defensive back

In a winter filled with recruiting victories, Texas head coach Charlie Strong had something to celebrate once again after picking up two four-star cornerbacks in Holton Hill and Kris Boyd on Friday. The Longhorns now have two of the top-three ranked cornerbacks in the state, according to 247sports.

 

Hill, who played at Lamar High School in Houston, ranks as the nation’s No. 7 cornerback after totaling 11 interceptions and two special teams touchdowns in his senior year. At 6-foot-2, he possesses the size to cover taller wide receivers, and is considered to be a potential immediate contributor on defense and special teams.

 

Boyd, who played at Gilmer, is not too far behind Hill as a prospect, ranking as the nation’s No. 11 cornerback. At six foot, Boyd also has good size for his position and he proved himself as a playmaker with two interceptions and three forced fumbles his senior year. His younger brother Demarco Boyd is committed to join the Longhorns in 2016.

 

The duo adds to an already strong defensive back class that features four-star defensive backs Davante Davis and DeShon Elliot. With the Big 12 producing five top-20 passing offenses in 2014, secondary depth is an area of importance, especially with cornerback Quandre Diggs departing this off-season. The Longhorns hope the new defensive-back class can help them maintain their stout pass defense, which ranked in the top-15 in passing yards allowed in 2014.

 

In addition to adding two four-star cornerbacks, the Longhorns made news this weekend for recruits who are yet to choose their destination.

 

Cedar Hill’s four-star wide receiver Demarkus Lodge announced that Texas is in his top-three Friday, while Gladewater’s five-star defensive tackle  Daylon Mack announced Saturday that he made his decision after receiving in-home visits from Strong and competing coaching staffs this past week. Both Lodge and Mack will announce their final decisions on national signing day.

 

While Texas gained recruiting momentum this weekend, it wasn’t all good news for the Longhorns.

 

Five-star quarterback Kyler Murray announced Thursday that he will be sticking with Texas A&M after taking an unofficial visit to Texas the weekend prior. Successfully flipping Murray would have been a huge boost to Texas’ recruiting class, especially with the team’s quarterback situation in question for 2015.

 

The Longhorns took another potential hit Sunday when three-star safety commit Jamile Johnson re-opened his recruitment for the third time after decommitting from the Longhorns.

 

Texas’ 2015 class is currently ranked No. 9 by 247sports, and it can keep its momentum going in the next few days with several top prospects still considering the Longhorns. It has the potential to be ranked as a top-five class come Wednesday’s national signing day, and if momentum keeps trending in Texas’ favor, the Longhorns will have a lot to be excited about next fall.

Photo Credit: Ethan Oblak | Daily Texan Staff

Two four-star Florida recruits  — tight end Devonaire Clarington and defensive back Tim Irvin — announced their verbal commitments to Texas at the US Army All-American Bowl on Saturday.

A 6-foot-5, 224-pound player out of Miami Booker T Washington High School, Clarington held a long list of offers before choosing Texas. He is considered No. 38-ranked tight end in the nation, according to Rivals.com. On the defensive side of the ball, Irvin, who also held multiple offers from top-ranked schools, comes ranked as the No. 23 safety from Westminster Christian in Palmetto Bay, Florida.

The duo's commitments come in the midst of Texas' recruiting hot streak, which started with the commitments of five-star outside linebacker Malik Jefferson and four-star athlete Deandre McNeal on Dec. 19.  In addition, four-star defensive back Devante Davis pledged Thursday, while Dallas four-star linebacker Anthony Wheeler committed to the Longhorns at Friday's Under Armour All-American Game.

Texas' recruiting class now consists of 25 recruits, leaving just six open spots in the 2015 class. With National Signing Day approaching on Feb. 4, the Longhorns have heard interest from a number of top-named recruits, including five-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack, five-star wide receiver DeMarkus Lodge, four-star wide receiver Ryan Newsome and four-star wide receiver Carlos Strickland, among others. 

Currently, Texas has the No. 4 rated recruiting class, according to Scout.com.

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

On Jan. 8, 1998, Ricky Williams announced he would return to UT for his senior season. Williams’ return to Texas, despite being a probable top-five pick, is still seen as one of the biggest recruiting feats of the Mack Brown era. Thanks to his leadership and play on the field, the Longhorns bounced back from a disastrous 1997 campaign.

In similar fashion, the return of running back Malcolm Brown, defensive back Quandre Diggs and defensive end Cedric Reed, who were all draft eligible after their junior seasons, are the first major recruiting victories of the Charlie Strong era.

Brown came to Texas as the top running back recruit in 2011 but was hindered by injuries throughout his first two seasons. In both years, Brown started the season strong before injuries forced him to miss games and affected his play. After struggling to find touches early in 2013, Brown pounded out 841 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in the final eight contests. 

Diggs returns to Texas for his senior season following a disappointing 2013. Diggs led the team in pass breakups (9) for the third consecutive year, but failed to record an interception after picking off four passes in each of his first two seasons. He was quiet for long stretches of 2013, rotating between playing corner and nickel. A move to safety is a possibility in 2014 since Diggs is small for an NFL corner and Texas will be looking to replace Adrian Phillips.

Reed returns to Texas — after showing great improvement in 2013 — as arguably the defense’s top player. Reed led the team in forced fumbles (5), while finishing second in sacks (10) and tackles for loss (18.5). Despite being a probable second-day draft selection this year, Reed could shoot up the draft boards with a successful 2014 campaign. He could learn under the defensive-minded Strong and could be to the Texas defense what Williams was to the offense in 1998.

“Coach Strong is a very passionate guy who knows a lot about football and knows a lot about the game,” Reed said. “He wants to build on everything we have here, and I want to be a part of that as a senior.”

Offensive tackle Josh Cochran, who made 23 starts from 2011 to 2013 and started his final 19 contests, has given up football because of a recurring shoulder injury.

Defensive tackle Paul Boyette Jr., receiver Bryant Jackson and linebackers Tim Cole and Dalton Santos all underwent surgery over the break.

Cole and Santos should be back for spring practice, while Boyette and Jackson will miss the spring. Defensive back Sheroid Evans, running back Johnathan Gray and linebackers Jordan Hicks and Tevin Jackson — who are all recovering from injuries suffered in 2013 — will also miss spring practice.

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

Three years ago, defensive back Mykkele Thompson came to Texas with a set of skills opposite of those he uses now. 

Thompson was a quarterback in high school, regarded as one of the best athletes in the state of Texas. He recorded 5,322 all-purpose yards and a total of 62 touchdowns during his final two seasons. But when he arrived at the 40 Acres, he started his career on the other side of the ball, which proved to be quite the challenge. 

“It was a struggle for me,” Thompson said. “It was a totally different side of the ball from what I played.”

For Thompson, the hardest part about becoming a defensive player was hitting. The junior only played defense in one game before becoming a Longhorn and had no real experience tackling. Secondary coach Duane Akina said Thompson’s struggles were normal, though. Former Longhorn and current New York Giant Aaron Ross went through the same transition. 

“You are going to go through some growing pains when you play in the secondary, especially with one that is as aggressive as ours,” Akina said. “We put some guys on islands back there. We can go through it with Aaron Ross and some of those great ones who had some struggles early in their careers and did fine by the time they left here. I see Mykkele much in that same stride.”

Thompson is moving in the right direction. This season he is a force in Texas’ defensive backfield and attributes much of that success to Akina.

“Coach Akina is really encouraging, and he’s always pushing you,” Thompson said. “He just told me that I had the potential, so I went out and worked on it.”

There are some things the safety can improve on, though. The 6-foot-2-inch, 186-pound athlete is used to the pressure he faces, but still feels the stress when it becomes his job to stop the ball carrier. 

“I’m the last defensive help back there,” Thompson said. “It’s a really scary moment when a guy is running with a full head of steam at you and you have to take him down. It’s very nerve-racking.”

Nevertheless, Thompson has helped turn around a defense that started the season 1-2. After that start, which cost defensive coordinator Manny Diaz his job, many believed Texas would end up with another losing season. But Thompson and his defensive squad rose to the occasion. 

“I feel like everybody is just doing their assignment,” junior defensive back Quandre Diggs said. “Playing assignment football, everybody is in the right spot, the right place they’re supposed to be. We don’t have guys trying to do too much and trying to execute other people’s assignments. You can definitely see a team that’s maturing at the right time and continuing to grow as a football team.”

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

While Andre the Giant stood at 7-foot-4-inches. “Quandre the Giant” — as junior defensive back Quandre Diggs likes to be known — stands at just 5-foot-10-inches.

Size difference aside, the defensive back has become one of Texas’ strongest defensive players in his three years on the 40 Acres. Whether it’s his ability, work ethic or
desire, Diggs earned his reputation because of his attitude and fearless nature. 

“Quandre has a passion for the game,” senior cornerback Carrington Byndom said. “He is going to play hard every snap and every down.”

Diggs plays with a consistent chip on his shoulder, occasionally using negative attention and criticism as motivation. Diggs likes to prove people wrong.  

“He’s just a player,” Byndom said. “He’s trying to go out there, and he’s trying to prove a point. If you want to say it’s a chip on his shoulder then there it is. I guess you can call it that.”

Teammates gravitate toward Diggs’ outspoken personality, which has established him as an unquestioned team leader. When Greg Robinson took over the defensive play-calling duties from Manny Diaz, head coach Mack Brown and his staff went to Diggs to convince the players to buy into the new coach. 

“He’s one of the guys that [defensive backs coach] Duane [Akina] would bring in and say ‘We need your help. You have a voice on this team,’” Brown said. “‘You and Adrian Phillips are the two they are going to listen to. So here’s what we need, and here’s what we need you to do.’ He has really taken that role and stepped up and have been key to getting this team back on top.”

One of Diggs’ role models is his brother Quentin Jammer, who was a safety for Texas from 1997-2001 and currently plays for the Denver Broncos after 11 years with the San Diego Chargers. Jammer, who will be inducted into the Texas Hall of Honor this Friday, continues to teach Diggs even while he’s in college. 

“I couldn’t even point out one specific thing because he’s taught me so much,” Diggs said. “He’s a father figure to me even though he’s my brother. Words can’t describe all the things my brother has done for me. I’m thankful to have a brother like him in my life.”

The pair are similar in stature and their impact on the field, but Brown said Diggs has a much larger leadership role than his brother did.

“Quandre is a much better communicator than Quentin was,” Brown said. “Quandre talks all the time. He’s very positive and upbeat. Quandre is in the middle of that defense and really leading a lot. Quentin wouldn’t have said much. That’s the biggest difference between them.”

Diggs may not be the largest Longhorn in stature, but no one on the team would dispute his nickname. The fleet-footed, sharp-tongued junior stands nothing short of a giant. 

Kenny Vaccaro (4) was a playmaker on specail teams long before he became an impact player for the Longhorns' defense. Now in his final year, he has also become one of Texas' most respected leaders.

Photo Credit: Andrew Torrey | Daily Texan Staff

Last spring, Kenny Vaccaro made a decision. With his first son on the way, he chose to stay at Texas for his senior year instead of entering the NFL draft.

Money, fame and security awaited him had he gone pro. But he stayed in Austin and put on a burnt orange jersey for one more year.

Though this year’s defense didn’t live up to its high expectations, he doesn’t regret his choice.

“Honestly, I played way better than I played last year,” Vaccaro said before Texas’ loss to TCU. “People might not know it, but Coach Akina sat me down and said I’m having as good a year as he’s seen, and I’m going to keep doing it.”

Vaccaro is arguably the best performing member of the defense this year and he will likely be chosen in the first or second round of the draft next April. On Saturday, he will play his last regular season game as a Longhorn. His senior season wasn’t what he had hoped for.

His goal was to win the Thorpe, the award given to the best defensive back in the country, and a National Championship. He’s not a finalist for the award, which has been won by two Longhorns, and his team obviously isn’t in the running for the national championship.

But all the while, Vaccaro has been someone the members of the Texas defense looked up to. He is a dynamic leader and a hard worker. He proudly flaunts two full-sleeve tattoos, but don’t let the ink fool you: Kenny Vaccaro isn’t as wild as he looks, especially when it comes to his relationships with his teammates.

The senior doesn’t want to yell at or intimidate the young defense. He is liked and respected in the locker room, after all he’s been around for awhile.

“I’m really trying to be the best friend I can to all my teammates,” Vaccaro said. “I think guys can come talk to me and I’ll take care of them, whatever they need. I’m a senior, I’ve been around here for a long time, and I think they know they can come to me and I can face any problem with them.”

Senior defensive end Alex Okafor and Vaccaro have experienced something that the rest of the defense has not. They have been part of a team that has played for a national championship.

The two have experienced a lot on this team and gained respect for each other in the process.

“Kenny’s mentality is different from a lot of players’ mentalities,” Okafor said. “Every time he goes on the field he knows that nobody is going to outwork him and he truly believes that he is the best player on the field and he plays like it.”

That kind of mentality forces the rest of the defense to respect him and maintain a similar work ethic. Cornerback Quandre Diggs considers Vaccaro to be like an older brother to him and one of his role models.

“Kenny is the heart and soul of this defense regardless of what anybody says,” Diggs said. “He brings so much passion. He’s just relentless ... we have a great role model in the defensive back room just watching Kenny and watching the things he does.”

Vaccaro’s son, Kenneth Vaccaro III, is now nine months old and walking. Soon, Vaccaro will leave UT and move on to the NFL. 

“I feel like I just got here not too long ago,” Vaccaro said. “I feel like everything just passed by so quick. A lot of older guys come back and always tell you to cherish every moment because you won’t have moments like these for the rest of your life.”

Printed on Friday, November 30, 2012 as: Vaccaro honors 4-year commitment

Looking Back

Marquise Goodwin lines up on the outside and you can see the defensive back adjust. They always takes a few steps back in preparation for Goodwin’s Olympic-level burst of speed off the line, a speed his teammates can only compare to a fleet cartoon hedgehog.

“Man, Marquise is like Sonic out there,” wide receiver Mike Davis said.

That’s pretty lofty praise considering Davis isn’t exactly a plodder himself, but Goodwin seems to be on his own level when he glides over the hash marks. His quick acceleration has helped him become Texas’ big play threat early this season, a role the senior shined in most recently against Ole Miss.

In the Longhorns’ first road test of the season, the elder statesman of the Texas receiving corps exploded for 106 yards receiving, 80 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns. Impressively, Goodwin put up these numbers in only four touches, which means he averaged a staggering 46.5 yards each time he handled the ball.

However, as potentially prolific as Goodwin has the ability to be, his role on the team is greater than just being an occasional highlight waiting to happen. He’s a leader, a positive role model to his younger teammates and one of the hardest workers on the team.

“He’s one of those guys that I look up to and look to learn from,” wide receiver Jaxon Shipley said. “Just to have an older guy to look up to and just know that ‘I want to practice like this guy, I want to play like this guy’ is very good for us.”

When you consider all that Goodwin has on his schedule it’s incredible to hear from his fellow wideouts about his work ethic. Not only does Goodwin deal with the daily grind of being a football player at one of the most prestigious programs in the country, but he also carves out time to be an international track star.

Goodwin is a two-time US outdoor world champion in the long jump, a four-time NCAA All-American and was able to represent the U.S. this summer in the Olympics. Goodwin, the U.S. trials champion in the long jump, finished a disappointing 10th in London last month, but he was upbeat when looking back on the situation, considering himself lucky to just have had the experience.

“[It taught me] perseverance and fighting,” Goodwin said. “I got to experience international competition, which is something most American football players don’t get to do.”

With Goodwin’s schedule it would be easy to understand if he overlooked the “student” in his student-athlete, but Goodwin also excels in the classroom. He’s a two-time All-Big 12 Honor roll selection and a four-time member of UT’s Athletics Director’s Honor Roll.

“[An] amazing guy,” head coach Mack Brown said. “Never made [less than] an A or B. He is a guy that could be headed to New York for the National Scholarship Hall of Fame. He’s that type of student with his success. He’s really a breath of fresh air for us.”

Safety Blake Gideon returns the ball against Texas Tech. He is considered by many as a top candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the best defensive back in college football.

Photo Credit: Caleb Bryant Miller | Daily Texan Staff

Senior safety Blake Gideon has been named as one of 38 members of the 2011 preseason Jim Thorpe watch list, given annually to college football’s best defensive back.

Gideon, who is on track to be a four-year starter, has started all of the 39 games he has played in as a Longhorn. After an up-and-down season as a freshman, Gideon emerged as a big time playmaker alongside Earl Thomas in 2009. Last season, he helped anchor a defense that ranked sixth in the nation with 68 tackles and two interceptions.

In the 25-year history of the Jim Thorpe Award, two Texas players have won it: Michael Huff in 2005 and Aaron Ross in 2006.

Gideon, a Leander native, is not the only Longhorn who has been added to preseason award watch lists.

Kheeston Randall — Bronco Nagurski Trophy, Outland Trophy
Keenan Robinson — Bronco Nagurski Trophy, Bednarik Award
Mike Davis — Biletnikoff Award
Justin Tucker — Lou Groza Award

Texas moved one step closer to filling up its coaching staff vacancies Monday, naming Jerry Gray assistant coach and defensive backs coach. Gray, a former Longhorn defensive back, played for nine seasons in the NFL and spent 14 years as an assistant coach in the league, including five seasons as a defensive coordinator.

“This is truly an exciting opportunity for me and my family,” Gray said Monday. “Not very many guys get the chance to come back and coach where they played, and to do that at a place that is as special as Texas. It’s just an unbelievable opportunity.”

Gray spent the past season as the defensive backs coach for the Seattle Seahawks.

Gray was the defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills from 2001-2005, coaching the Bills to the second-ranked defense in 2002 and 2003. Gray then served as defensive backs coach for the Washington Redskins from 2006-2009 and was interviewed for the head coaching position in Washington before joining the Seattle staff.

The Lubbock native was a four-year letterman at Texas from 1981 to 1984, and is one of only seven Longhorns to be named a two-time consensus all-American, in 1983 and 1984. His 16 interceptions rank third all-time in school history, and he was inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1996. Gray was selected 21st overall in the 1985 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams and made the Pro Bowl four times before retiring in 1993.