As Kenny Vaccaro prepares himself for the NFL Draft on Thursday, the Texas Longhorns have been facing difficult questions about the state of their secondary heading into the 2013 season. Head coach Mack Brown has to find someone who can fill Vaccaro’s shoes at safety and put a top on a Longhorns’ defense that was a major disappointment in 2012. Who will step up for Texas and man the deep middle next fall?
Whoever does it will have the unenviable position of playing out of Vaccaro’s shadow. During his senior season, Vaccaro led the team with 96 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, to go along with five pass breakups, two interceptions and pair of forced fumbles. He was the unquestioned leader of the secondary and a major playmaker on the defense whose talent cannot be easily replaced.
Texas will try a couple of different options to try and soften the blow at least. Senior Adrian Phillips saw significant playing time in 2012 and finished as the No. 3 tackler on the team with 68 tackles, including two for loss. He also added two interceptions and one pass break up, but struggled throughout the year with missed tackles. It was a major issue for the entire defense last season, but Phillips was victimized in particular. He seemed to clean it up as the season wore on, but he will need to put that problem behind him completely if he hopes to become a leader in the secondary next fall.
Another option for the Longhorns is Mykkele Thompson who was also used often during his sophomore season in 2012. In 12 games, Thompson recorded 53 tackles, good for No. 7 on the team, with 0.5 tackles for loss, one pass break up and one forced fumble. He flashed big-play ability on special teams, blocking two kicks during the season. He will need to show some of the playmaking ability on defense, however, and work on his ball skills before he can be counted on as a reliable deep-cover option.
The talent gap left by Vaccaro is significant and neither Phillips or Thompson has shown they can replace him yet. They will have to make significant improvement over the summer to earn the trust of their defensive coaches next fall to earn a spot as the leader of the defense and then step up in a big way to make plays in coverage when the games begin to count.
For Texas to turn it around after a disappointing 2012 campaign, they need someone to replace one of their key contributors from last season. Can either of their current options get the job done or will Texas take a step back in 2013 at safety?