Horns bring back three starters from loaded secondary

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Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

This time last year, Carrington Byndom was coming off a nondescript freshman season that saw him contributing to special teams almost as much as in the secondary.

Quandre Diggs, who enrolled at Texas in spring 2011 after graduating a semester early from Angleton High School, had just started his first fall camp as a Longhorn.

More importantly, three former Texas cornerbacks — Aaron Williams, Curtis Brown and Chykie Brown — were selected in the NFL Draft four months earlier. That eventually meant that Byndom and Diggs were entering their first season as starting cornerbacks for the Longhorns.

Byndom made 58 tackles, eight for loss, while picking off two passes and breaking up 15 others, tying him with Diggs for the team high. An AP First Team All-Big 12 selection, Byndom garnered high praise from his head coach at Big 12 Media Days last month.

“Carrington will be one of the best defensive backs that we’ve had,” Mack Brown said. “He started and had an outstanding year last year for us. He’s a guy that can intercept the ball. He can make plays. He’s physical. And I think that he will end up being one of the better defensive backs in the country this year.”

If Byndom does indeed go down as one of the program’s best defensive backs, he will join elite company. Twelve former Longhorn defensive backs have been taken in the past 11 NFL Drafts, including five that played on the team that captured the 2005 National Championship. Two of them, Aaron Ross and Michael Huff, won the Thorpe Award.

“I’m honored that he would think so highly of me,” Byndom said. “I still have a long ways to go. I’m still working and making strides to improve my game and get it to the top level. It’s an honor.”

The first of those dozen former members of the Texas secondary to get drafted was 2002 first-round selection Quentin Jammer, Diggs’ older brother. Diggs is well on his way toward following in his brother’s footsteps. He made 51 tackles, four for loss, and had a team-best of four interceptions. The Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year last season, Diggs should be part of one of the nation’s best secondary units this year.

“I think we have the potential to be better,” Byndom said. “We hear the hype. You don’t pay it too much attention because it’s like eating the cheese and you don’t want to. The hype can put you in a bad position on the field.”

The Longhorns return three starters from a secondary that helped Texas boast the Big 12’s best pass defense in 2011 — Byndom, Diggs and senior safety Kenny Vaccaro. One of only two senior starters on the Texas defense, the other being defensive end Alex Okafor. Vaccaro is a self-proclaimed Thorpe Award candidate.

“I want to win the Thorpe. That’s it,” Vaccaro said while announcing he would not forego his senior season to enter the NFL Draft after the Longhorns’ win over California in last December’s Holiday Bowl. “Then I want to go to South Beach.”

By South Beach, Vaccaro meant the Orange Bowl in Miami, the site of this year’s national title game. Vaccaro and Okafor would have likely been brought to last month’s Big 12 Media Days had they, along with senior tight end Barrett Matthews, not been arrested last month in downtown Austin. They were disciplined but not suspended.

“They’re heartbroken,” Byndom said. “They were supposed to be here instead, along with [senior wide receiver] Marquise [Goodwin], but me and [linebacker] Jordan [Hicks] filled in their spot.

They’re working just as hard, they’re in the weight room every day. They’re doing everything they can to help this team out.”

Texas has six returning starters on defense, none of which have spent two full seasons as starters.

“We know we’re still kind of young and that the young guys have to step in their role,” Byndom said. “This is what has to happen. I think a lot of guys have embraced that and are ready for the challenge.”

The only new starter in the Longhorns secondary will likely be junior Adrian Phillips, who should take over for Blake Gideon as starting safety. Phillips played through a shoulder injury and was not 100 percent for much of the season. But his predecessor believes he has what it takes.

“I always joked with Adrian that it’s good that I left when I did because he was close to passing me up,” Gideon said. “I think he’s going to be one of the anchors of a great defense this next year. All of his ability and dedication to the game, his willingness to study the game, and the mental part of it — he’s going to be a great player.”