Texas replaces three starting DBs from a 2007 defense that yielded a school record 277.8 passing ypg, and that may not be such a bad thing. Here’s how secondary coach Duane Akina sizes up his young troops following the first week of August camp.
First of all, they’re fast. Real fast.
“The first thing that jumps out at you is the team speed,” Akina noted. “We’ve got a lot of it.”
Second, the unit is dripping with so much raw talent that Akina likens the bunch to when safety Michale Huff (2005 Thorpe Award winner), Aaron Ross (2006 Thorpe Award winner and CB Cedric Griffin (All-Big 12) were freshmen.
“They all played at a young age,” Akina said, “and they grew up fast. They were fortunate to have had a front that could get after people. If somebody made a mistake, (DE) Cory Redding sometimes got home. If we can get four-man pressure, it will help us back there.”
The 2007 DBs virtually became the poster children for the program’s most porous unit, but fingers should equally have been pointed at not only an anemic pass rush but also out-of-position linebackers who yielded huge chunks of real estate to dink-and-dunk stuff underneath. Akina, of course, split time last season as defensive coordinator and DBs coach but is now focusing exclusively on the secondary. Akina has deflected media’s questions about his demotion, other than to accentuate the fact he now has more time to coach-up his young corners and safeties.
Right now, the starting lineup shapes up as senior incumbent Ryan Palmer and junior Deon Beasley at the corners while a pair of RS-freshmen, Earl Thomas and Ben Wells, holding down the safeties position. True freshman S Blake Gideon appears to have worked himself into the rotation, opening with the Ones on Wednesday and then working behind Wells on Thursday. However, Thomas appears to be a lock and should be the next big thing in the Texas secondary.
“It’s too early for us to tell who’s going to be the guy,” Akina said. “That’s why you’re seeing a lot of combinations out there. We’re looking for the right mix and we want players to understand that everything’s up for grabs. You can’t relax out there. You still have to play with great confidence and produce.”
Palmer, of course, is the only returning starter from last year’s bunch. What the fifth-year player lacks in stature (5-10, 185), he compensates with swagger. And what Thomas lacks in experience, he atones with a combination of unflinching focus and jaw-dropping aggression. Thomas just looks different from the shy kid recruited out of West Orange Stark two years ago. He’s added 10 pounds of muscle and now weighs in at 5-10, 195. He’s let his hair grow out a bit, gold-frosting some of the tips so that (intentional or not) Thomas reminds folks of Cedric Griffin in more ways than one.
“If I could relate anybody to Earl, it’s Cedric Griffin,” Akina continued. “They both have tremendous passion for the game. If you watch Earl practice, you’ll think ‘Ced’. Earl’s tremendous physical and mental toughness are the first things you see. Much like the great ones I’ve had, he’s got a burning desire to be a great player.”
Texas strapped-on full pads for the first time Friday while Saturday represented the first true two-a-day of August camp. For now, Akina’s primary concern is his how youthful charges will react when the bullets fly on game day.
“The maturity level is always your Number One concern. How are they going to react under pressure? How are they going to react in tough situations? How are they going to react when a negative play happens? How are they going to react after a positive play? There are still a lot of things we’ve got to find out, personality-wise. But we do know we have a lot of guys who run, jump, turn their hips and they’re all very eager to learn. You’ve got to understand what they know, not just what you know. We’ve got to find out who we can give a lot of information to, and who are the ones that we can just line up and sic ’em.”