We wrap up our look at the defense at a position where we have the most question marks: cornerback.
If you haven't read Longhorn Scott's post on Diaz's defense, do it now. What we're going to ask of our cornerbacks is slightly different from before and some of the characteristics that we used to almost singularly value (can we put this guy on an island with minimal responsibility and expectation of help?) will be blended with other considerations (understanding team coverage concepts, reliable tackling on underneath routes, pattern recognition). The Diaz defense is like a basketball defense where you have to trust that your teammates will switch and hedge correctly - it's not about you vs. receiver so much as team coverage vs. their routes.
The good news is that we have nine guys vying for two jobs (or three, if you include the nickel) and most of them are talented athletes, several with NFL potential. The bad news is that we have almost no experience, youngsters in the secondary don't mature in a predictable ways (remember when Michael Huff, Curtis Brown, Stanley Richard, and Cedric Griffin were fan whipping boys?) and they're going to be playing in new schemes in a league where they'll be facing the likes of Fuller, Broyles, Blackmon, Stills, and Moe. Not to mention an early baptism under fire against BYU.
Let's break up the corners into depth chart knowns:
Two guys in this latter group of five will playing safety by the end of summer camp and we'll see at least one redshirt.
First, the knowns (and that's a relative statement to say the least):
Adrian Phillips has been a favorite of mine since I saw his jack-of-all-trades high school film at Garland where he, not Tevin Jackson, was the best player on the field every week. He's physical (5-11, 195), has good quickness, ball skills, and he's a quick study. His speed is adequate but you won't mistake him for Sheroid Evans. He's a corner in the mold of OU's Derrick Strait - physical, competitive, adept at challenging receivers in their preferred spots. He's also a true sophomore and we're going to have to live with some growing pains there. Stick with him - he's going to be a player. He has the physical mentality to play safety as well (expect run support with gusto at corner) and that gives us some flexibility down the road if someone from the unknowns group proves to be a unique talent and post-Gideon graduation.
Carrington Byndom is a different body type from the powerfully built Phillips - he's a long corner with a lithe frame (6-0, 175). Think Curtis Brown less some quicks. He will stick his head in there though. No finesse mentality - the mind is willing even if the body is weak. Like a surprising number of the guys on this defense he's a bright guy and that should help his learning curve when he gets thrown into the fire. He's particularly good at going after a ball in the air. I expect strong, physical receivers to give him some trouble simply because of the strength disparity, but that will work itself out as he matures his way to 190+. Carrington Byndom has far too cool a name not to be good eventually, right?
AJ White looked to be a probable starter if you were predicting depth charts pre-Spring until Phillips and Byndom came on. That's more a credit to those two than a slight to White. The sophomore appeared in spot special duty last year and he's a scrappy competitor who, like Byndom, isn't afraid to put his head in there despite his slight build. He's listed at a hopeful 6-0 175, but I suspect he's more like 5-10, 170. AJ can run and he has good quickness but he can be posted up and muscled by bigger receivers. He doesn't have the power to get off of a strong receiver's hip on deep balls either. White will get much better as he matures physically and the battle at cornerback may not be conceded just yet.
It's funny to list a true freshman Quandre Diggs as a known, but his spring performance means that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. Quandre (5-10, 190) is built in the mold of Adrian Phillips - powerful, strong hips, ball skills, nasty disposition. Like Phillips he played the "Son, Just Win The Fucking Game" position in high school which included quarterback, receiver, kick returner, cornerback, safety, and probably nose tackle when required. He's quicker than fast, but he reaches his top speed in half the steps it takes striders. So his game speed is much better than his track times. Diggs' career will likely answer the question: What if Quan Cosby had played defensive back instead of receiver at Texas? Quandre is a true freshman and he's not playing Angleton's rivals anymore - expect a steep learning curve whether as our #3 CB, nickel, or anything else. He's physically ready for the college game, but skill, experience, and a polish all need to catch up.
Now, let's talk about the unknowns. Why would our coaches try guys who appear to have safety bodies - Evans, Jackson, Thompson - at cornerback first?
About 75% of the cornerbacks in the college game are under 6'. Of the 14 cornerbacks (or guys who played corner early in their career like Lott and Renfro) in the NFL Hall of Fame, exactly one of them is under 6 feet. Run that math. And, by the way, that midget is a veritable freak of nature: the Redskins' Darrell Green. Start to ponder the implications there and you realize that a player can be a very good cornerback at 5-9 or 5-10, but the ultimate determinant of greatness - all other things being equal - isn't another 1/10 of a second on your forty time - it's your size. A 6-2 guy who can play cornerback is gunpowder in the Bronze Age.
Freshman Sheroid Evans is the fastest guy on the team, but it's not clear if he has cornerback skills or where he is best suited. His injury history makes him a bit of a blank slate and we can project whatever we want on him. Huge upside obviously.
Bryant Jackson is our biggest corner prospect at 6-2, 190 and he has ball skills. Obviously, whether he can stick at cornerback will be determined by his ability to turn his hips and break on balls. He has good range and wingspan to cover a lot of ground. He's a redshirt freshman, still maturing physically (East Texas rule applies here) and it's not unreasonable to think that he can be a 6-2 205 pound free safety down the line. He will win more than his share of jump balls, but he needs to get stronger.
I expect Josh Turner to redshirt and to remain at cornerback for the time being. He needs strength and maturity.
Freshman Mykkele Thompson is nothing but upside - a dominant athlete on the field, an elite track competitor, smart, tough, great hands, still improving athletically, with a frame (6-2, 185) that defensive backfield coaches and wide receiver coaches fight staff civil wars for. Absolutely anything is possible for Mykkele and if he has the hips to play cornerback and can learn the nuances of the trade, he's sitting on a goldmine.
Freshman Leroy Scott is physically ready for the college game - he's a sturdy 5-10, 190 and likes physical play, but he has skillets for hands and he gives me the vibe of someone who matured early and has already maxed out a number of his physical attributes. We'll watch and see.
If any of the five youngsters above (and I expect it would be from Evans, Thompson, or Jackson) shows during summer drills as a natural cornerback, our situation there is greatly improved with legitimate depth and competition.
We're going to have to some rocky times at cornerback, but I expect improvement over the course of the year. Can't have steel without tempering. Several of these guys will be playing other positions a year from now, but for now we get the satisfaction of watching young players grow at their position over the course of their careers. That process is pretty rewarding, whatever the short term lows.
This is a group that will peak in 2013 - not September, 2011.