Regardless of whether or not Texas is ‘Defensive Back U,’ a title multiple universities lay claim to, the Longhorns’ football program has put talented defensive backs into the NFL for the better part of this century. In the last several years, the secondary has not lived up to the play required to claim that title, and current players, like junior safety DeShon Elliott and senior nickelback Antwuan Davis, know that.
But DBU is still important to the current members of the secondary. The players before Davis and Elliott taught them and made sure they were up to speed on everything.
“Whenever I was a young guy, I had Adrian Phillips -he taught me corner,” Davis said. “Quandre Diggs- he taught me corner. They really showed me as an older guy to teach these young guys how it’s supposed to be done the correct way. You don’t let them go out there and do what they want to. There’s a right way of doing things. Them being knowledgeable of everything, it makes you more knowledgeable.”
Now, Elliott and Davis are teaching the next generation. For Elliott, the next generation means his current safety counterpart, sophomore Brandon Jones.
“I try to push him to stay in his playbook more,” Elliott said. “He’s catching along. He’s going to be a great player. Right now, he’s a good player but he has a lot to develop. Right now, I’m kind of pushing him a long in that way.”
“He’s strong, he can jump and do everything you want him to do,” Elliott would add.
The renewed focus and energy this year comes in response to poor performances last year. For most of last season, it seemed like whatever Clay Jennings then Vance Bedford then Charlie Strong tried did not work. This came as a surprise to a lot of Texas fans considering the strong year some members of the secondary had as true freshmen.
“The way we’ve been playing lately the last two years, it wasn’t up to standard,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t up to par. I feel like we shouldn’t be saying [DBU]. There are schools around the country playing better than us. They can say it. We aren’t up to that level yet. We’ve got to get up to that level.”
Texas definitely was not at that level last year. Games like Cal, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State among the other losses showed not only deficiencies in the game plan, but also in tackling and effort.
Safeties coach Craig Naivar, whose responsibility also includes the nickelbacks, is teaming with cornerbacks coach Jason Washington in order to bring the same style of play that earned Texas that moniker that Elliott would not repeat to the media.
Part of the change includes a more physical culture stemming from the top with head coach Tom Herman. Tackling was a major issue last season, so there has been a concerted effort to improve upon that. In the first few periods of practice, non-linemen practice a goal line scenario where the players are in tight spaces. The defender is charged with preventing the offensive player from gaining a couple yards to score.
“Practice like you play,” Davis said. “That’s how you want to go about it. In the game, you won’t be tagging people on the hip. You’re going to have to tackle. We work on tackling a lot. Those things are something that, as a defense, of course we missed some tackles last year, we’re working on that this year, a lot of tackling. We’re making huge strides as a defense.”
Naivar has already made a personal impact for his position group just in the way he coaches.
“I love it a lot,” Elliott said. “He keeps us on our toes at all times. When he brings the energy, we’re like ‘hold on, he’s got energy? We need to bring some energy too.’ I love that about him. He’s always in our faces.”
Elliott would later add more praise.
“He’s very passionate,” Elliott said. “I’m a passionate guy also. I just don’t want to let him down. If I let him down, I’m letting my boys down. That’s just something I don’t want to do at all. It’s not a fear thing. We’re not scared of him, we respect him.”
The passion Elliott possesses aligns with the passion Herman brings to the program. Elliott recounted how he met Herman on one of his first days at Texas with fellow juniors Malik Jefferson and Charles Omenihu.
Herman and Elliott “clicked” as soon as he stepped into his barren office.
“I wanted to see that grill, but I didn’t see it until later on.” Elliott said. “It went well. We just talked about what it was going to be like him being there and what standards he was going to have. He wanted to make sure he had people on the team who could lead this team and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
In his fifth year in the program, Davis is trying to make an impact at nickel. Some of Davis’ teammates might have left due to graduation or in the wake of the end of Mack Brown’s tenure and the beginning of Strong’s, but that thought never crossed Davis’ mind.
“I bleed burnt orange,” Davis said. “Regardless of the situation, I knew I was here to stay. I want to be the guy that overcame obstacles. Not many people can say they had three different head coaches and still able to succeed. You embrace things like that and embrace those types of opportunities to be able to meet a whole different staff and see the knowledge they have to bring to you.”
In order to bring out the best and to return Texas to DBU status, Davis follows a certain process to know where he needs to be. Herman and Naivar are working on the physical part, while Davis, Elliott and the rest of the defensive backs are working hard on the mental part.
“It’s pretty tough, but as long as you’re in the film room and you work with guys, like P.J. [Locke] is the other nickel, I definitely work hand in hand with him,” Davis said. “We literally talk routes out on film, like ‘what’d you do here, I would have done this here,’ things like that. That’s also where I feel like the defensive back unit is moving up. With that being said, safeties do the same thing, corners do the same thing as well.”
Not to say Elliott does not enjoy the physical part, as well as the boost it brings to the team.
“I always like to hit,” Elliott said. “I love it a lot. It brings the energy to the team. Once the pads pop, everybody is like ‘ok, it’s time to go.’”