Inside the Class of ’08: D.J. Monroe

Inside Texas offers a free preview of the Inside the Class feature with the eleventh in the daily series of interviews and photo essays on members of the Longhorn Class of ’08: D.J. Monroe.
D.J. Monroe Cornerback Angleton 5-9/165/4.40 National Rank at CB: 21 Overall State Rank: 36 Star Rating: ****

An Inside Texas conversation with Angleton head coach Finis Vanover on D.J. Monroe:

Inside Texas: What is it that made D.J. such a highly sought-after prospect?

Finis Vanover: Everyone knows about his physical abilities and his capabilities athletically, as far as his world-class sprinter speed. Anybody that runs in the 10.2s from his sophomore year in high school on is legitimate and he’s done it numerous times. What everyone apparently didn’t realize is how physical he is and how strong and how physically tough he is. For a kid of that type, a thoroughbred-type person, a world-class sprinter type person, they don’t usually have those physical characteristics. D.J. stayed angry with me all the time if I subbed him out of a game; he did not like to come out of the game. He thought he was supposed to play every down. He’s that ol’ throwback-type mentality, which is great, but as a coach you have to rest him somewhere. Going into his senior year, I promised him we’d leave him out there as long as he could stand, and return all kicks and play defense, and he averaged about 114 snaps a game for us. That’s pretty impressive right there. So from a coach’s standpoint, the most impressive thing was how well he played physically with great speed and incredible strength for his size. The things he was able to do – he catches so well, he covers so well, he fields kicks so well, he carries the ball, he blocks, he does the things that most teams have four or five guys to do, and here’s a kid with world-class talent who’s willing and capable of doing all of the above and is a great, vicious tackler. He’ll strike you like crazy. I think those things impressed the people in San Antonio (at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl) so much during their practice sessions as well as two or three plays in that ball game. His look is misleading to the way he plays. He plays big and strong and heavy and physical. What I always liked was he was so coachable. He loves to be coached. He loves to be at practice. He loves to work out. He has fun. He’s always jabbering and talking and he’s the most intensely competitive young kid I’ve ever seen… he hates to lose, he can’t stand to lose in a drill out here, he can’t stand to lose a contest in the weight room and not be the No. 1 guy on the board. It’s not about ego, it’s an incredible competitive spirit like you don’t see very often. And he’s able to focus it and channel it and it’s done in the right manner and that’s one of the most impressive things about him, how he handles himself knowing how good he really is… he’s as confident as any human being because he can do those things better than anybody out there and it infuriates him if he doesn’t perform that way. He loves to be that person in that spot. All those things we teach about wanting to be the guy, you got to play like you want this play to be yours, that you’re going to make the game winner, and he does that all the time. It just comes naturally to him. And he’s that way in everything. And sometimes you gotta watch that, because a kid like that will hurt themselves. He plays that physical and he doesn’t have a 200-pound frame. You gotta be careful. He has a tremendous pain tolerance that you have to be very wary of because you won’t know something is wrong because he’s not going to let you know yet he’s still able to function and perform at a level that you don’t really notice because he’s still so far and above everybody else. I know that’s going to change a little bit when he gets to the next level because there’s going to be a lot of people that talented too but I’m telling you it’s only going to bring more out of him. That’s what I’m excited about; I don’t think people truly understand what they’ve got here. He’s an athlete and a person of legendary caliber. I really believe that. We haven’t seen the best stuff yet. IT: What all did D.J. do for you guys?

Vanover: He started at free safety for us, he returned all the kicks…with all the spread offenses, we went to two safeties, we had Quandre (Diggs; see Feb. 22 Inside Scoop) on one side and he’d play the other… started at tailback. When we subbed at tailback we’d usually slide him to flanker. He was the leading rusher, he was the leading receiver, he was the leading tackler, led the district in kick returns of all types two years in a row, interceptions, he’s the most incredible breaking cover guy, he’s got great, great hands. What I heard when I got here is well, ‘He’s one of those world class track guys who plays a little football, too’… But he’s a world-class football player who’s also very good at track. He’s got hips… ‘He was the typical straight line track guy, doesn’t like contact,’ that was the deal when I got here and I was so flabbergasted, he had eight offensive touches as a sophomore. He had just won the state 100-meter dash and he had eight touches on offense! … That’s not the way I was trained, so I said, ‘Son, how ‘bout like 40 or 50 touches a game, in every way possible?’ He said, ‘Yeah, they used to always put me out at wide receiver and I’d run decoy routes or threw a bomb to me and I played a lot on defense.’ He said, ‘I love cover corner.’ And I said, ‘I understand that.’ So we started right off the bat, he went from eight offensive touches and I think 48 tackles, 4 or 5 interceptions, to 197 carries, 18 pass receptions, 79 tackles, 5 interceptions, MVP in the league as a junior… Then on a very average team, to do what he did again this year, is just amazing, and that’s what impressed so many people. That was a great measuring stick. A lot of them won’t respond, not only physically but attitude-wise or mentally they just fold up or they go sour or they go off and go crazy. He never broke and there were times that he took a brutal pounding that he didn’t get the year before… but he never winced, he never broke, never changed, so that shows me a whole lot. There’s things in there that people don’t see or know yet because they hadn’t witnessed that part of him. When he was put into the showcase position, ‘Son, there it is,’ he would never look to the sideline. He didn’t want out. That’s what he’s done for us. Everybody you talk to talks about what an incredible personality and how fun he is to be around. He’d just as soon be out there fishing as doing anything else and talking all about it. He and I have a running competition about who is catching the biggest or most red fish every weekend. He’s a unique kid. He’s one of those rare special ones that you get every eight or 10 or 12 or 15 years, or in a career. We’ve been lucky enough to have four or five of them over 30 years, but D.J. is right there at the top of all of them because he has that world class speed and what makes him special is he has all of it, he catches great, he blocks great, he’s physically powerful, he’s a world-class sprinter, he can outrun most mistakes, he covers well, he has natural assets. The biggest quandary they’ve got is what they’re going to do with him, but now that Jamaal (Charles) has opted to come out, they’re shifting gears big-time, now they know how many ways he can score points as opposed to covering someone else’s receiver. ‘Well, let’s think about this now.’ I talked to coach (Mac) McWhorter this morning and coach (Mack) Brown last week and when they finished his visit, they told him the same thing, ‘We’re pretty much convinced we’re moving you back over on the offensive side because there are so many things you can do, like Quan Cosby-type.’ He can throw a ball 85 yards on a rope. He’s just like Quan. He’s so talented, so many things you can do with him. I personally hope they consider him as a Quan-type person and play him kick returns, offense, put him at the slot, let him carry the ball, let him catch the ball because he can do so many things. He proved in San Antonio he can cover anybody’s receivers but you’re going to have 12 or 15 big plays in the game there. Well, how about let him have 60 big plays. I think they’ve really shifted gears and started looking at him with a different set of eyes.

IT: D.J. told us he likes to hit, but the surprising thing to me about his play in San Antonio was how physical he was…

Vanover: He is active, active, active, and has incredible instincts. He’s got vision, all those intangible deals. I always had so much fun talking to him Saturday morning or in preparation during the week, him telling you what was giving things away. We’re sitting here spending 14 hours on Saturday trying to come up with that stuff as grown men and he’s 17 and telling all the rest of the guys during the game, from back at safety, ‘Watch that tackle, every time he does such-and-such, they’re running this play.’ That’s amazing to me because you don’t get a lot of that anymore. They don’t study, they’re doing Xbox, they’re not doing that kind of stuff. He understands it.

IT: What did the Texas coaches tell you that they really liked about him?

Vanover: The physical toughness, the way he carried himself, the way they saw him close and react and cover physically, and all the reports from the (U.S. Army) practices on how physical he was at the practices, and his enthusiasm and excitement and the way he constantly wanted to match up against the best people. And when he did it in the game and showed so much versatility at doing all those things, going down on those kicks, making the break on that pass on the first pass of the game, his leaping ability. He can jump over that door; it’s amazing. It goes back to how strong he is. It’s misleading when you look at he’s 170 pounds and wiry as heck, but he’s a 350-pound free weight bench presser. He does provide a whole lot of threat. He will not shy from contact… And he’s been so exposed to that incredibly high level of national track stuff traveling all over the world flying to meets, he’s not awed by anything. IT: Has that given him a maturity that some others may not have?

Vanover: It has. I’m totally sold that because of his exposure to that type of thing and that type of atmosphere. He’s done training with Carl Lewis… He’s been exposed to a high level of competition since a very young age and I think it makes all the difference in the world.

IT: From what you said, he was called on to do an awful lot for you guys this year. How did he handle that from a leadership perspective?

Vanover: He has those innate characteristics of a great leader. He’s not the loud, boisterous (type). There were a couple of times he excused us from the (lockerroom), ‘I need to say something to these guys,’ and we let him have his way with them. He has that presence… He leads by example. It’s like he’s been there before. You don’t see 47 different dances, never drew an unsportsman, none of that kind of stuff, and those young guys watch that… It just fuels the fire and everybody feeds off of it. When it’s time to get loud and boisterous he can and does but most of the time he’s very loose and laughing and joking, but when it’s his turn, it’s wide open and it’s done correctly and if it’s not done correctly, you don’t have to get on him hard because he’s harder on himself that anybody else would ever think about because of his competitive nature and that’s his greatest leadership quality. And the fact that he’s always here, never misses, never misses. In today’s high school sports that’s probably he most impressive thing because most of the good ones think they have a right to miss. His right was to be here every day to make sure everybody else was. That’s what makes him special.

IT: What does D.J. need to improve on to be successful at the college level?

Vanover: He’s got to grow, get his body bigger, physical stature. That’s going to come with age and maturity and focusing on the one major thing in his life at that time, football. But I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see him slip off and run a couple of track meets because he’s that good. But he’s going to have to get his body bigger to withstand the rigors of that type of pounding, depending on what he ends up playing… I watched Quan all through high school and he was so physically dominant and superior to everybody he was the reason they won everything, and then went on to baseball career, and now he’s totally different. He’s built his body now to withstand the rigors of the level where he is. Well, D.J.’s going to have to do that. As far as the rest of it, he’s the most complete – I’ve had four in 32 years that can operate at that level and still have more to go to where they’re going to shine, but there’s no shortcomings. That’s what’s so exciting. There’s just no telling where it’s going to go with the rate of which he’ll be improved from those guys and their ability to train them and everything else. As far as needing to work on anything, no, other than just getting his body shaped to withstand the rigors of that level, but the rest of it, I tell you, they are going to be totally and completely shocked on his knowledge of plays, his ability to two-train, he knows what’s going on with his body all the time, his body understands training and that comes from track and hanging out with those elite (athletes). He’s got an edge there on a lot of folks. He’s got an edge on a lot of folks with his 10.2 speed. It’s hard to improve on that. He’s got an edge on folks because of how powerful he is. It’s in a small package so he’s got to improve the size of that package. His ability to see and understand, I don’t know how it can get any better. He’s got it. He understands. He has those things. He is the most total, complete package when it comes to that that I’ve ever coached, and one of the best three of having those things where you’re not going to be able to improve upon. It’s better than everybody’s and it will be better than everybody’s four years from now because he’s going to improve at a rate, too, and improve and grow and they’re not going to gain on him. Other than his body size, they’re getting the most complete package that you could possibly imagine.

IT: What’s D.J. doing during the off-season to come into Austin prepared to play?

Vanover: We do a great job here with our strength and speed development, very similar to the program that Maddog and those guys implement with the explosive power training and the speed training. Our track program is an extension of football. If they play a skill position, it’s not optional, they run track or they’re not going to play for me. Running and jumping is the basis for everything. And if you can do it more powerfully than everybody else then you’ve really done something. They’ll be doing explosive lifting, explosive jumping and speed training from here till May 28 when he graduates and the next Monday he’ll report to Austin for summer school… I think they’re going to be thrilled with the package they receive, they just have to put some Longhorn refinements and get out of the way and watch him perform because it’s that rare of a deal.

IT: Is there a moment or a play or a game that exemplifies D.J.’s high school career?

Vanover: His junior year, we were still trying to get the pieces together, and they had had an incredible team here, an incredible array of talent, 29 seniors in that group, 19 of them were starters and they were big time performers in multiple sports, nine signed athletic scholarships in football, basketball and track, and then we went to 22-23 seniors that had watched those guys play basically their whole career… That first year we were struggling at the very beginning with the quarterback situation and trying to get some people in the right spots, we opened up district play with Dickinson and he broke out that night with 326 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns and an interception return and made about 10 tackles and got very loud and mean at halftime. He broke one and scored for about 29 yards on the last tick of the clock at halftime to tie it up at 21-21 and we went in the lockerroom and he held court. He stood up that night and got after them and demanded some excellence from some other people.

IT: And that was on a senior-laden team, and he was a junior?

Vanover: That’s right. He was still a junior at that time, and I knew at that time, ‘Oh boy!’ We came back the next weekend and played Friendswood, which was just loaded, and he came back with his second 300-plus yard performance and we beat them 30-29, and the winning points came when he intercepts a two-point conversion pass and goes back 106 yards and we win 30-29. And he blocked an extra point in the first half. Those were plays that high school kids usually take off. A lot of prima donnas want to come out and let the kicking teams handle it. We had him on the edge trying to block kicks or if there’s a wide receiver on his side cover him… Those probably stick out more than anything and then how he handled this year, when even those guys were gone and he was surrounded by nothing but sophomores and juniors who had played nothing but sub-varsity ball and how he handled that… His ability to make things happen in the toughest situations in big games is probably the most impressive thing… To be able to do that and still play like he did on defense, recklessly and physically and with the leaping skills and the coverage skills but it always amazed me because all I ever heard about was, ‘He’s a great cover corner.’ Boys, this kid can score points from a 100 different positions on offense. Somebody needs to talk about his prowess as an offensive player… If they make one mistake, he scores. It’s over. Because they can’t catch him.

IT: How would you describe D.J.’s personality?

Vanover: He’s fun. He’s a joy. Everybody likes him, teachers like him, kids like him, other parents like him. I took him to the Rotary Club the other day, told him he needed to show up and make sure you have your jersey from the All-American Bowl, and he had to give a five-minute impromptu speech… He went out there in front of all the doctors and lawyers and business leaders in town and he just wowed ‘em. They started asking questions and he had ‘em laughing and chuckling. My superintendent got three calls from business leaders in town, the vice president of Dow Chemical called and said, ‘You’ve got a rare thing. We enjoyed that. Your boy did a remarkable job and didn’t get embarrassed and has the neatest personality.’ That part speaks for itself.

IT: Anything else you’d like to add about D.J. that we didn’t already cover?

Vanover: He’s the finished product and he’s earned the right and deserves this right and privilege of what he’s attained because of his efforts for us. I truly think he may have one of the most remarkable… I think if he stays healthy… I think he may be in for the most incredible track performances that anybody’s seen in a long time. He’s in great shape, he’s relaxed and he’s working like a fiend. I’d like to see him get in that real rare air of 10.19. Not many kids can say they go to the state track meet, sign with the University of Texas in football, make all-state, play in the All-American game… and run Olympic-type speed in the 100-meter dash and medal in four state track meets. And there’s not a kid more deserving of it and handles it better. I think the people in Austin are going to be as proud of that as anything. I think it’ll be a great joy watching him perform at that level. UT Signing Day Bio: Prep All-American and all-state selection … versatile two-sport letterman who was an offensive, defensive and special teams standout … played in the 2008 U.S. Army All-American Bowl and earned the Fastest Player award … ranked as the fifth-best defensive back in the nation by Rivals and is a member of Rivals top 100 national prospects … tabbed the state’s No. 2 cornerback by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football … a first-team member of Dave Campbell’s Super Team … three-time 23-4A all-district selection on offense … multi-purpose threat on both sides of the ball … tallied 2,745 all-purpose yards (2,093 rushing/252 receiving/210 PR/190 KR), 27 TDs, 173 tackles and eight INTs in his final two seasons … named first-team 4A all-state in the secondary and as a kick returner by the Texas Sports Writers Association as a senior … also earned second-team 4A all-state honors from The Associated Press … named all-district co-Offensive MVP and Special Teams Player of the Year … a Texas High School Coaches Association All-Star … rushed 154 times for 864 yards (5.6 ypc) and 10 TDs and caught eight passes for 128 yards (16.0 ypc) and a TD … returned seven kickoffs for 190 yards (27.1 ypr) and three TDs and eight punts for 210 yards (26.3 ypr) … also recorded 97 tackles and two INTs … earned all-district honors and was voted district MVP as a junior … rushed for 1,229 yards and 11 TDs on 167 carries (7.4 ypc) and made five catches for 124 yards (24.8 ypc) and two TDs … also posted 76 tackles and six INTs, including one for a TD … garnered first-team all-district 24-4A honors at receiver and second-team honors at defensive back as a sophomore … tallied six TDs on offense while posting 86 tackles, six forced fumbles and two INTs on defense … also a three-year letterwinner in track and field … won the 2006 4A state championship in the 100 meters (10.45) and finished seventh in 2007 (10.97) … holds a personal best in the 100 meters of 10.31 … three-year regional qualifier in the 100 meters … Born 7/9/89 in Angleton, Texas … full name is Donald O’Neal Monroe Jr. … prep honor roll student … active in community service … participated in PALs, a group that provides mentoring to elementary and junior high students … cousin, Ahmard Hall, played fullback at Texas (2003-05) and currently plays for the Tennessee Titans … enjoys fishing. All photos: Will Gallagher/Inside Texas