BEVO BEAT Football

Dede Westbrook’s thankfully long gone, but the Texas secondary is eager for redemption

Posted October 10th, 2017

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Brandon Jones remembers being on the Cotton Bowl field last year against Oklahoma. Frankly, it was awful.

“Oh yeah, sadly,” the Texas safety said.

Jones was an overwhelmed freshman at the time. The Nacogdoches product had four tackles in his first Red River rivalry appearance. But mostly, he remembers the crimson blur that was Oklahoma receiver Dede Westbrook.

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There’s no gracious way to say it. Westbrook carved up the UT secondary. He caught touchdown passes from 71, 47 and 42 yards out en route to one of the best days in OU history. Westbrook finished with 10 catches for a school-record 232 yards in the Sooners’ 45-40 win.

“Dede’s a great player, and for me, being in that big of game, I was really nervous being my first time out there,” Jones said. “But I kind of got my feet under me after a while.”

Texas safety DeShon Elliott (4) makes his fifth interception of the season last Saturday against Kansas State. Nick Wagner/American-Statesman

Westbrook is now in Jacksonville, but he left quite an impression on the Texas secondary. The Longhorns are another year older and wiser. This unit fully knows what to expect from OU’s Baker Mayfield, a quarterback that keeps plays alive with his feet and always wants the home-run throw.

“When big plays do happen, we know how to respond,” said UT safety DeShon Elliott, who has five interceptions in the last three games. “They’re going to make plays. Just let it go, get it out of your head and move on.”

Mayfield and Westbrook did quite a number on this crew last year. Westbrook’s 72-yard catch-and-run was the longest scoring pass play in Texas-OU history.

It wasn’t just Westbrook, though. Several other OU receivers made big catches. Kris Boyd froze on a slant pattern, and OU’s Dahu Green made a 51-yard catch. UT cornerbacks Holton Hill and Davante Davis looked broken at times.

Every one of those UT defensive players will be back on the field Saturday for another crack at the crimson and cream.

“Baker’s a really good quarterback, a Heisman candidate, so we have to keep that in mind,” Jones said. “Overall, once he starts scrambling, the biggest thing for us is to just stay on our man. He can do a lot of things with his feet, and he can make really hard throws to some really good receivers.”

Said Elliott, “I know why he’s a top Heisman candidate because he can really play.”

So what’s changed? The unit is playing with far more confidence. Start with Elliott, who leads the country in interceptions at the moment. He’s the first Longhorn since Earl Thomas in 2009 to snag an interception in three consecutive games.

“Sometimes you fight the ball in the air or you miss it and it’s like, ‘Why didn’t you make that play?’” Orlando said prior to the K-State game. “But then all of a sudden you get one, then two and then suddenly you own the ball. I think that’s where he’s at right now.”

Heard anything about Holton Hill this season? Teams aren’t throwing his way that much after a red-hot start this season. Hill has returned two interceptions for touchdowns and scored a third on a blocked field goal. He needs only one more pick-six to tie Michael Huff for the UT career record.

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Texas cornerback Holton Hill and the Longhorns warm up before a game Thursday night against Iowa State in Ames, Iowa.

Huff had four during his prime from 2002-05 when the secondary was known as “DBU” — a platinum-level designation nobody talks about anymore due to the unit’s sporadic play in recent years.

Jones had a terrific game last Saturday against Kansas State. He set a new career high with 11 tackles. He’s now second on the team in tackles.

The secondary’s improved play is partially due to a better pass rush and emphasis on the run. Two of Elliott’s interceptions came on bad throws. All Elliott had to do was camp out and wait for the catch.

Texas (3-2, 2-0 Big 12) has the second-best run defense in the Big 12, allowing just 105.2 yards per game. Opponents are finding themselves in long second- and third-down situations. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will keep opponents guessing with multiple blitz looks. He puts a huge emphasis on tackles for loss and quarterback hurries.

“I think we’re doing a decent job on the back end with hiding coverages and covering guys as well to let us get to the quarterback,” Orlando said.

It’s difficult to hide from Mayfield, though. This time, the Longhorns are ready.

“In this game, one play can change the whole game around,” Elliott said. “Whether you make that play or don’t, that’s a big factor in the game.”

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

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