The cornerbacks are young, but don’t call them that.
The most productive unit on the Texas defense this season is also the least experienced. Go figure.
“They don’t play young,” said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “They don’t behave young. Quandre Diggs, Adrian Phillips and Carrington Byndum act like they’ve been here forever. They’re very diligent, they want to know everything.”
All three talented young cornerbacks each have an interception and a forced fumble after three games. They call themselves the “money makers” and have lived up to the moniker so far. While many expected the Longhorns veteran linebackers to carry the defense, it’s been the defensive backs who have made the biggest impact.
“They might be playing the best on the defense,” said senior linebacker Emmanuel Acho. “They’re getting after the ball, catching the interceptions. If they can keep that up, we can keep it rolling.”
The secondary forced four turnovers against UCLA in the Longhorns’ last game, including interceptions by three different players. They’ve been tackling better this year as well. Five of the Longhorns top nine tacklers are defensive backs, including junior safety Kenny Vaccaro, who is second on the team with 25.
“They’re tackling better than I’ve seen us tackle around here in a while,” said Acho, the team’s leading tackler.
Second-year corners Phillips and Byndum each have three tackles for loss, second only to Acho’s four. This group of defensive backs prides themselves on being sure-tacklers, much to Diaz’s delight.
“I’ve been around some secondaries that all they want to do is race each other,” Diaz said. “All they want to do is talk about how fast and athletic they are.
“This secondary wants to talk about who got the hardest hit. They are really priding themselves right now on being a physical, tackling secondary. And when you will tackle as a secondary, what you find is that big plays are harder to get on you.”
Yes, the defensive backfield has yet to allow a big play this season, but they will face a new challenge on Saturday against an Iowa State team known for picking up yards in large chunks. The Cyclones have four plays of 40-plus yards in three games, matching their total from the entire 2010 season. The difference has been quarterback Steele Jantz, a dual-threat player and Big 12 newcomer.
“[Jantz] will scramble to run and scramble to throw, which causes an immense amount of pressure on our coverage,” Diaz said. “It’s hard for them to understand when to come out of coverage and when not to. We have to be disciplined in our coverage, it’s quite a stress.”
The secondary will have its hands full trying to contain Jantz, who can turn a broken play into a touchdown. All four of the Cyclones 40-plus yard plays have come via the pass.
“It will be a big test for us to stay in coverage because [Jantz] has created plays and really determined the outcome in a couple of games,” Akina said. “You’ve got to cover them twice when you have a quarterback that can extend plays.”
The defensive backs, however, anticipate extending their takeaway streak to three games.
“Coach Diaz and Coach Akina are going to put us in spots to make plays, it’s just our job to make them,” said senior safety Blake Gideon.
Phillips has led the way with two interceptions and a forced fumble over the last two games, but his value stretches beyond his knack for finding the ball. The Garland native has played three positions in the secondary already this season, showcasing the versatility that Akina covets.
“What he’s doing for us playing corner, playing safety and playing nickel is really something,” Akina said. “For him to be able to handle three positions flawlessly, to be athletic enough to play corner, physical enough to play safety and then have the awareness on nickel to be a blitzer or a cover guy, really speaks volumes for him as a total player.”
Phillips’ ability to play multiple roles helped fill the void during senior safety Christian Scott’s three-game suspension to start the year. Scott, though, will make his 2011 debut on Saturday in Ames, giving the Longhorns yet another playmaker in the secondary.
“Getting a veteran player back who has a real physical presence is certainly a bonus,” Akina said. “It’s good timing. He hasn’t missed a beat and he did a good job while he was away of staying in physical condition and staying involved in the game.”
While Phillips, Byndum and Diggs only have six combined starts between them, they’ve played with poise beyond their years. And they’re only going to improve.
“We gain confidence each week,” Phillips said. “We’re getting better each week. We still have a lot of stuff to work on and we’re not perfect, but with each win we gain more confidence.”
That’s a scary thought for Big 12 offenses.
Printed on September 30, 2011 as: 'Money Makers' playing harder, faster, stronger