Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) celebrates a touchdown pass to wide receiver Dede Westbrook (11) with teammate Dimitri Flowers (36) and Texas defensive end Breckyn Hager (44) looking on during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Dallas Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016. Oklahoma won 45-40. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Brian Davis

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Eyes on Texas: Want to live dangerously? Try playing corner in the Big 12

Longhorns mix, match personnel in the defensive backfield trying to find the right combination that clicks

Posted October 20th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • Cornerbacks Kris Boyd, John Bonney started against Iowa State and did well.
  • Safeties Jason Hall, Dylan Haines have been in and out of the lineup.
  • Longhorns allowing 278.5 passing yards per game, the highest total in the Big 12.

The overwhelming majority of people reading this sentence have never lined up against a receiver with 4.4 speed, backpedaled out of their stance, flipped their hips and run downfield step for step to knock the ball away and prevent a touchdown.

Try that in front of 100,000 screaming fans, with a few million more watching on TV.

“I don’t think it’s for everyone,” Texas cornerback John Bonney said, “or else everybody would be doing it.”

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Defensive backs, especially those toiling in the Big 12, have an extraordinarily difficult job. The rules favor the offense, spread strategies exploit defensive weaknesses, and the general rule of thumb whenever a corner gets beat is to yell, “Get him outta there!”

Texas corner Devante Davis loses a touchdown against California's Jordan Veasy during the first half of a NCAA college football game, Saturday, September 17, 2016 at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas corner Devante Davis loses a touchdown against California’s Jordan Veasy during the first half of a NCAA college football game, Saturday, September 17, 2016 at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, California. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Longhorns have tried various personnel combinations in the secondary this season. It’s hard to tell if any are working, as UT allows a league-high 278.5 passing yards per game. The Horns have allowed 15 passing touchdowns, tied for the second-highest total as well.

Davante Davis and Holton Hill were arguably two of the team’s best defensive players last season. This year, they’ve practically disappeared.

Oklahoma’s Dede Westbrook blew past Davis for a 71-yard touchdown catch. Then Westbrook put a double move on Hill to get loose and catch a 42-yarder.

Those two haven’t been the only guilty parties. Texas coaches benched veteran safeties Jason Hall and Dylan Haines against Oklahoma State. They inserted sophomore DeShon Elliott and freshman Brandon Jones. After OSU went up 14-0, Hall and Haines were back in the game.

Last Saturday against Iowa State, Texas tried sophomores Kris Boyd and John Bonney along with Hall and Haines. That combination clicked. Boyd made two heady plays, and Bonney had six tackles. It seems like a smart decision to try those four again Saturday at Kansas State.

“Before the game, I got all the DBs together and said, ‘Guys, what we have to make these teams do is try to nickel and dime us,’” Haines said. “When offenses do that, they’ll get frustrated and they’ll want to take a deep shot or want to do something outside of themselves, and that’s when we can steal a play.”

Oklahoma State receiver Jalen McCleskey (1) scores against the Texas Longhorns on October 1, 2016 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The Cowboys defeated the Longhorns 49-31. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)
Oklahoma State receiver Jalen McCleskey (1) scores against the Texas Longhorns on October 1, 2016 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The Cowboys defeated the Longhorns 49-31. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)

Prior to the snap, Boyd and Bonney would give the Iowa State receivers some extra cushion. Cal’s Chad Hansen, Oklahoma State’s Jalen McCleskey and Westbrook all scored by running past UT defenders and catching touchdowns. Just one or two extra steps make all the difference.

Several defensive players said it helped wearing wristbands with the play calls against Iowa State. Players can look for a certain signal, then glance at their wristbands to see the coverage.

Strong wore a wristband the side of an iPad Mini. Hey, whatever it takes at this point.

All receivers have a certain mindset. Texas receivers do, too. As freshmen Devin Duvernay said this week, “I don’t think anyone can cover me.”

That’s great on offense. But it takes a certain mental makeup to guard these folks, too.

“I know sometimes last year I struggled, but I definitely wanted to work hard and prove not only to the coaches but to myself that I can come out here and compete and play well in college football and the Big 12,” Bonney said. “For me, it’s been a grind to continue to get better with my craft.”

Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who ceded play-calling duties to coach Charlie Strong, has been working extensively with the defensive backs. Remember, Bedford was a standout corner during his time as a player with the Longhorns. Bedford would be the first to admit playing cornerback is all about attitude and confidence.

It’s obvious Boyd has plenty of confidence.

“There are very few people who can just talk and talk and talk but can smack you and go make a play on the ball,” defensive end Breckyn Hager said. “Kris is something special.”

Davis and Hill need to rediscover theirs.

If the Horns can keep from getting beat deep and make offenses “nickel and dime” them, as Haines said, there’s a strong chance the defense would improve tremendously.

“At the end of the day, you want to get back to something you’re comfortable with,” Haines said. “That’s different for different players.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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