker Tim Cole have made an impression on the new staff and could do so again this weekend. Or perhaps it'll be someone nobody else is talking about, like how Duke Thomas caught everyone's eyes last year.
  • New sheriff in town: It's going to be a little strange to see someone other than Mack Brown on that sideline, isn't it? You know plenty of Texas fans will have their eyes on Strong for a glimpse of how he operates in a game setting and what he bring to the Texas sideline. You know the 100-plus recruits in attendance will care about that, too. For all the talk about how Strong is a stern coach out to lay down the law and whip the Longhorns into shape, let's see him have a little fun on Saturday.
Editor's note: This is the third part of a weeklong series breaking down Texas’ most important spring position battles when the Longhorns begin practice in two weeks.

Moving on: Safety Adrian Phillips brought experience and leadership to the Texas secondary, a senior who played in 50 games and started 28. An honorable mention All-Big 12 selection in 2013, Phillips dealt with a shoulder injury throughout his final two seasons. He could be inconsistent at times but still managed to start 23 games during that period.

The contenders: Lots of questions here, starting with a curious one: Who’s coaching the safeties? Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford and defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn are both assigned to the secondary. We’ll see which one takes charge of running this group, or if it’s a shared duty.

Either way, it’s a clean slate for a group of safeties that could probably use one. If not for the great Kenny Vaccaro, it’d be easy to point to this unit as a disappointing one in recent seasons. Former secondary coach Duane Akina coached up some greats at these spots -- Vaccaro, Earl Thomas, Michael Huff, etc. -- but who among these returning safeties is capable of upholding the “DB U” tradition?

Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner enter their senior seasons with starting experience but haven’t lived up to their potential yet. Adrian Colbert is an intriguing option and entering his third year in the program.

Also in the mix are Erik Huhn and Kevin Vaccaro, who both missed the 2013 season with injuries, and incoming freshmen John Bonney and Jason Hall arrive in the summer.

Moving forward: Thompson has the most experience of the group, with 18 starts in 38 career games, but remains a work in progress when it comes to being a physical hitter. He had a knack for blocking kicks as a sophomore but wasn’t much of a playmaker as a junior, recording 72 tackles and one interception (the first of his career). He has to get better.

Another veteran with a chance to impress the new staff is Turner. He’s been used as a utility defensive back so far in his career, with five career starts and two INTs in 2012, but couldn’t beat out Phillips or Thompson last year. The former ESPN 150 recruit has one year left to play up to his potential.

Behind them is a group of inexperienced DBs who will compete for snaps, led by Colbert. He recorded six tackles as a redshirt freshman, all on special teams, and can be the hard-hitting athlete Texas needs patrolling the secondary if he makes big progress this offseason.

Of the four other underclassmen, Bonney could have the best chance of contributing early. He’s a polished, confident defender with big upside, and a lot of Big 12 schools coveted his talents.

Prediction: Bedford and Vaughn work closely with Thompson to raise his confidence, and they move Turner around to try several roles in their secondary. Colbert becomes a rising star at a free safety, starting in spring ball, and wins one of the jobs. The redshirt sophomore is worth keeping a very close eye on in the next few months.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: DBs

February, 26, 2014
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As we await the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Wednesday with defensive backs. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the defensive back groups going into the spring:

1. TCU: TCU has been tenacious defending the pass since joining the league, and even without potential first-round pick Jason Verrett, that shouldn’t change in 2014. Sam Carter was the only non-senior to earn first-team or second-team All-Big 12 honors in the secondary last season, and Chris Hackett was one of the best underclassman defensive backs in the league last year. Derrick Kindred is primed to step into TCU’s third safety spot after playing a key role in the rotation. The Horned Frogs also add the nation’s No. 3 juco safety in Kenny Iloka. Throw in senior Geoff Hooker, and the Horned Frogs have an impressive five-man rotation at safety. At corner, Kevin White was honorable mention All-Big 12 last year, and will take over for Verrett as the primary corner. The Horned Frogs have several options at the other corner, including incoming three-star recruit Nick Foster.

2. Texas: After playing the nickel role last year, Quandre Diggs will settle back at cornerback in place of Carrington Byndom. Opposite Diggs will be the ultra-athletic Duke Thomas, who was so good in spring ball last year, he forced the coaches to move Diggs to nickelback. Together, Diggs and Thomas could give the Longhorns the best cornerback tandem in the league. Antwuan Davis, who redshirted in his first year, was an ESPN 300 signee and figures to play a big role somewhere in the secondary. Josh Turner (37 appearances) and Mykkele Thompson (12 starts in 2013) each bring a lot of experience at safety.

3. Oklahoma: Oklahoma graduates the heart and soul of the secondary in cornerback Aaron Colvin, who gutted his way through an array of injuries last year. But if the Sooners can find an adequate replacement for him, the Big 12’s best pass defense statistically in 2013 should be stout again. Julian Wilson (nickelback), Zack Sanchez (cornerback) and Quentin Hayes (strong safety) all return as starters, though Hayes could be pushed by Ahmad Thomas and incoming freshman Steven Parker for time. Hatari Byrd, an ESPN 300 signee last year, should step into the vacant spot at free safety. Cortez Johnson will try to fend off Stanvon Taylor, who played as a true freshman, for Colvin’s spot in the only real uncertain area of this secondary.

4. Kansas State: The Wildcats will miss All-Big 12 performer Ty Zimmerman, but his cohort, Dante Barnett, was one of the best young safeties in the league last year. Barnett was third on the team with 75 tackles and first with four interceptions. Randall Evans also returns after leading the team in pass breakups and gives the Wildcats a versatile defensive back. As usual, Bill Snyder will also be looking for some juco impact. He should get it in Danzel McDaniel, who was the No. 4 juco CB recruit in the country. Cornerback Jesse Mack also could prove to be a key juco signee. If both players pan out, this could become one of the better defensive backfields in the league.

5. West Virginia: The bad news is the Mountaineers had the Big 12’s worst pass defense last year. The good news is they bring back three starters. Karl Joseph has started the last two seasons at free safety, though he could slide to the strong side with Darwin Cook gone. Joseph has All-Big 12 potential, and he needs to elevate his game for the West Virginia defense to take another step forward. Veteran K.J. Dillon could be the front-runner for the job alongside Joseph, though Jeremy Tyler and Jarrod Harper will also be in the mix. West Virginia also brings back both starting cornerbacks in senior Ishmael Banks and Daryl Worley, who started as a freshman. The Mountaineers also signed Keishawn Richardson, the No. 8 juco CB, and Jaylon Myers, the No. 9 juco safety, for depth. Cornerback Dravon Henry, an ESPN 300 signee who had offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, could play immediately if one of West Virginia’s veterans struggle.

6. Kansas: The Jayhawks return all five starters from their secondary, including last year’s Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, strong safety Isaiah Johnson. Returning cornerbacks Dexter McDonald and JaCorey Shepherd, a converted wide receiver, were both honorable mention All-Big 12 selections and give the Jayhawks one of the better corner duos in the league. Free safety Cassius Sendish started every game and had 12 tackles in Kansas’ only Big 12 victory in 2013, over West Virginia. Nickelback Courtney Arnick started in six games as a redshirt freshman. If this group collectively improves, Kansas could field a solid defense in 2014.

7. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose All-Big 12 cornerback Justin Gilbert, who might be selected high in the first round of the NFL draft after a stellar combine performance. The Cowboys welcome back one of the best young corners in the league in Kevin Peterson, who was terrific as a sophomore in coverage opposite Gilbert. Ashton Lampkin has experience, and he will likely fill the other corner spot unless someone else emerges. Lyndell Johnson, who made a transition from linebacker to safety last season, will take over full time at strong safety. The Cowboys will need someone else to emerge at the other safety in place of departed veteran starter Daytawion Lowe. Deric Robertson, Tre Flowers, Jordan Sterns, Taylor Lewis and Darius Curry, all from the 2013 recruiting class, are possibilities.

8. Texas Tech: How the Red Raiders retool here will be on one of the bigger spring storylines in Lubbock. Keenon Ward and Justis Nelson were thrown in the fire as freshmen last year, and they will be counted on to fill bigger roles. The gem of the incoming recruiting class, four-star cornerback Nigel Bethel II, could be asked – and has the capability – to play right away. The Red Raiders have to replace both starting safeties, including freshman Tanner Jacobson, who is going on a Mormon mission. To compensate, Tech signed six safeties, including Josh Keys, the No. 5 juco safety in the country, who had offers from Auburn, Georgia and Oklahoma State. Getting strong safety J.J. Gaines back from a season-ending injury will be a boost, too.

9. Baylor: The Bears are one of several teams in the league that were decimated in the secondary by graduation. Baylor loses four of its five starters, including All-American safety Ahmad Dixon. Safety Terrell Burt is the only returning starter, leaving the other four spots up for grabs. The Bears signed juco corners Tion Wright and Chris Sanders to help fill the void. Both are already on campus and will be battling Xavien Howard, Ryan Reid and Tyler Stephenson for a starting job. Orion Stewart, who backed up Dixon as a redshirt freshman, will likely step in his role, and fellow sophomore Kiante’ Griffin will be the favorite to take over at the nickel.

10. Iowa State: Cornerback Nigel Tribune was the only true freshman to play for the Cyclones last year, and he received votes as Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Tribune, however, is the only returning starter. Veteran safety mainstays Jacques Washington and Deon Broomfield are gone. In response, the Cyclones will look for Devron Moore and Qujuan Floyd, the Nos. 6 and 7 juco safety recruits, respectively, to step in immediately.

Texas position groups to improve: No. 3

February, 12, 2014
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Texas is getting off to a later-than-usual start to its spring practices this year, with Charlie Strong set to lead the Longhorns onto the practice field for the first time on March 18.

[+] EnlargeMack Brown
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesWith plenty of playing time available at safety, players such as Josh Turner (left) have chance to make a statement.
Until then, we’re counting down everything you need to know entering next season and the next era of Texas football. This week, we’re breaking down the five position groups with the most room to improve in 2014. We’ve already broken down No. 5 (tight ends) and No. 4 (defensive tackles). Here’s No. 3 on the list.

3. Safeties

The players: Mykkele Thompson, Josh Turner, Leroy Scott, Adrian Colbert, Erik Huhn, Kevin Vaccaro, John Bonney, Jason Hall

Last year: Adrian Phillips was the leader of the bunch, a senior captain who finished second on the team in tackles. Thompson, a junior, recorded 72 tackles and an interception in 12 starts. Turner started three games. Scott racked up three fumble recoveries and 2.5 TFLs in a limited role. Colbert mostly stuck to special teams, while Huhn and Vaccaro both sat out the season with injuries.

What’s missing: If there’s a position group that’s in for a reshuffling under the new staff, you have to think it’ll be the safeties. New secondary coaches Vance Bedford and Chris Vaughn will assess what they’re working with, and you could see spring practices become a trial period for all of these DBs until the right fit is found.

Thompson has 18 starts under his belt but still hasn’t become a physical hitter. Is he better off in another role? Turner and Scott can play multiple positions, and it’s time to see if Scott can develop into a starter this year after he showed flashes as a junior. This could be Colbert’s year, too.

And don’t forget Quandre Diggs. It’s not unfathomable to think he could dedicate more time to safety this spring if the new coaches are intrigued by that option.

Moving forward: It’s pretty simple: This is a critical offseason for all of these safeties. The slate has been wiped clean and the demands will be different.

Texas’ two secondary coaches can plug and play around during spring ball, and it’ll be fascinating to see who steps forward during the rigorous lifting program and improves his chances. It’s easy to envision a number of different combinations with this unit, and each player has something to prove over the next few months.
New Texas coach Charlie Strong has plenty of catching up to do when it comes to evaluating his returning talent. The former defensive coordinator should like what he has on defense.

On Tuesday, we brought you a look ahead at the 2014 offensive depth chart for Texas. Here's a breakdown of what the Longhorns are working with on defense. It's a unit that loses key starters but brings back considerable experience.

Remember, this is subject to change plenty in the coming months as Strong's staff shuffles the lineup and discovers new breakout players.

Defensive End
Cedric Reed, senior
Bryce Cottrell, sophomore

Once the new staff is in place, winning over Reed and convincing him to return for his senior season will be an absolute must for Strong. He finished with 10 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a junior and was just as good as Jeffcoat for most of the season. Between Cottrell and Caleb Bluiett, who started in the Valero Alamo Bowl, Texas must find a significant contributor. Both are under a lot of pressure if Reed goes pro.

Defensive Tackle
[+] EnlargeMalcom Brown
John Albright/Icon SMIMalcom Brown had a solid sophomore season at defensive tackle.
Malcom Brown, junior
Hassan Ridgeway, sophomore

Brown has the makings of becoming an All-Big 12-caliber defensive tackle and maybe more. He’ll be one of the best players on the field for this defense in 2014. Ridgeway is still young and coming along, but showed flashes in limited stints this season. Big potential there.

Defensive Tackle
Desmond Jackson, senior
Alex Norman, sophomore

Tank Jackson has 13 starts and plenty of experience. Norman and fellow redshirt freshman Paul Boyette disappointed in their first year of playing, but Texas is running low on depth here after taking some recruiting hits. Abilene’s Jake McMillon is the only DT pledge left. Strong will have to recruit this spot hard in the next month.

Defensive End
Shiro Davis, junior
Derick Roberson, freshman

There should be some fairly good competition to replace Jackson Jeffcoat, and nobody would be surprised if Davis wins the job. He’s a freakish athlete and speed rusher who flashed in 2013 and needs an expanded role. Roberson needs to put on weight, but he was a sack master in high school and is one of the gems of this class.

Weakside Linebacker
Jordan Hicks, senior
Kendall Thompson, senior

What is Texas getting in year five with Hicks? The injury-prone former five-star recruit went down with a torn Achilles four games into the season and has missed 19 games in the past two seasons. He’s a leader when he’s healthy. This is his last chance. Thompson and Tevin Jackson return to provide depth.

Strongside Linebacker
Dalton Santos, junior
Peter Jinkens, junior

It’s hard to know which direction Texas will go in at some of these spots, as both seem like obvious candidates. That’s the challenge with everyone coming back. The Longhorns’ next defensive coordinator has the luxury of several options with every UT linebacker slated to return next season.

Middle Linebacker
Steve Edmond, senior
Tim Cole, sophomore

It’s entirely possible Santos takes over the middle next season, considering the way he finished this season, but don’t count out Edmond. He had a promising junior year before missing the final two games. Cole got a few opportunities in his debut year, but has work to do.

Cornerback
Quandre Diggs, senior
Sheroid Evans, junior

Diggs had a solid junior season and won’t be turning pro this offseason. He played all over the field in his nickel role, but with Carrington Byndom graduating, that likely means he’ll slide back to corner. The speedy, long-armed Evans has as much potential as anyone in this secondary, but suffered a torn ACL this season.

Free Safety
Mykkele Thompson, senior
Adrian Colbert, sophomore

[+] EnlargeDuke Thomas
John Albright/Icon SMIDuke Thomas made three interceptions in 2013.
Could Thompson’s future be at cornerback? It’s worth considering, especially since he’s not much of a hitter. He started 12 games in 2013 and must finally put it all together in his last season. Colbert is a thumper who could fight his way into the lineup.

Strong Safety
Josh Turner, senior
Leroy Scott, senior

With Adrian Phillips graduating, this is presumably Turner’s spot to lose. He’s played in 37 games. Scott is sneaky good and made a few nice plays this season. It’s time to see what he can do with more responsibility.

Cornerback
Duke Thomas, junior
Antwuan Davis, redshirt freshman

Thomas took a few lumps in his first season of starting, but also led the Longhorns with three interceptions. Davis is a guy coaches would’ve loved to play in 2013, but they didn’t want to burn his redshirt. He’s in for a big-time debut both on defense and special teams.

Punter
Nick Rose, junior
Will Russ, senior

Texas should have a fairly open competition for Anthony Fera’s punting duties. Rose’s specialty is kickoffs, and Russ was hampered by injuries in the past but should be in the mix. So is walk-on Mitchell Becker.

Big 12 unsung heroes: Week 12

November, 18, 2013
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Here are the Big 12’s unsung heroes for Week 12:

Baylor running back Devin Chafin: Where do the Bears keep finding these running backs? Chafin finished with 11 carries for 100 yards, 9.1 yards per carry, and two touchdowns, all career-highs. He allowed the Bears to sub out Shock Linwood without a drop-off in production in BU’s 63-34 win over Texas Tech.

[+] EnlargeJake Waters
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesKansas State QB Jake Waters didn't have huge numbers, but he made key plays to help beat West Virginia.
Kansas linebacker Ben Goodman: Goodman was outstanding as Kansas snapped its 27-game Big 12 losing streak with a 31-19 win over West Virginia. He had six solo tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and one interception, which was key as the Mountaineers were driving early in the third quarter. He showed the athleticism and hops normally seen on the Allen Fieldhouse floor on his momentum-changing interception.

Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters: He didn’t finish with great numbers but led the Wildcats on a game-winning drive in the final two minutes, finding Curry Sexton and Tyler Lockett on key connections to set up Jack Cantele’s game-winning 41-yard field goal. Waters finished 10 of 24 for 234 yards, two touchdowns and one interception but stepped up to make key plays in key moments.

Iowa State defensive end Cory Morrissey: Defensive teammates Jacques Washington and Jeremiah George sat atop the tackles list in the Cyclones’ 48-10 loss to Oklahoma, but Morrissey was solid with five tackles and one tackle for loss. It was his fifth time recording at least five tackles this season.

Oklahoma receiver Jalen Saunders: The Sooners' running game was the star, but Saunders sparked OU’s 48-10 win with a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown right before halftime. The slippery senior didn’t have a major impact in the passing game (three receptions for 15 yards), but his actual impact on the outcome was as big as quarterback Trevor Knight and running back Damien Williams, who each rushed for more than 100 yards in the win.

Oklahoma State receiver Charlie Moore: The senior was very productive in the Cowboys’ 38-13 win over Texas. He caught six of seven targets for 83 yards and one touchdown. With OSU’s top receiver, Josh Stewart, out due to injury, Moore provided a quality receiving option for Clint Chelf in the victory with his season high in receptions and receiving yards.

Texas safety Mykkele Thompson: The junior led UT with six solo tackles (seven total) and one interception in the Longhorns’ 38-10 loss to OSU. His effort was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing home loss to the Cowboys as Thompson recorded a season-high in solo tackles.

TCU safety Derrick Kindred: The sophomore continues to play at a high level while emerging as another option in the Horned Frogs' secondary. He led the squad with eight solo tackles in TCU’s 33-31 loss to Kansas State. He has 17 tackles in the past two games.

Texas Tech cornerback Justis Nelson: Talk about thrown into the fire. Nelson earned his first collegiate start against the explosive Baylor offense and held up well despite his team’s 63-34 loss. The true freshman showed signs he might emerge as an critical part of the Red Raiders' defense of the future with five solo tackles and three pass breakups.

West Virginia linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski: The Mountaineers linebacker contributed to a turnover for the third straight game. After grabbing interceptions in his squad’s previous two outings, Kwiatkoski had eight tackles, including six solo stops, 1.5 tackles for loss and one fumble recovery in the 31-19 loss to KU.

Five things OSU exposed against Texas

November, 18, 2013
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AUSTIN, Texas -- There were plenty of reasons for Texas' meltdown and 38-13 home loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday, and some of them may tell us a lot about how these Longhorns will fare in big tests to finish out the regular season. Here are five things the Cowboys exposed about this Texas team on Saturday:

1. There’s zero room for error

[+] EnlargeMack Brown
AP Photo/Michael ThomasMack Brown and the Longhorns got their first Big 12 loss of the season on Saturday.
For a team that ran off six straight victories in the Big 12, Texas was reminded that countless mistakes prove costly against good opponents.

The Longhorns started off horribly at West Virginia and got away with it. Case McCoy threw six interceptions during the streak but got away with it. Texas had to run the ball 50 times a game to win and still got away with it.

Its defense seemingly made tangible weekly improvement but also faced only one top-50 scoring offense along the way, a Kansas State unit that’s playing far better today than it was in September. Texas’ defensive line wrecked the Mountaineers but couldn’t find any semblance of a consistent pass rush to hurry Clint Chelf.

And imagine if Mike Gundy hadn’t backed his Cowboys off in the second half. This was a pure meltdown that could’ve been much worse. Credit Texas’ players for the 6-0 start they engineered in Big 12 play, but they learned just how little room for error they have in big games with the way this team is currently constructed.

Mack Brown's team might get away with stuff against a Texas Tech team that has lost four in a row. But these Longhorns would have to play a near-perfect ballgame to stand a chance of going four quarters with Baylor.

2. Small-play offense

There was just way too much dink-and-dunk going on with this offense against OSU, which is probably a product of injuries, a restrained approach with McCoy at the helm, his own checkdowns and a stout Cowboy defense.

McCoy had one completion of 15-plus yards on the day. He completed four or more for 15-plus in each of Texas’ past five games. Without Johnathan Gray, Texas managed just two rushes of more than 10 yards. When this offense was trying to take shots and mount a rally in the third quarter, only three plays gained more than 10 yards.

Against OSU, Texas faced second down and 6-plus a total of 17 times and third down and 6-plus on nine occasions, putting a team that’s overly dependent on the run into too many difficult spots. The kind of spots that can’t always be solved by screen passes.

3. Pass defense doesn’t pass test

The Texas secondary has avoided scrutiny for the most part this season, but that unit didn’t challenge Chelf and his receivers much on Saturday. Safety Mykkele Thompson snagged his first career interception when Chelf threw into double coverage. That was the high point.

Chelf averaged 8.95 yards per attempt and gained first downs or touchdowns on 45 percent of his throws. And he only had to throw the ball 22 times to pick apart Texas. Getting no pass rush up front didn’t help Duane Akina’s crew, but then again, none of his DBs recorded a pass breakup.

If you take a quick skim of the box score, you’ll see the Cowboys had 197 passing yards and no completion longer than 29 and you might call that a mild success for “DBU.” But again, that’s only because OSU had no need to throw the ball in the second half. Not when trading punts ensured an easy victory. Texas Tech and Baylor won’t be so merciful.

4. Special teams struggling

Disclaimer: Anthony Fera has hit 17 of his 18 field goal attempts this season. He should be a Lou Groza finalist. He’s that good, and he’s basically beyond reproach at this point compared to the rest of the Longhorns’ special teams foibles.

The kick returns are ineffective, none worse than a botched reverse that put Texas at its own 6 to start the second half. The kickoff defense isn’t any better. Bad starting field position hurt Texas a number of times.

And the returners are in a real funk. Daje Johnson might be sitting a few of those out going forward. He can break a big one ever so often, but he’s also liable to drop one at any moment. And his longest kickoff return against OSU went 18 yards. That’s a problem.

When Fera agreed to transfer to Texas from Penn State, Brown proudly declared that Texas could have some of the best special teams in the country. Surely, he’s not saying that right now.

5. The QB run still works

Kudos to Gundy and his staff for recognizing a weakness in the Texas defense and exploiting it. Its defensive linemen aren’t particularly adept at playing the read-option offense with consistent success, and the Cowboys knew Chelf would have some nice run lanes if OSU could get Texas’ linebackers spread out over the field and out of position.

Chelf picked up gains of 14, 22 and 18 yards on the ground, and those were just on his first four rushing attempts. He finished the day with 95 yards and two scores running the ball.

Baker Mayfield has three rushing scores this season. Bryce Petty has 10. You know Texas Tech and Baylor will both find ways to test the Longhorn defense with their feet.
This week we took a closer look at five Longhorns -- David Ash, Jackson Jeffcoat, Johnathan Gray, Mike Davis and Jordan Hicks -- who are poised to change the course of the 2013 team.

Any list of that nature is bound to change plenty a week, a month and a season from now. There was no way of predicting Jeffcoat and Hicks would suffer season-ending injuries last year, and Gray was Texas’ No. 3 back to start the 2012 campaign.

[+] EnlargeQuandre Diggs
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisQuandre Diggs led the Longhorns with four interceptions in 2012.
So with that in mind, here are five Longhorns worth keeping an eye on. They might not have the big names of those aforementioned five, but their contributions could be critical to making Texas a Big 12 championship-caliber team. Lots of guys nearly made the cut, but we’ll be watching these five closely.

1. CB Quandre Diggs

Diggs has All-Big 12 potential, there’s no doubt about that. We’re about to find out if he’s All-America good. Diggs has started 23 consecutive games for the Longhorns and led the team in interceptions and pass breakups last season. He was tested by Big 12 passing attacks and won more battles than he lost in 2012, but he can be even better. He’ll play multiple roles in the secondary and could be the Swiss Army knife-type defender Kenny Vaccaro became last fall.

2. LB Steve Edmond

Edmond was hyped up as the real deal entering last season. Once Texas got into Big 12 play, he struggled. He seems far better prepared entering his junior season and has been universally praised by coaches and players throughout fall camp. He’s one of the keys to the Longhorns repairing their run defense and could finish as the team’s leading tackler. A big season from Edmond would answer a major question mark on this defense.

3. OG Mason Walters

One of the most experienced offensive linemen in the country, Walters has started 38 consecutive games and is a leader in the locker room but has never earned better than second-team All-Big 12 honors. He can take the next step and prove he’s an NFL-caliber lineman this fall. If his play over the course of the season becomes truly great, don’t be surprised if the rest of the line thrives, too.

4. DT Malcom Brown

Expectations for Brown have been high since the day he set foot on campus. Texas will rotate its four defensive tackles, but it’s time for Brown to take over a starting gig and hold it down for three years. Few players in the program have more raw talent. Hard to believe he isn’t in for a lot more than the two tackles for loss he contributed as a true freshman.

5. S Mykkele Thompson

A surprise pick, yes, but Thompson really is one of the great unknown commodities on the Texas defense. He has to be a better tackler in 2013 and play with more confidence. He recorded no interceptions and one pass breakup. Texas coaches trust him enough to keep him in the starting lineup and believe he’ll be a different player as a junior. He has made progress, and the Texas secondary can’t play up to its potential without more.

Texas depth chart preview: Defense

August, 21, 2013
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We’re 10 days away from the season opener and Texas hasn’t released its official 2013 depth chart. That should be coming soon, but why wait?

Yesterday, we projected how the Longhorns offensive depth chart will look entering the Aug. 31 opener against New Mexico State. Today we’re assessing how Texas’ defensive depth is shaping up. Here’s where the Longhorns appear to stand with only a few days left in fall camp.

Defensive end

Jackson Jeffcoat, Cedric Reed, Reggie Wilson, Shiro Davis, Bryce Cottrell

Everything we’ve heard this summer and fall suggests Jeffcoat is healthy and back with a vengeance. Nobody will be surprised if he has a big season. Reed has been locked into the other starting job throughout, and Wilson is earning confidence as the No. 3 guy. Davis and Cottrell lead a group of young ends who could make a splash as pass rushers and seem far more poised to contribute as second-year guys. Of all the guys on this defense, Cottrell might be the one who ends up being a surprise stud.

Defensive tackle

[+] EnlargeJackson Jeffcoat
John Albright/Icon SMIWith players like Jackson Jeffcoat returning to full health, Texas' defensive depth looks stronger in 2013.
Ashton Dorsey, Chris Whaley, Malcom Brown, Desmond Jackson, Hassan Ridgeway

The two we’ve bolded here is essentially meaningless. It could be Brown and Whaley, Brown and Dorsey, Dorsey and Jackson or any number of other combinations. Bo Davis has the luxury of rotating those four and will do so plenty. Whaley had stepped up in camp, but it’s hard to call him a surprise starter considering he also won a starting gig at the end of camp last year. Is Ridgeway the No. 5 man in this group? Time will tell, but he has the tools to eventually be a difference-maker.

Outside linebacker

Jordan Hicks, Peter Jinkens, Tevin Jackson, Kendall Thompson

No surprises here. You knew Hicks was going to be a surefire starter when he got healthy, and Jinkens has made a big impression on everyone this offseason. He’s often praised for bringing a strong dose of energy to the rest of the lineup. Texas likes what it has in Jackson and Thompson, and they’re still in line to see solid playing time. Right now, it's hard to picture former starter Demarco Cobbs reemerging as an impact contributor once he's healthy.

Middle linebacker

Steve Edmond, Dalton Santos

This was supposed to be one of the Longhorns’ best position battles, but the drama fizzled quickly. Edmond is in firm control of the job and has made a big comeback after an up-and-down 2012. Players say he’s truly a sideline-to-sideline player now that he’s dropped 30 pounds and more of a playmaker than ever. After all the premature hype surrounding him last year, it sounds like Edmond is the real deal now. Santos will still get his, especially as a special teams enforcer.

Cornerback

Quandre Diggs, Carrington Byndom, Duke Thomas, Sheroid Evans, Bryson Echols

Longhorns coaches and players have remained as vague as possible when it comes to discussing Diggs’ role. Don’t be shocked if he plays more nickel and dabbles in some safety this year, but the fact remains he’s still one of Texas’ two best corners. Byndom seems much more confident as a senior. Manny Diaz recently said Thomas is as good a DB as Texas has right now, which is really saying something, and Evans has a chance to be a sneaky good weapon in that secondary. Don’t sleep on freshman Antwuan Davis, but Texas is in nice shape in terms of depth at corner.

Safety

Adrian Phillips, Mykkele Thompson, Josh Turner, Adrian Colbert

We know Phillips is better and could be one of the real surprise players on this Texas defense as a senior, but it’s still hard to peg if Thompson is the answer at the other starting spot. The coaching staff is still confident in him. Turner has been sidelined throughout camp so it’s hard to know what to expect of him, but Colbert has been flashy in practices. Again, if Diggs or Byndom chips in at safety, that sure couldn’t hurt.

Punter

William Russ, Anthony Fera

Tough call here, but we’ll go with Russ because it seems more feasible that the Longhorns would prefer to keep Fera fresh and not give him both placekicker and punter duties. Coaches say a healthy Russ is now booming his punts and made this a legitimate battle. And let’s not forget Nick Rose, who will continue to own the role of booting kickoffs. Mack Brown frequently praised Rose as a freshman, and he might be even better in year two.
AUSTIN, Texas – Texas has 19 starters returning, a two-deep no longer as shallow as the Pedernales River, a coach who has been pointing to this year during the tumult of the last two and a team that's been as high as No. 4 in some of the preseason rankings.

Question of the Week: Faith in Diaz 

June, 13, 2013
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At some point in Oregon State’s five-play, 47-yard drive, when all the plays were runs and yet another gap was missed by a linebacker, one had to wonder if things would ever change for the Texas defense under Manny Diaz.

That the defense briefly did change in the second half was more the result of a Herculean effort by one, now departed, senior, Alex Okafor, and a completely depleted Oregon State offensive line.

Now the time has come to see if Diaz, in his third season at Texas, will make any permanent changes to what was the worst defense in program history. He has lost his two most productive and best players, Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro. But he does return nine starters, including linebacker Jordan Hicks, who was injured in the third game last season. So there are some reasons for optimism. Texas coach Mack Brown pointed out that Diaz led a unit that ranked No. 11 in defense in 2011, and he didn’t forget how to coach.


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During the summer, HornsNation will analyze each of the scholarship players on the Texas roster -- excluding the Longhorns' 2013 recruiting class -- in our Burnt Orange Breakdown series. Starting with No. 1 Mike Davis, we will go through the roster numerically, finishing with No. 99 Desmond Jackson.

No. 26 Adrian Colbert
Freshman safety



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