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Texas’ defensive backs warmed up before the season-opener with Louisiana Tech wearing shirts reading “There’s only one DBU” in large, burnt orange letters. One week later, LSU and eventual Heisman winner Joe Burrow marched down the field over and over versus those same defensive backs. Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, TCU, and West Virginia followed in the Tigers’ footsteps as UT’s 8-5 season dragged on.
For a school that is one of many claimants of the title of “Defensive Back University,” Texas’ secondary play in 2019 offered little evidence to support that claim. The Longhorn defense was 127th out of 130 teams in passing yards allowed, 97th in total defense, 90th in passing efficiency defense, and added no defensive touchdowns in 13 games.
Several coaches responsible for that defensive product, Todd Orlando, Craig Naivar, and Jason Washington, won’t return as part of Tom Herman’s Texas staff in 2020. Chris Ash replaced Orlando as defensive coordinator and will coach safeties, while it was announced Monday that Jay Valai will coach cornerbacks.
Ash and Valai have an opportunity in 2020 to craft and coach a secondary worthy of those oft-disputed three letters and capable of lifting the Longhorns to another appearance in the Big 12 Championship.
“Growing up as a kid in Texas and watching Aaron Ross and Michael Huff and all these guys play, and being part of the culture that is Texas high school football, which is second to none, I’m just elated,” Valai said in a statement. “I’m beyond proud and blessed to be able to represent all of that every minute of every day and to be joining the staff at Texas.”
The ability of players like Jalen Green, Anthony Cook, and D’Shawn Jamison at corner and B.J. Foster, Caden Sterns, Chris Brown, and DeMarvion Overshown at safety coupled with Herman’s desire to put those players in a system that facilitates more playing than thinking offers Texas a better hope at a secondary that can navigate a through an offensively robust Big 12 schedule.
Few Texas staffs the decade prior made their defensive back rooms worthy of the DBU designation.
Now, Herman turns toward two coaches, one familiar and one unfamiliar, to bring the secondary play up to the level required of the complementary football he desires to Austin.
Valai’s resume includes operating his own sports-performance training facility, working under Kirby Smart during one of Georgia’s best seasons ever, a stop in the NFL as a quality control coach for the Kansas City Chiefs, and working for Ash this past season at Rutgers.
“Jay is a rising star in this profession,” Ash said via a statement. “He’s one of the best young coaches I’ve been around. He’s very passionate about football, a great relationship builder, takes great care of his players and is a tremendous recruiter.”
Ash has a more traditional coaching resume, working his way from Wisconsin assistant to Ohio State defensive coordinator to Rutgers head coach. His time at Wisconsin with Ash is where their relationship began, and that relationship led to his hire at Texas.
“Chris Ash coached him as a player, hired him as a coach and thinks the world of him,” Herman said of Valai. “I really enjoyed my time visiting with Jay and was really impressed by what he’ll bring to our program. We’re thrilled to add him to our staff.”
The most recent decade was an up-and-down time for the Texas secondary. Only eight defensive backs from Texas were drafted, with Kenny Vaccaro as the only first-round pick. In that same period, 14 LSU Tigers, 14 members of the Alabama Crimson Tide, and 12 Florida Gators heard their names called at the NFL Draft for their secondary play in college.
Only one Longhorn, DeShon Elliott, received the designation of Thorpe Award finalist in the 2010s.
Four different combinations of coaches instructed the secondary this decade. Duane Akina, often referred to by former Longhorns as the ‘dean of DBU,’ oversaw defensive backs until 2013. When Charlie Strong took over in 2014, the combination of Vance Bedford and Chris Vaughan coached the defensive backs until Vaughan’s dismissal following the 2015 season. Then, Clay Jennings and Bedford split the secondary responsibilities until both left following Strong’s dismissal. Their roles were overtaken by Naivar and Washington.
Ash and Valai have an opportunity to make a strong secondary out of the pieces brought in by the two previous secondary coaches.
Cook, Jamison, and Green all were top 120 players in the 247Sports Composite. Kenyatta Watson II, a promising member of the class of 2019, ranked 131 in the composite. Josh Thompson brings an additional veteran presence to the room.
That group accounted for three interceptions all year, with Jamison recording all three.
Sterns, Foster, and Overshown were in the composite top 50, with Sterns and Foster ranked as five-star prospects. Chris Adimora, Montrell Estell, and Tyler Owens all had brief flashes of quality safety play in the previous season.
All three members of the first group battled through nagging injuries in 2019, with each missing at least one third of the season.
They will have to work to accomplish plenty during an offseason install. There is a limited amount of crossover between Ash and Orlando.
In a simplified system, Herman hopes his secondary will play up to their lofty high school projections. It’s on Ash and Valai to develop them for the upcoming offseason.
Shirts won’t prove whether Texas has a DBU-level secondary in 2020, the on-field play will. Ash and Valai can offer more assistance to the Longhorn defense’ lofty pursuit than bold clothing choices.
If they want to get back to Arlington, they’ll need to.