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.”