Senior safety thrives as role player

Tyler Horka

Playing a defensive back position at the University of Texas comes with a national spotlight that shines arguably brighter than at any other school in the country.

Dubbed “the real DBU”, standing for “defensive back university”, by Jon Solomon of CBS Sports, Texas has produced a slew of the finest ball hawks college football has ever seen – Aaron Ross, Michael and Cedric Griffin, Michael Huff and Earl Thomas, just to name a few.

One closer to Longhorn hearts might be Kenny Vaccaro, a 2013 graduate who led Texas in tackles (107) during his senior campaign.His departure did not vacate the Vaccaro throne – in stepped Kenny’s younger brother and fellow safety, Kevin.

“Kevin Vaccaro is tougher than any guy that I have been around,” head coach Charlie Strong said after this year’s spring game. The toughness Strong spoke of has yet to translate into the gaudy numbers his older brother produced. 

Kenny was an iron man that never missed a game during his four-year career, playing in 51 total matchups. He nabbed a pair of All-Big 12 selections in his junior and senior seasons. 

Kevin, now a senior, played in 12 games in his freshman season (2012), primarily on special teams. He missed his entire sophomore season due to an ankle injury, resulting in a medical redshirt year. 

Senior Dylan Haines’ emergence as the solidified starting safety greeted Vaccaro upon his return from injury in 2014. But when Haines was ejected for targeting against California last season, Vaccaro promptly filled in. 

“Before the game [Kenny] told me to play hard, play physical,” Vaccaro said. “He told me he’d be watching.” What Kenny saw must have given him flashbacks of himself in burnt orange. Vaccaro racked up nine tackles and a forced fumble in Texas’ thrilling 45-44 loss. 

Vaccaro was poised to build upon the best game of his career but recorded only two more tackles the rest of the season while also missing three games due to his nagging ankle injury. 

Haines returned from his ejection against California in another exhilarating Longhorn loss the following week. He snagged an interception and returned it 29 yards against Oklahoma State, all but assuring his stranglehold on the starting safety position – until now. 

Haines left Texas’ game against Notre Dame at halftime with a head injury. The senior failed to see the field in the second half, giving Vaccaro an opportunity similar to the one last year against California.

He made the most of it, again. He filled in for Haines and immediately made an impact, stuffing Notre Dame senior quarterback Malik Zaire for an 11-yard sack.

“Kevin Vaccaro, he played lights out,” defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said Wednesday. “But you know what, he practices that way. He’s another senior [leader].”

Though he was named special teams MVP against Oklahoma in Texas’s signature win of the season last year, Vaccaro has not had the opportunities his brother enjoyed at Texas. Still, he holds his head high and refuses to complain. 

“My role has been special teams and I take that seriously,” Vaccaro said. “I have been going hard doing what I can for the team.” 

That role has changed for the time being. With Haines’ status being day-to-day, Vaccaro has a chance to make the most of another opportunity. He’s done it before, and as a senior, he has just one season left to do it again.