FootballFootball Recruiting

Inside the Gameplan: Fitting the 2018 defensive back class together

Caden Sterns (Justin Wells/IT)
Caden Sterns (Justin Wells/IT)

The 2015 recruiting class was one of the most athletic collections of defensive players that the Longhorns had signed in this decade. Malik Jefferson headlined the group and was joined, by order of 247 ranking, Anthony Wheeler, Holton Hill, Kris Boyd, DeShon Elliott, Davante Davis, P.J. Locke, and Breckyn Hager to round out their defensive backfield class. Now in year three we are finally seeing how the pieces fit together.

Jefferson was always the linchpin who’s superior athleticism and potential needed to be harnessed and directed in order to create an orbit for the other players to spin around. We’ve talked about the search for his role ad nauseam over the last three years, we’ll see if Todd Orlando can help him figure it out or not.

Otherwise things have gone predictably with Hill and Boyd locking down the cornerback positions, Elliott working his way to the top of the safety depth chart, Davis backing up Boyd and Hill, Locke edging out the third corner by owning the demanding nickel job, and Hager fitting in here and there as a disruptive berserker. The next two years will hopefully include Malik and Hager nailing down their roles and setting the stage for the whole unit to put together some more top 10 type seasons to help 2011 and 2014 redeem a decade of otherwise horrible defense.

The next two years will also hopefully include Orlando and the staff working out how to piece together this masterpiece defensive class that they are assembling for February of 2018. Here’s what our own Eric Nahlin is suggesting Texas will sign compared to the 2015 class per 247 composite rankings:

2018 vs 2015

The key in 2015 was where Malik would fit and also how the different DBs signed were going to fall into place. As it turned out, P.J. Locke’s love of “the process” allowed him to take over the nickel position, which has a lot on its plate in terms of assignments and requirements, leaving only two cornerback slots for three prospects. Texas could have sought to get Davis or perhaps Boyd on the field at safety but their upside at cornerback and safeties from other classes have conspired to keep one of them out of the starting lineup, presumably Davis.

The flaw you can observe in our chart above is that it doesn’t really describe established skill sets. High school players are typically treated like coloring book pictures with their particular movement skills serving as the outline of the painting, simply waiting to be filled in with the color of college development. Malik Jefferson’s movement skills were and are off the chart, there is very little that he cannot do with tremendous quickness, but that doesn’t get into his comfort zones or his developed skills.

It was assumed that the drawing was of a hybrid linebacker that could do anything but the outline waiting to be colored in was of a player who’s comfort zone in high school was hanging out on the edge outside of a DL, free to diagnose plays and pursue the ball sideline to sideline without resistance. When he’s been given assignments of that nature at Texas, such as playing as a spy or “pseudo dime” he’s shown the brilliance everyone expected.

For the 2018 class to result in a defense three years from now that is utterly dominant on the field, in accordance with their high rankings, the skill sets all need to be identified, developed, and fit together or the picture isn’t going to appear as we expected when color is added.

Anthony Cook
Cook’s lofty ranking is easily justified when you consider his measurables (brilliant athlete, 6’1” frame) combined with film that shows a comfort level with playing some pattern-matching zone. It’s a difficult skill to learn how to match a receiver in coverage while keeping eyes on the route distributions and the QB’s eyes and Cook already brings that to the table along with athleticism and a frame that speak of major development yet to come.

He reminds me of Aaron Colvin and probably fits easily as a cornerback in just about any scheme with a floor as a field corner that college QBs would rather not test.

B.J. Foster
Foster is the kind of guy that can make evaluators look bad in retrospect because his position in high school is “go win the game” and his college future is probably going to feature major leaps in skill development as he zeroes in on a single position. Because he’s one of the best athletes in the country it seems a straightforward manner to say “okay, he’ll go play safety and then he’ll learn whatever he needs to use his athleticism to dominate that position.”

Well, hopefully it works out that way but it’s probably a good idea to examine his current safety film to learn something about his comfort zone and the kinds of roles he thrives in. Fortunately there’s a fair amount on there of him executing a variety of roles with an apparent effortlessness. He doesn’t always play particularly fast in terms of diagnosing plays and attacking but instead will tend to sit on plays for a beat before using his superior speed to close once he’s determined where the ball is going. He’ll learn to play faster as he focuses on DB but his current style of play suggests he’ll probably be at his best deep off the ball and using his speed to arrive in clean-up duty or keeping things safe over the top.

Caden Sterns
I broke down Sterns more carefully a few weeks ago after Herman snatched him out of LSU’s clutches in a statement commitment. He’s really strong picking up receivers down the field and closing ground to make tackles. Sterns diagnoses and plays a bit faster than Foster and has a similar willingness to lay the wood when he arrives but he’s a slower athlete overall. The staff plans to start him at cornerback where his length and hips could make him a really good press corner, even if he’s not brilliant in that role he’s likely to learn skills that could suit him well if he later moved inside to play as a safety, nickel, or dime.

Sterns is a nice grab in that he is such a versatile athlete with a few established skills already in his tool belt that could allow him to defer to players like Foster and develop to fit in roles as needed. There’s some Kenny Vaccaro to his game.

Jalen Green
Green is the Kris Boyd of this class, he plays some as a QB, WR, and CB in high school but has a clear upside as a press-corner in college. Eric likes him the best of any of these players because his frame, athleticism, and hands in press coverage suggest a pretty high ceiling.

The difference between Green and Cook is very similar to the differences between Boyd and Hill, where the latter two arrived in college already highly skilled in coverage whereas the former two are just pure athletes that might eventually surpass them pending how their development progresses.

I think Green’s physical dominance and less established skill portends a future as a corner that usually has simple assignments to lock up opponents in man coverage. He doesn’t have an obvious fit at any other positions so he may spend a year or so stewing in the crockpot while learning the trade, depth chart permitting.

Demarvion Overshown. (Justin Wells/IT)
Demarvion Overshown. (Justin Wells/IT)

Demarvion Overshown
Overshown is the linchpin of this group and his future is going to dictate a lot in terms of where everyone else fits, despite his current status as the fifth highest ranking player in the group. The truth is that Overshown probably has a higher ceiling than most anyone else in the class simply because of his rare combination of size, aggression, and athleticism. He’s a throwback to players like OU’s Roy Williams or perhaps Kam Chancellor, guys that just lurk in the middle of the field and make offenses consider whether this Saturday it might be safer to live outside of the hash marks.

The problem with Overshown is whether he’ll find a role that unleashes his potential, much like Malik Jefferson his current assignment doesn’t necessarily exist in a college scheme. His current assignment is to play as a sort of robber in the middle of the field, serving as a free hitter and extra man against the run or pass.

Orlando’s closest approximation of that role is the boundary safety position which is usually freed up to do some similar things. There’s also the obvious potential that Overshown will maintain his current movement skills while ballooning to 230 pounds and be an intriguing prospect for the rover linebacker position.

Overshown reads plays very quickly and flies to the ball, which suggests he may be able to process action in the box quickly enough to to move closer to the trenches. He’d also be a major plus in coverage at that position with his ability to drop deep and use his length and lateral quickness to get into passing windows. For this to work out though he’d have to learn to read keys in the box, blitz (probably wouldn’t be an issue), and maintain his love of collisions when operating with less momentum and against people that are looking for the clash.

Ayodele Adeoye
Adeoye is a plugger all the way, an obvious fit at Mac linebacker who has both the physical and mental skills to read the triangle, find the ball, and build up enough force to beat blocks and knock people down in just a few steps.

He’s a very close approximation of what Orlando had in Houston with Elandon Roberts or Matthew Adams, a guy that can blow up blocks and plug the A-gaps, spilling the ball outside to LB pursuit or all of these lightning quick DBs. He’s also quick enough to scrape and serve as a good pursuit player and should be solid on the blitz as well. Adeoye makes things really simple for Texas and frees up Orlando to chase athletic, developmental projects with his other LB scholarships. Texas should take an Adeoye every other year.

D’Shawn Jamison
Jamison has been my favorite player in this class for a while now because I have such fond memories of watching similar players like Tyrann Mathieu, Lamarcus Joyner, or Quandre Diggs dominate over the last half decade.

I think he’s at his best operating on the perimeter with open grass to either side of him, erasing quick game routes, attacking the edge in the run game or on the blitz, and occasionally serving as a third corner carrying receivers on vertical routes. The best nickels in today’s game are the guys that are physical enough to be impact players off the edge but who don’t have to be protected in coverage and that’s Jamison in a nutshell.

Byron Hobbs
Hobbs is a super fluid athlete with some real short area explosiveness and a frame that could end up filling out in an impressive fashion after a few years of college S&C. He could end up at rover but he’s probably a B-backer long term that can mix playing on the edge and battling OL with dropping into the flat or over a slot in limited space while other players blitz.

How do these pieces fit together?
How things shake out depends largely on where Overshown ends up. If he remains at safety he’ll probably fit in the boundary:

overshown safety

Texas would want to lean on the quarters coverages that Orlando used at Houston with Overshown in that position so he’d be free to move around as an extra man and free hitter against the run or pass. I have Jalen Green next to him on the boundary locking that receiver down in man coverage to enable his freedom…perhaps Anthony Cook could end up in that role but I have Cook out to the field where he’d be executing pattern-matching schemes with some combination of Foster, Jamison, and Sterns.
The other possible future is the one where Overshown ends up as a pseudo dime/Rover hybrid…

overshown rover

Not only does this make room for everyone to easily find roles that match their likely developmental curves, but it also opens up a world of crazy possibilities if Overshown can add an inside linebacker’s skill set to his existing abilities as a safety. In particular, if he can drop into deep coverage from that position then Texas’ pre-snap defense becomes a world of horrifying disorder that opposing QBs could never effectively suss out. He could conceivably rotate after the snap and replace almost all of the surrounding players in their standard roles in the base defense. For instance…

overshown play

If Overshown can drop into a deep coverage assignment while sharing the field with three other rangy safeties in Sterns, Foster, and Jamison then just about anyone could end up anywhere as they’d all be fairly interchangeable, especially in fire zone blitzes in which things are simplified to matchup coverage. Essentially Texas would be putting five players on the field that could all theoretically matchup with an inside receiver surrounding the Mac linebacker and freeing that player to track the RB or blitz.
This is going to be a defensive class with a ton of athletic talent in it, even if they don’t finish as strong as they’ve started. If Orlando and Overshown are able to figure out how his unique abilities can anchor the unit then this group could finally realize the potential that recruiting rankings often see in Texas signees.

History major, football theorist.