One of the greatest and most rare of athletes to play in Duane Akina's "DBU" NFL factory, circumstances dictate that his legacy won't be what it could have been. Let's set the record straight.
This past Saturday, Manny Diaz finally took my advice and moved Kenny Vaccaro back to safety, while mostly entrusting man coverage on inside receivers to Adrian Phillips. On a side note, I'm available as a consultant should he see the need for off season adjustments.
Because Vaccaro's role in the defense was already essentially "play your responsibility for about three steps, then grab a pooper scooper and go clean up the mess", his move to Free Safety signaled a belated acceptance by the Texas staff of a pre-existing condition.
Vaccaro had 13 tackles in this role last Saturday and frequently saved Texas chunks of yards and scores with his savage tackling on the Kleinbot. Watching him play from the deep position was a fascinating peek into his speed and potential professional positioning when utilized by more strategic-minded coordinators.
Now that the legacy of the mythic 2012 Texas defense has firmly been established on the opposite end of the spectrum to that which we hoped and expected, all we now have are Kenny V's individual moments of excellence and future pro potential to remind us what could have been. Indeed, Vaccaro's career at Texas was mostly defined by individual positional excellence that never translated into consistent, defense-defining impact.
So I offer an examination into the Texas career of Kenny Vaccaro -- the free safety who should have been a legend.
Back in 2008, when the 2009 class was coming together, there wasn't a tremendous amount of buzz about the Brownswood safety prospect. He only had a three star rating with rivals and Geoff Ketchum wasn't terribly impressed...
Scipio was, and noted the measurable power and athleticism evident in the young man.
Duane Akina evidently saw the potential as well with the take. Here was a kid with the physical toughness that he usually instilled in skinny athletes through a regimen of verbal challenging and careful crafting. All that remained was to teach him coverage skills.
Many Texas fans saw him as a potential OLB position move, or perhaps an enforcing safety that was a sorry consolation prize for missing on Craig Loston.
Vaccaro's freshman season had moments of potential. He was a savage on special teams and as a great tackler who helped preserve margins of victory by cleaning up for 2nd teamer's mistakes...great practice for his eventual role as a senior. He also gave a glimpse into his volatile nature by punching out a law student in Gregory Gym, a move that seemed rash but fairly understandable and fitting for a big hitting safety.
I'm going to enjoy this kid: 2010
The more violent aspects of Vaccaro's play and personality were evident very quickly in 2010. Muschamp was faced with the impossible task of replacing Earl Thomas
To do so, Muschamp had Christian Scott, Blake Gideon, and Kenny Vaccaro at safety and Aaron Williams as another player who could be a nickel. Replacing Thomas' coverage skills at safety was impossible, but Vaccaro found a role as the "Big nickel" and played well enough there to keep Aaron Williams outside and Chykie Brown on the bench for many snaps throughout the season.
He finished the year as the 5th leading tackler on the team and demonstrated the classic safety skills of being a consistent and punishing open field tackler as well as a player who could break on the ball in the air.
The Leap: 2011
With Muschamp gone and Diaz installed as DC, it seemed clear enough that Vaccaro's role would be primarily to clean up and make plays in space in the Fire Zone-heavy defensive approach. But Akina and Kenny had other ideas.
Vaccaro spent the offseason working on press-coverage technique and came into the year as a spread coordinator's nightmare. A nickel who could erase a slot receiver in man coverage or the field side in zone without compromising the defense's ability to play physically against the run.
When Texas wanted to play man-coverage with Vaccaro, Byndom, and Diggs they could essentially lock down the three best receivers on the opposing offense. He finished the year 3rd on the team in tackles while also adding a couple of picks and QB pressures.
Savvy Longhorn fans begin to realize that we had something special on our hands when Vaccaro took UCLA's Joseph Fauria out of the gameplan with a (literally) sickening helmet to the gut hit early in the game.
From then the concern was if Texas could keep a 6'1" 215 pound safety with man coverage abilities for another year? The answer proved to be yes, as NFL scouts and schemes seem to run behind collegiate strategic trends by about 2-3 years. With a 2nd round grade, Vaccaro was back to lead what looked like a legendary Texas defense.
What could have been: 2012
In 2011, Vaccaro spent a lot of time excelling in individual roles. Granted, erasing Ryan Swope has a large impact on a game, but his overall skill set seemed to call for a greater impact. In August, Vaccaro discussed playing more instinctively in 2012 and creating more turnovers.
To facilitate this, Diaz crafted a MOFC-based defense that asked Vaccaro to continue playing man coverage while also disguising blitzes and deep coverage roles. The result was expected to be utter domination of Big 12 offenses and high turnover numbers as beleaguered Quarterbacks facing eight man fronts, heavy blitzing, and tight outside coverage threw the ball up for grabs without understanding the coverage they were throwing into.
Then things started going wrong. Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro began the task of replacing Gideon's leadership by getting arrested at a pizza place. Coming back from that experience with a focused intensity to grow as players and leaders, they found themselves leading a team that was unprepared to take on the schematic tasks Diaz had set before them. Then fellow leader and de-facto senior Jordan Hicks went down and chaos reigned in the linebacker corp, the heart of Diaz defense.
So what tasks did the season hold for Vaccaro? Erase a slot receiver? Disguise coverages and make plays on the ball? Play the edge in the run game or fly unexpectedly at the QB and erase him from the game? Show off a variety of skills that would make him an early first rounder?
Nope, desperately shout instructions to a confused defense and then fly desperately from the wide side of the field when they screw up anyways to be the 2nd leading tackler on the team (behind Steve Edmond) with 100 for the season.
Manny Diaz made a variety of mistakes this season, but I think his plan's for Kenny Vaccaro's role on the team was one that hasn't drawn enough attention. For all the skills he was taught and the roles he was asked to play, Akina and Diaz seemed to view him as an eraser of individual facets of an offense and over-prized his coverage skills. The ability to play good coverage on a slot receiver is a valuable skill, but it doesn't come up if the other team doesn't even throw 20 passes in the game.
The individualistic view of the players on our team by our coaching staff manifested in a defense that had NFL talents all over the field but sucked as a unit. Sometimes an individual's skills and talents have to be shelved in order to serve the needs of the team. Texas managed to parlay one of the most talented secondaries in the country into a terrible unit in a pass happy league. A player like Vaccaro cannot be used as a lockdown coverage player when the team can't stop the run, it's simply bad resource allocation.
Were I Diaz, I would have spent the offseason watching 2011 Steelers tape and taking note of how they used Troy Polamalu. While he can do any number of different things and dances around like a haka war dancer, creating terror and doubt in the QB's mind, the Steelers often just keep him back at safety where he can affect the entire field of play with his range and steady tackling.
I think a fear of KSU's big run ability impacted Diaz's gameplanning more than anything, but we finally caught a glimpse of how Vaccaro might have been used in a similar manner.
Much of the game looked like this: Kansas State is in 11 personnel in a pistol formation, the kind of set up that destroyed Texas this season for the balance between run game potential and vertical passing. However, the 'horns line up Adrian Phillips over the slot, play Turner as the field safety, and leave Vaccaro clear of responsibilities other than "don't get beat deep."
When I suggested this role for Vaccaro there were some that exclaimed that it would remove the team's best tackler from a position where he could make tackles. I submit his 13 tackle stat line in rebuttal.
The reason that you would place a guy like Vaccaro back there and still see him make tackles is demonstrated in the following plays:
Kansas State "attacked" the Texas defense early with basic option out of the pistol with fullback Braden Wilson as a lead blocker. In the 2nd half, as Scipio noted, Kansas State was forced to add variety to the run game in order to find the soft spots in the run defense but that's not our point here. Instead, note Vaccaro's positioning as the boundary safety 13 yards deep off the ball.
Kansas State uses outside zone blocking on the option here, which Texas' DL attack aggressively. Whether Klein's first half plays were called option or not I don't know, but it was the right call here. Fullback Wilson is free to attack the alley and create a lane with a big block.
The pitch is made, but Peter Jinkens has come off his block (what?!) and draws the attention of FB Wilson. Vaccaro and the running back are separated by about 15 yards of nothing but space.
Vaccaro meets Hubert one yard past the line of scrimmage and lands a hit to the midsection that brings him down in a heap.
If your defense can string out runs and make basic fills on the inside, then having a fierce and athletic tackler at Free Safety is exactly what you want. If...
KSU has 11 personnel here again with a receiver in the box as well. Texas matches it with an eight man front and a corner as the overhang defender.
It's good old fashioned Isolation! Power football 101. The KSU OL parts the red sea with zone-style blocking that allows the DL to pursue unproductive paths and sets up the classic battle: fullback vs middle linebacker.
The two titans meet at the line of scrimmage and Hubert reads the block to see the enormous hole forming in the middle of the line.
Edmond predictably loses that battle, although in his defense he had a huge gap to try to occupy and spill. However, Vaccaro is now appearing on the scene.
Hubert tried to make a nifty move to the outside against him but Vaccaro wraps up him up after a three yard gain. Perfectly blocked play opens up a hole in the middle of the defense...three yard gain. That's what Vaccaro could have offered this season.
Had the season begun with a very basic approach to the MOFC concepts and Vaccaro as the deep safety, Texas could have had multiplicity and disguise while still playing basic defense that gave the linebackers relatively easy roles to master early in the year. Later, if/when they had demonstrated the ability to play fundamentals from these defenses, they could have mixed things up further and started moving Vaccaro around before the snap to take advantage of his numerous talents.
Instead, we'll have to wait for the Patriots or some other savvy team to select him late in the first round and unleash him on the NFL. He has the perfect skill set to dominate a league that's becoming more athletic and spread passing oriented and he clearly understands how to lower his aiming point to deliver intimidating and sound tackling that won't draw a flag.
Meanwhile at Texas, he never drew either the catchy nickname or the defensive role that could fully capture his talents and cement his legacy on the 40 acres. Of the various crimes committed by Diaz in 2012, not the least.
We'll enjoy watching you in the NFL Kenny, thanks for the memories.