Texas Longhorns: Mykkele Thompson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mykkele Thompson, senior
Adrian Colbert, sophomore
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1. There’s zero room for error
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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No. 26 Adrian Colbert
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No. 2 Mykkele Thompson
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2012 conference record: 5-4 (third in the Big 12)
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 9; kicker/punter: 1
Top returners: QB David Ash, RB Johnathan Gray, WR Mike Davis, WR Jaxon Shipley, LT Donald Hawkins, RT Josh Cochran, G Mason Walters, DE Jackson Jeffcoat, LB Jordan Hicks, CB Quandre Diggs, CB Carrington Byndom
Key losses: P Alex King, S Kenny Vaccaro, DE Alex Okafor, WR Marquise Goodwin
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Johnathan Gray* (701 yards)
Passing: David Ash* (2,699 yards)
Receiving: Mike Davis* (939 yards)
Tackles: Kenny Vaccaro (107)
Sacks: Alex Okafor (12.5)
Interceptions: Quandre Diggs* (4)
1. Under center: Texas has finally ended all the debate about its quarterback situation and settled on David Ash. While Ash has yet to be stellar in his first two years at Texas, the junior has steadily improved -- he was top 25 in pass efficiency rating in 2012 -- and has won the trust of new quarterbacks coach Major Applewhite. Applewhite believes Ash is the quarterback best suited to run the new up-tempo, spread attack.
2. Loaded at linebacker: One year after being the worst tackling team in the Big 12, Texas went into the spring looking to shore up its linebacker position. And it had plenty of options. Texas has seven linebackers who have started at least one game. Included in that group is Jordan Hicks, who is back after missing 10 games last year because of a hip injury. Hicks will team with true sophomores, Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkens for what should be a much faster and aggressive unit in 2013.
3. Along the lines: While there were a sprinkling of injuries along the offensive line this spring (Josh Cochran and Trey Hopkins), Texas appears to have finally solved the depth riddle at that position. Tackle Kennedy Estelle was able to get quality snaps and should prove to be a solid backup and Sedrick Flowers finally emerged as an option at guard. While Texas returns all five starter from a year ago along the line, the Longhorns know that in the new up-tempo offense it will have to lean heavily on these backups.
1. Speed thrills: Texas wants to move the ball fast. So fast that the offensive players were even taught how to quickly get the ball back to the official so that they could put it down and Texas could line up and run the next play. But Texas only decided it wanted to play this way in mid-December when there was a change in playcallers from Bryan Harsin to Applewhite. So Texas has only had a handful of practices to get up to speed. With a schedule that has Texas at BYU for the second game of the season there doesn’t appear to be much time to get things perfected.
2. Safety dance: Texas’ defense was the worst in school history and that was largely due to the play of the back seven on defense. And now the best player in that back seven, Kenny Vaccaro, is gone. He was a first-round draft pick. That has left Texas wondering who will step up and make some stop at the safety position. Adrian Phillips takes over for Vaccaro, but he was inconsistent last season. The coaches blamed a shoulder injury and the fact he missed the spring. Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner also missed their share of tackles but both are being called on to be possible starters.
3. Receiving praise: Texas has not had a 1,000-yard receiver since Jordan Shipley in 2009. Mike Davis had 939 yards last year and appears poised to break the 1,000-yard mark this season. But to do that he will need help. And right now there are some questions as to where that help will come from. Texas wants to go with four wide receivers but two of the four players expected to fill those roles -- Cayleb Jones and Kendall Sanders -- are currently suspended because of legal issues. Both will probably be back. But even then, Texas is very thin at wide receiver and needs some other players to step up to help take the double teams away from Davis.
"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."
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.
Given time, the Texas secondary coach likes to take his time before typecasting a certain player in a certain role. Ideally, Akina prefers to have every defensive back ready and able to play every role.
That versatility can not only cover up some deficiencies but also make the back four a stronger and more cohesive unit because every player understands the role to the player next to him seeing as how he has spent at least some time in that role.
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