A team is only as good as its front line, a wave of experienced starters ready to supply leadership in the offseason and in the locker room, while providing the difference between winning and losing close games. But a program is only as strong as the next men up, the players who will be called upon after those front-line the year that those experienced players leave.
One-by-one, we're taking looks at each position on the Texas team, looking only at the sophomores, freshmen and committed recruits for the future. And while Longhorn defensive backs coach Duane Akina often bounces players between cornerback and safety, it appears that Texas could have some work to do in luring more corners in the Class of 2014.
In those two, Texas may have grabbed two of the top three or so cornerback prospects in the last three years. Echols was tops at that position in 2012 — wide receiver teammate Kendall Sanders aside — and was arguably the top cornerback all week at Under Armour, thanks to his quickness and his ability to play bump-and-run coverage. He gave issues to just about every receiver in attendance, but especially foiled future Longhorn teammate Cayleb Jones, who he went head-to-head with often.
Echols didn't find immediate playing time with the Longhorns, redshirting his freshman year in an experienced cornerback group. And he looks like he'll be outside Texas's top guys again this year, with Sheroid Evans joining starters Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs in nickel situations (with Diggs dropping down to the nickel corner spot). But he might wind up being the No. 4 corner behind that trio, especially with Duke Thomas looking like a primary candidate to move to wide receiver. Echols is smaller than Akina's usual fare at the position, but is highly skilled. He could wind up playing a major role in 2014, if not earlier.
Of course, in order to do so, he may have to fight off Davis, possibly the state's No. 2 corner (behind Maurice Smith) in the 2013 class. And while Echols is a smaller corner with great skill, Davis is as close to physically ideal as a cornerback can get. He's 6-feet tall, runs a sub-10.4-second 100-meter dash and, oh yeah, bench presses 350 pounds. And as he showed at the U.S. Army All-American practices, he might not be quite as raw as people thought before. Matched up against the country's best receivers, Davis held his own, though he could still use some polish.
The Longhorns also have a couple of future players to add in. Jermaine Roberts is a smaller corner, but has outstanding hips, acceleration and cover skills. He's an excellent addition to the Class of 2014. And Corpus Christi Flour Bluff standout Jalen Campbell committed to Texas from the 2015 class. Campbell is still developing physically, but he has outstanding ball skills and reads routes exceptionally well.
One thing's for sure: the Longhorns aren't finished recruiting the position. Texas fell short in its pursuit of Nick Harvey, Darrion Johnson looks like he might not qualify and the Longhorns face serious battles for Tony Brown, Arrion Springs and Nick Watkins. Look for the Longhorns to take at least one more cornerback, if not two, in the 2014 class.
Grade — C+
I really like some of the young talent assembling in Austin. Echols and Roberts are excellent cover guys, while Davis is a player with elite physical tools. But none of those three (nor, of course, Campbell) have seen the field as Longhorns as of yet, so it's hard to give a higher grade at this point. Keep an eye on 2014 recruiting, as Texas is involved in some heated battles with some ace prospects still on board. And Texas has some great young talents targeted already for 2015, with an offer out to Kendall Sheffield, one of the state's top players in that class. Akina has always shown a talent for molding big-time defensive backs out of good-looking clay. And he should have plenty of that clay to work with in the future.