Dylan Haines

The defense battled through a number of injuries Saturday. However, players still feel that they’re in a good place.
Photo Credit: Griffin Smith | Daily Texan Staff

With a battered offense, Texas’ bright spot in 2014 was its defense — and if Saturday’s Orange-White game is any indication, the defense can still hold its own. 

During the spring scrimmage, the Longhorns’ defense, which ranked No. 25 in total defense in 2014, showed potential in its first time on display since spring practice started. 

Junior safety Dylan Haines said earlier in the week that turnovers were a focus this off-season, and the improvement in that regard was on display Saturday. The second-team unit forced two turnovers while also adding five sacks and seven tackles for loss, ultimately only giving up one touchdown.

“I feel like we’re in a good place,” junior defensive end Hassan Ridgeway said. “I feel like with all of the injuries, we’ve showed that we can come through, and we can still go out there and play.”

Much like last season, the defensive line excelled in containing the run and generating a pass rush. Head coach Charlie Strong pointed to senior Shiro Davis, sophomore Poona Ford and Ridgeway as standouts on the defensive line, but he said he was especially impressed with junior Bryce Cottrell, who picked up a sack and two tackles for loss.

“You talk about Bryce [Cottrell], he is faster; he is someone that’s coming on that we’re going to need to come on for us,” Strong said.

Behind the defensive line, the linebacker corps also succeeded despite only having four healthy linebackers on scholarship. Junior Timothy Cole topped off his strong spring, leading the unit with seven total tackles and two sacks, while senior Peter Jinkens made six tackles of his own. Freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson also shined with a few big hits and a forced fumble, which redshirt freshman linebacker Edwin Freeman returned for a touchdown.

“[Jefferson] is always seeing and making plays,” Ridgeway said. “He may not do exactly it the right way, but he’s going to be there to make the play.”

Like the linebackers, the secondary was thin, with three cornerbacks held out with injuries. Junior cornerback Bryson Echols and redshirt freshman cornerback John Bonney benefited most from increased playing time, as Echols grabbed an interception, and Bonney impressed fans with two crushing hits.

The secondary still saw continuity with both Haines and sophomore safety Jason Hall getting starting nods. Hall particularly impressed with solid coverage, including a pass breakup that almost went the other way for 6.

“I expect [Hall] to really develop and come into his own and really stand up and become a leader back here and especially in the back end,” Strong said. “As big and strong as he is, we need him to play like that all the time.”

Although they showed potential Saturday, the Longhorns are still riddled with injuries. With three starters returning from injury among several other contributors, competition will be deep in the summer.  

“We can be a dominant group; that’s not the problem,” Ridgeway said. “We just have to make sure we come together as a group. And when people come back from injuries, we need to make sure we have everybody together and do what we need to do.”

Sophomore safety Dylan Haines is one of many key Longhorns who never saw the field under the old regime. New head coach Charlie Strong and his staff gave everyone a chance when they first arrived in Austin and several Longhorns who struggled under Mack Brown have taken advantage of the opportunity.

Photo Credit: Jenna VonHofe | Daily Texan Staff

At the conclusion of spring camp, Texas seemed pretty set at wide receiver. Senior Jaxon Shipley and junior Marcus Johnson looked poised to be the team’s primary pass catchers.

Six months later, and more than halfway through the season, neither Shipley nor Johnson are the team’s top receiver. That distinction belongs to senior wide receiver John Harris, who has quickly become quarterback Tyrone Swoopes’ favorite target. After four largely unremarkable seasons with the program, Harris has surprisingly emerged as the most reliable weapon on a team he nearly quit. 

“I remember — he was considering not coming back because he was disappointed in some of the things that happened in his career before we got here,” said Shawn Watson, quarterbacks coach and play caller. “He was really down and had gotten heavy.”

Swoopes and the Longhorn offense are thankful he reconsidered. 

Currently, Harris leads the team in receiving yards and has caught two-thirds of its touchdown passes. In seven games this season, he has already tripled his career touchdown reception total, more than quadrupled his career receiving yardage and snagged 40 passes after only recording nine catches in his first four years on campus. 

“He’s become the poster child for what we want in our program, I think, offensively and defensively, every coach would tell you,” Watson said. “Because he’s invested himself in our program, and he’s invested himself in what he expected to get out of it.”

Another player who has experienced a meteoric rise to relevance is sophomore safety Dylan Haines. Haines joined the program in 2012 as a walk-on but didn’t see the field in his first
two seasons.

Under the old regime, he may never have even seen the field. But with a new coaching staff in town and a couple key personnel changes, Haines took advantage of an opportunity to seize the vacant safety spot.

“He was getting picks,” Harris said of Haines’ performance in the spring. “So he earned the right, so there was nothing in my mind that didn’t think anything of it. He was making plays all spring, so he deserved it.”

Before the season opener against North Texas, Haines was rewarded with a scholarship. In that 38-7 victory, he recorded the first interception of his career — a sign of what was to come in 2014.

“The kid’s a football player; it’s that simple,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “He understands the game. He understands his strengths, and he understands his weaknesses.”

One of his strengths appears to be a penchant for the football. In last week’s 48-45 victory over Iowa State, Haines picked off his second pass of the season and proceeded to return it 74 yards for a touchdown.  

Harris’ and Haines’ impact have certainly been a surprise but not quite as shocking as the Hughes brothers’ contributions.

In last weekend’s victory over the Cyclones, sophomore offensive tackle Camrhon Hughes earned the first start of his collegiate career, debuting at right tackle. The move was a surprise because he didn’t even step on the field in his first two-and-a-half seasons on campus, but the older Hughes played well enough to be considered for a starting spot again this weekend.

Younger brother Naashon Hughes, a redshirt freshman defensive end, has played in all seven games for Texas this season. In its two most recent contests, however, he has earned the starting nod over junior Shiro Davis and sophomore Caleb Bluiett.

That’s not bad for a kid who was initially only offered a grayshirt when it appeared the Longhorns would only sign one linebacker in his class.

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

The first time defensive coordinator Vance Bedford called Dylan Haines’ name on the first-team list, Haines, a redshirt sophomore defensive back, thought Bedford had made a mistake.

“I looked over there and said, ‘Maybe you got the name wrong,’” Haines said. “He told me to go out and run with the [first-team players]. To be out there with all the starters and be the only walk-on out there was something different.”

Through the 2014 season, however, Haines’ association with the first team has actually remained much the same. Since recording a 22-yard interception in the season opener against North Texas, Haines has started all six games. Haines contributes to the defense, punt, kick return and kickoff teams and has recorded 39 tackles and two interceptions. Haines’ 74-yard pick-six against Iowa State put Texas up 28-21 against the Cyclones with 2:50 remaining in the first half. Head coach Charlie Strong called the play a “gamble” but complimented Haines’ willingness to take a risk.

“Everyone’s taking notice, and when you’re looking for that player that you say you like to see go play — [Haines] plays hard,” Strong said. “On that interception, he took a chance. But it’s all right to take a chance, and it pays off sometimes.”

Strong isn’t the only one who has noticed Haines’ ascent. As No. 44 becomes a
staple on the field, Haines says his teammates support his new role and celebrate his good plays. Although they jockey in practice for starting spots, the competition is all productive and healthy, Haines says.

“We’re all friends outside of football, but we understand that the best players play,” Haines said. “I don’t think there’s any bitterness — just good competition, which is what we need to have a good football team.”

Haines’ depth adds a new complication for opponents. Quarterbacks no longer see Haines’ man as a free target. Senior cornerback Quandre Diggs said he thinks opponents will catch on to Haines’ improvement soon.

“He’s pretty athletic; he’s made big plays for us all year,” Diggs said. “He continues to step up, do his calling and go out and compete. Maybe if he continues to make plays, guys will stop going at him.”

Even if opponents do not stop going after him, Haines doesn’t mind. If an opponent perceives him as weak, Haines sees it as an opportunity. In fact, he sees just about everything as an opportunity. When he didn’t receive any scholarship offers, walking on to Texas’ team was an opportunity. When he redshirted, the extra time to learn and improve was an opportunity. And as a backup last season, scouting was an opportunity — an opportunity he took seriously, earning scout team player of the week leading up to the Red River Rivalry.

But this year’s opportunity — the opportunity to be a starter — is the one Haines coveted the most. Haines comes from a family of athletes. His grandfather, great-uncle and mother competed for the Longhorn track team, and his father and brother played football on the 40 Acres. Now, Haines joins their legacies. He didn’t need a scholarship, which he earned in August, to convince him to finish his degree or stay on the football team. But such recognition is meaningful.

“I was shocked, but I wasn’t surprised,” Haines said. “Working my way to the number one spot on the depth chart, I’d given it some thought but didn’t worry about it too much. … It was something special and made me really happy, showed they really care about their players and it was a reward for hard work.”

Haines’ reward isn’t unique. He knows many walk-ons share his story — gaining scholarships, playing time and occasionally getting drafted. But, for the walk-ons who haven’t reached that level yet, Haines offers advice.

“The mentality you have to have is go out there and improve every day as a player,” Haines said. “I knew I was a capable of playing, so I looked to improve every day and reach my potential. Walk-ons need to come out and be ready to work and make the most of it.”

Amid all the dismissals and suspensions that would make for a great “Survivor”-esque reality TV show, Texas walk-on safety Dylan Haines is writing a feel-good, “Rudy”-esque story for the Longhorns.

Haines, a redshirt sophomore who never saw the field under former head coach Mack Brown, burst onto the scene in his first game for head coach Charlie Strong, coming up with an interception in the first half against North Texas.

“The pick came from a tipped ball, so I can’t say that I did everything,” Haines said after the game. “I was just in the right place at the right time. But to get that support from my teammates is just an awesome thing. I think that everyone loves what I’ve done and how hard I’ve worked and how I’ve come up and got my chance.”

The Lago Vista native would likely never have even been given a chance under Brown, who was very shy about playing his walk-ons. But a new coaching philosophy, combined with the dismissals and suspensions of a couple key players in the Longhorn secondary, gave Haines the playing opportunity every walk-on dreams of.

After weeks of hearing how much he had impressed coaches and teammates in practice, Texas fans quickly learned why Haines had shot up the depth chart so quickly. Aside from the 22-yard interception return, Haines recorded a tackle and looked very comfortable in the Longhorns’ new defense.

“He earned the right to be out there,” said defensive coordinator Vance Bedford. “He had an outstanding spring and outstanding camp. He tackled well, and that’s [most important.] The interception is great; I’m all for that. But when he had an opportunity to make plays and tackling, he did a good job of that.”

The Haines family has a lot of history on the 40 Acres, as Dylan’s father, John Haines, played defensive end for the Longhorns in the early 1980s. Bedford, who played with John Haines at Texas, has noticed some similarities between father and son.

“The kid is tough, [and] he’s smart,” Bedford said. “I actually played with his dad, and so he has a lot of football in him, a lot of football awareness and that’s
important.”

Dylan, too, credits much of his surprising success to his father.

“My dad is a very influential person in my life — probably the most influential,” Dylan Haines said. “He never let me get down on myself. He always pushed me to come and compete. My dad has had a huge impact.”

Now more than just John Haines’ son, Dylan, whose teammates have nicknamed “white chocolate,” is attempting to create his own legacy at Texas. Even prior to the season opener, he had impressed his coaches so much that the staff offered him a scholarship in early August.

But more important than earning the respect of the fans or his coaches is that it is very evident Haines’ teammates believe he is capable of anything.

“He comes to work every day and just shows everybody what type of player he really is and that it’s possible for anybody,” senior safety Mykkele Thompson said.

The fans may not have been chanting his name last weekend, but Haines’ inspirational story sure seems fit for Hollywood.