The most unsettled position on the Texas defense is safety, where at least six players are vying for starting jobs. However, according to defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, redshirt freshman Earl Thomas has been head and shoulders above the rest and should take one of the two starting spots.
It’s pretty much been a consensus between players and coaches.
When asked last December, between the end of the regular season and the Holiday Bowl, which young defender had impressed him most in practice, defensive end Brian Orakpo answered immediately.
“Earl Thomas,” said Orakpo. “He’s a hard worker. He’s quiet, but when he’s out there, he’s very passionate about the game.”
In spring ball, senior cornerback Ryan Palmer was blown away by the skills Thomas was showing in practice and the quick progress he’d made.
“He’s a guy that’s always to the ball and making plays when he’s supposed to,” said Palmer.
On Monday, the first day of August camp for the Texas Longhorns, defensive coordinator Will Muschamp heaped his praises upon Thomas as well.
“Earl is a very tough, physical player, he just hasn’t played a lot,” said Muschamp. “He’s an athletic guy. He’s a good safety. He’s a good cover in the slot guy as far as the nickel is concerned. He was a productive player for us as spring went along on the field and that’s something that jumps out at you after every practice.”
According to players and coaches, there’s little question about Thomas, which is good news for the Longhorns given that safety is a position where there are still plenty of questions. The only non-freshman safety on the roster is junior Ishie Oduegwu, meaning that young DBs, like Thomas, will need to step up in order for the Longhorns to restore their pass defense, which was ranked in the hundreds nationally last season.
As for who is going to start at the position, at least one spot has already been locked up.
“Earl Thomas and then really it’s a toss-up after that,” said Muschamp when asked about which safeties are separating themselves.
With the season fast approaching, the time frame for setting the depth chart is short and Muschamp knows it.
“The first scrimmage is August 12th. After that they’ve got to start dividing themselves,” said Muschamp. “We’ve got to have four in August and a fifth as a swing guy. We’ll target that date for us really getting our feet set in stone for what we’re really going to try to do.”
Vying for the other starting spot at safety will be Oduegwu, redshirt freshmen Christian Scott and Ben Wells, and true freshmen Nolan Brewster and Blake Gideon (and some other DBs like Aaron Williams could get moved to the position as well if necessary). Scott was one of the first winners of Muschamp’s “Hardhat Award” in the spring, which is given to players who bust their tails as well as lay down big hits in practice. Muschamp actually came up with the award while he was at Auburn.
“I was jogging one day and I saw a construction site and I saw the blue-collar attitude and these guys working a lot of hours…they bring their lunch pail to work every day and that’s the kind of attitude I want us to take,” said Muschamp.
Along with the “blue-collar” attitude Muschamp is instilling, the young players are also getting the benefit of a good amount of senior leadership on the defensive side of the ball. Muschamp mentioned Orakpo, Palmer, Rashad Bobino and Roy Miller as players who have shown a great football IQ and have taken to their leadership roles.
“Those senior guys have done a great job from a leadership standpoint, No. 1, and from a football retention standpoint of making the kids accountable for what we need to do,” said Muschamp.
Having leaders to aid in development is doubly important at the safety position because of the relative level of inexperience. However, Muschamp is very excited about the athleticism he has to work with.
“I like our speed,” said Muschamp. “The tools are there. I’d rather be working with this than a bunch of experienced guys who can’t play.”
And among those athletes, it seems the one he’s most excited about it Thomas.
“I’m looking forward to cutting him loose this fall,” said Muschamp.