Yet, the Longhorn secondary will need to crank it up a notch in order to return to Pasadena, the site of this year's BCS title game. 2004 was by no means a sub-par year for Longhorn DBs, but much was expected of a unit that tallied just 13 INTs, had no answer for Michigan WR Braylon Edwards (109 yards on 10 grabs, including three TDs), and was picked apart by a couple of Kansas quarterbacks who had never started a collegiate game (Brian Luke and John Nielsen combined for 308 yards passing). All told, the group gave up an average 212.7 ypg (NCAA No. 58) through the air.
This is what we can tell you about Co-DC Gene Chizik: he'll want the fastest DBs on the field (regardless of size) and will rely more on man coverage. And he'll have one of the best in the business around which to build a secondary. Coaches are literally building the unit around SS Michael Huff, the latest Longhorn senior to bypass the NFL to return for one more season. The First-Team All-Big 12 selection can play all four positions and took some snaps at CB this past spring. Huff will likely finish his collegiate career at SS (where he totaled 73 tackles, two INT and a team-best 14 PBUs last year) but his versatility allows coaches to get the four best DBs on the field.
Huff is the fastest guy on the defense and if he gets his hands on the ball, look out! Four of his six career INTs have been returned for scores (a school record and one shy of the NCAA career mark). He also averages 25.2 yards per interception return. Texas did not have a lockdown CB last year but Huff was a shutdown DB. Look for Huff to be assigned to Ohio State WR Ted Ginn, Jr., in much the same way he took responsibility for Oklahoma WR Mark Clayton last season. Huff held the All-American to just three receptions for 19 yards.
Sophomore Drew Kelson, at 6-2 and 210-pounds, has the stature and persona of a prototypical SS. But the 2004 Parade All-American may be more of an interchangeable part than Huff. Kelson worked at both safety positions last spring but will also train at outside linebacker this August. Kelson made an ad hoc appearance at RB last fall (34 yards on four carries) after Selvin Young suffered a season-ending ankle injury at Arkansas. This much is certain: Kelson is too talented and explosive to keep off the field.
Sophomore Bobby Tatum saw limited action last season at SS but has the pedigree. His great uncle Jack (The Assassin) Tatum was the two-time Ohio State All-American and a three-time Oakland Raider pro-bowler. As a true freshman, most of Tatum's game day duty at Texas was on special teams but he did provide one highlight reel of a play: the youngster returned a blocked punt 10 yards for a TD against Texas A&M to tie the game in the third quarter. He also recorded two tackles against Michigan.
Texas replaces FS Phillip Geiggar, who completed his eligibility. Junior Michael Griffin, who may be the hardest hitter in the secondary, will fill the void after spending the past two seasons as Huff's top backup. Griffin played in all 12 games last season and started at Texas Tech when the Horns opened in the nickel package. He registered a season-high nine tackles and a blocked punt leading for a safety against Baylor. Griffin was a true playmaker at Colorado; his forced fumble led to a 17-yard TD drive to break open a close game while his INT on the next Buffaloes possession resulted in a 20-yard TD drive. Griffin was credited with 49 tackles, two TFLs, one sack, two blocked punts, one INT, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 2004. He also tallied a career best ten tackles at Texas A&M and against Washington State (Holiday Bowl) during his freshman campaign, while leading the team in special teams tackles (21).
Griffin's understudy could not be more familiar as he is backed by twin brother Marcus. Marcus saw action in 12 games at FS and on special teams in 2004. He also recorded ten defensive stops and seven special teams tackles as a RS-freshman. Junior Matt Melton will also compete for playing time at FS, after seeing action in eight games at that position (he missed four games due to injury). Melton appeared in 12 games on special teams and eight at FS as a RS-freshman. He totaled 13 tackles in 2003 but Horn fans are more likely to remember him for his 48-yard fumble return at Oklahoma State.
Veteran RCB Cedric Griffin has logged 31 starts during his first three seasons, including 25 at cornerback during his sophomore and junior campaigns. Griffin worked his way into the lineup as a RS-freshman, starting six games (three at SS, three at nickelback) in 2002. That year, he led all DBs with 73 tackles including a career-high 15 tackles against Oklahoma. He also became the first Longhorn to return a blocked FG for a TD when he took one back 56 yards at Tulane.
Griffin's freshman campaign led some to believe he is more naturally suited at SS. His transition to RCB had its rough spots, although he registered his first career INT against No. 16 Kansas State during his sophomore year. He blocked the first punt of his career later that season at Texas A&M. His junior campaign was more solid, posting 68 tackles, two INTs, six PBUs, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery on the way to Honorable Mention All Big 12 honors.
For the second straight season, RS-sophomore Brandon Foster is slated as Griffin's primary backup at RCB. The Arlington Bowie product saw action in nine games at either RCB or on special teams in 2004, recording four tackles and two PBUs on the season. Foster doesn't have overwhelming size (5-9, 180) but he has outstanding speed. He was an all-district selection as an Arlington Bowie senior while running on the Texas 5A Championship track & field team that posted the third-best time in the 200m relay (40.06) in U.S. history.
Backup RCB Erick Jackson missed the spring for academic reasons. He saw action at cornerback and on special teams, registering one tackle at Colorado, as a RS-freshman in 2004.
The LCB spot has been a tug-of-war as of late between junior Aaron Ross and Tarell Brown. The hard-hitting Ross played in all 13 games as Nathan Vasher's primary backup at LCB during his freshman season and was poised to earn the start last August before he was slowed by a hamstring injury. Brown took over and never looked booked, starting all 12 games during his sophomore season. He recorded a career-best seven tackles at Arkansas last year en route to 42 stops on the season. Brown has tallied 51 tackles and two interceptions in 25 career games at DB. Brown earned Parade All-American and USA-Today first-team All-American status while at North Mesquite. Ross notched 36 tackles, three PBUs and one INT while sharing time with Brown. He has 63 tackles and five PBU in 25 career games.
RS-freshman Ryan Palmer missed the spring due to knee injury but is expected to compete for snaps at LCB this fall.
The first practice of the 2005 season is set for 6:30 p.m., today, at Denius Field. The session is open to the public.