January 1, 2008

Season-in-review: The DB's

As we continue our final breakdown of the 2007 season for the Texas Longhorns, we'll take a look at the defensive backs. With three starters gone from 2006 and playing in the NFL, the Longhorns found themselves vulnerable in this area for the first time this decade.

Cornerbacks

Brandon Foster (Senior)

Expectations - I suppose when talking about the expectations for Foster, it depends on whose expectations you're speaking of. After having a very limited impact in his first three seasons of actions, most followers of UT football were unsure about his potential to be a long-term solution at cornerback. His lack of size appeared to most to be a major issue, especially in a conference like the Big 12 that features a boatload of big receivers. Still, the coaching staff had been singing his praises since the end of bowl workouts last season and they had him penciled in for one of the starting cornerback spots heading into the fall.

Reality - The coaching staff was spot on in projecting Foster as an above-average performer because he ended up starting in 12 games and he emerged as one of the team's best players on that side of the ball.

Stats - 71 tackles, three TFL, five interceptions, one forced fumble, three fumble recoveries, 12 pass break-ups and three touchdowns.

Best game - Foster had several big games, including one at Central Florida, but his performance in the bowl game against Arizona State was MVP-worthy, as he finished with seven tackles, a pair of interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Bottom Line - The Longhorns had some problem areas on defense this year, but Foster wasn't one of them. He was a quality player on a defense that often didn't have very many.

Ryan Palmer (Junior)

Expectations - Many that follow the program viewed Palmer the same way they viewed Foster - a small and unproven player. While the coaches weren't quite as high on Palmer as they were Foster coming out of the spring, they did feel like he would give the Longhorns a legit second corner if called on.

Reality - Palmer proved to be a solid player for the Longhorns this season as the team's second cornerback.

Stats - Palmer recorded 79 tackles, six tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and 14 pass break-ups.

Best game - Palmer didn't have any one game that just jumps out at you, but he did have a good game at Central Florida, recording six tackles, a forced fumble and three pass break-ups.

Bottom Line - For a player that had done very little up until this season, Palmer enjoyed a pretty solid first season as a starter. The issue that faces Palmer is that he's not yet a player that you can rate as an elite-level player, which means that he has room to grow, but he also is going to be forced to prove that he's the best option moving forward into next season. He might be a senior in 2008, but no player that started among the worst-statistical units in the nation should rest easy going into the off-season, not when young players like Curtis Brown, Chykie Brown and Earl Thomas are nipping at your heels.

Deon Beasley (Sophomore)

Expectations - After playing as a true freshman, Beasley was expected to push for a starter's position this season. Although this was only his second season, there were hopes that Beasley would start his accent to being one of the Big 12's best.

Reality - Beasley enjoyed a solid season with the Longhorns, but he didn't quite emerge as the leader at the cornerback position that many had hoped he'd become this season.

Stats - Beasley had 37 tackles, three tackles for loss, three interceptions and nine pass break-ups.

Bottom Line - If the Longhorn defense is going to take the next step as a unit, they need some of the players from the 2006 and 2007 recruiting classes to star taking the step from good to great, and that includes Beasley. As he enters this off-season, his ceiling remains high, but there's nothing that he can't improve on. Frankly, his development in 2008 will be one of the big storylines for this defense next season.

Chykie Brown (Redshirt Freshman)

Expectations - Because of his immense physical tools, everyone's expectations for Brown are already out of whack to a degree. While everyone is waiting for him to develop into the program's next great, big, physical cornerback, the Texas staff just hoped that Brown would find a way to force his way into to the line-up in some capacity.

Reality - Brown played in 11 games this season, but he saw very little action on the defensive side of the ball.

Stats - 11 tackles.

Bottom Line - This is going to be a very big year for Brown, who will be a third-year sophomore in 2008. If you ask Duane Akina, he'll tell you that Brown has the ability to be a star, but he needs to start putting the pieces of the puzzle together and that means taking his off-season work to another level. Consistency is the magic word for the athletic Brown, and with the number of young players coming into the program at this position, he needs to start his emergence of he could find himself simply stuck behind young players that just happened to develop faster tan him. With Beasley having clearly passed him and with fellow freshman Curtis Brown seeming to be ahead of him as well, it's time that Chykie Brown start to realize some of his vast potential.

Curtis Brown (Freshman)

Expectations - After a solid spring and a better start to fall workouts, Brown was expected to see some action this season as a true freshman, but his role was expected to be limited.

Reality - Brown saw a little bit of action this season, but he wasn't what you'd call an impact freshman.

Bottom Line - Although this season might seem like a wasted year, the coaches have very high expectations for Brown in 2008 and they wanted to make sure he tasted a little bit of action this year because they felt like the action would have him better-prepare for a very large role next year. Duane Akina feels like Brown has a chance to be a special football player. If he can develop quickly at cornerback, the Longhorns defense will be exponentially better.

Earl Thomas (Redshirting Freshman)

Expectations - With several upper-classmen and a number of young players already expected to play, Thomas was expected to redshirt this season.

Reality - Thomas redshirted.

Bottom Line - No redshirting freshman has created a bigger buzz in the last couple of months like Thomas has been able to. Expect Thomas to be an immediate factor in the competition for playing time next season. If nothing else, expect Thomas to be one of the team's best special teams player in 2008.

Safeties

Marcus Griffin (Senior)

Expectations - Really, how could anyone have any after an injury-plagued season in 2006? The coaching staff, particularly Duane Akina, has been very high on Griffin for two years, but he hadn't been healthy enough to really provide a true glimpse of where he stacked up as a player. Still, he was a pre-season All-Big 12 selection and was expected to be a force for the defense.

Reality - Griffin had a very solid senior season, but wasn't the dynamic playmaker that everyone hoped he might become.

Stats - Griffin had 99 tackles, one tackle for loss, four interceptions, six pass break-ups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Best game - Griffin's five tackle, two interception game against Baylor stands out.

Bottom Line - It's so tough to grade Griffin because there have been so many truly great players that have come through the Texas secondary in the last decade that the comparisons are natural and probably not fair. If you compare Griffin against his peers nationally, he had a really good season statistically. If you try and compare him to some the truly elite players that have worn a Texas uniform, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. The truth is that Griffin was always somewhere in-between being a good player and an elite one, healthy or not.

Erick Jackson (Senior)

Expectations - Injuries had hampered his career heading into this season, but after a solid spring and an even better training camp, Jackson emerged as a favorite to win the starting safety spot next to Griffin. After four years of flashing promise, there was hope that Jackson would have a senior season to remember.

Reality - Jackson was inconsistent all season and never emerged as a steady presence in the line-up.

Stats - 67 tackles, two tackles for loss and three pass break-ups.

Bottom Line - At the end of the day, the Longhorns have had personnel issues at safety for the last two seasons and when you look at the entire group, the one spot in the secondary that failed to produce most weeks was the one occupied by Jackson for most of the season. If the Longhorns are going to be a better defense in 2008, having at least two quality safeties is a must.

Drew Kelson (Senior)

Expectations - Texas faithful have been waiting for years to see this ultimate team player evolve into the difference maker that he was projected to be coming out of high school. With one final move back to safety, the hope was that he would emerge as a starter next to Griffin, but the transition back to defensive back didn't go nearly as smooth as everyone had hoped it would.

Reality - The staff never seemed to be able to find a role for him, although he did have a strong performance against Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl.

Stats - 25 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and one forced fumble.

Bottom Line - Kelson's story is one of the most disappointing of any top-rated player that the Longhorns have signed in recent years because he's so well-liked and respected by everyone on the planet that he's a guy everyone has openly rooted for. The ball was dropped in his development because he oozed big-time ability, but the constant position moves and injuries just never allowed him to find his way. He'll be a guy that people "what if" about for the next 25 years.

Ishie Oduegwu (Sophomore)

Expectations - After a couple of injury-plagued seasons, not much was even known about Oduegwu, who was a favorite of Gene Chizik as a prospect. If Oduegwu found a way to get on the field and make a contribution this year, it would have been considered real progress.

Reality - Oduegwu was a role player early in the season, but eventually received major playing time at the safety spot next to Griffin and he even made a couple of starts.

Stats - 28 tackles and one pass break-up.

Bottom Line - Oduegwu proved that he can contribute at this level this season and he'll be in the mix for a starting spot next season for sure. However, at this stage of his development, he's much better against the run than in coverage and it limits his effectiveness . In order for him to have a large role next season, he simply must make major improvements in pass defense and if he can, he has a chance to be a strong player.

Ben Wells (Redshirting Freshman)

Expectations - After enrolling in the spring, there was hope that Wells would develop quick enough to make an impact this season.

Reality - Wells wasn't far enough along in his development early in the season to make a push for playing time and the staff decided to redshirt him.

Bottom Line - There's not a single safety on the roster that the staff is locked into for next season, so this team really needs Wells to emerge because it won't matter who the defensive coordinator is if the safety position continues to plague this team like it has the last two seasons with the injuries in 2006 and just plain ineffectiveness in 2007. Wells has the talent to be a star, but he's a young player and has never seen a snap of game action. You can make a case that the overall potential of this team depends on the development of a few players like Wells.

Christian Scott (Redshirting Freshman)

Expectations - As a newcomer in the fall, Scott was expected to redshirt this season.

Reality - As expected, Scott redshirted this season.

Bottom Line - See Ben Wells. If this team is going to be a championship contender in 2008, they need more from their safeties and Scott has the physical tools to be an elite-level player. But, how long will it take before he's capable of being a heavy contributor. Just like Wells, the development of Scott is one of the most important storylines of the team heading into 2008.


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