As we come out of spring, I'm going to rank eight positions on the team in terms of talent and strength (quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, offensive and defensive lines, linebackers, secondary and special teams). We'll start with the lowest and work to the top.
And then I'm going to rank the players by talent at each of those positions heading into the fall. On a team like Texas, where the national championship is starting to be a viable destination every year, there may not be a lot of separation between these position groups.
All Earl Thomas did was set the school record for interceptions in a season, including a game-changer against Colorado with 4:55 left in the third quarter. Texas trailed 14-3 in that game and was clinging to a 17-14 lead when Thomas went pick-six from 92 yards out to put the Longhorns up 24-14 en route to a 38-14 win.
Thomas averaged nearly 19 yards per return on his 8 interceptions in 2009 and also returned a pick 31 yards for a touchdown on the road at Oklahoma State.
Thomas showed up in the biggest games. He posted three interceptions and a forced fumble against Oklahoma the past two years. When Texas needed a big play in a big game, it seemed like Thomas was always there.
He finished as the No. 2 tackler for the Longhorns in 2009 (77 tackles, 5 TFLs, 16 pass breakups, 1 QB pressure) and brought a ton of swagger to the field.
His teammates loved him. How could you not? The guy played the saxophone in the marching band in his football uniform during his high school games at West Orange Stark. And his family lost their home to Hurricane Rita and lived a year in a motel.
So his leadership and relentless play-making will be sorely missed.
But Thomas leaves behind one of the most talented secondaries in the country. Ready to take over for Thomas is Christian Scott, who lost the 2009 season to academic ineligibility and seems to have a fire and desire to make up for his absence in 2010.
The rest of the secondary brings a lot of NFL-type talent to the field ?
( ranked in order of who I think is best in terms of talent in this position group)
1. CB Aaron Williams, Jr. (6-1, 192) - The guy is already projected as a first-round draft pick for 2011 on some NFL draft boards. He is physical enough to play the nickel, get off blocks and make form tackles. He's electric in the open field. He only made the play of the game against Oklahoma last season (in addition to Colt McCoy's TD-saving tackle of Brian Jackson) with his back-arching interception 30-plus inches off the ground. He can do it all.
2. CB Curtis Brown, Sr. (6-0, 180)? - This kid is so hungry to succeed and it shows. He's overcome so much adversity in his life that you get the sense he will succeed no matter what. His confidence is finally reaching the NFL level it should. His teammates call him cat because his hips are so fluid he looks like a cat getting in and out of his breaks. Big year coming for the "Cat."
3. S Blake Gideon, Jr. (6-1, 200) - People might wonder how Gideon could be this high, but let me remind you that Gideon had 6 interceptions last season, including picks against Colorado, Oklahoma State, Missouri as well as momentum changing INTs against Nebraska in the Big 12 title game and Alabama in the BCS national title game. He makes up for his slight frame (his nickname is "Slim Gid") by seemingly never getting out of position. His teammates trust him implicitly.
4. CB Chykie Brown, Sr. (6-0, 187) - Physically, he is what the NFL craves. Long arms, great speed and a willingness to be physical. Now, he just has to tighten things up mentally. He makes mistakes on technique, like whether to line up inside or outside on a receiver and where to funnel a play. He's got to stop relying on his freakish athletic ability and show he can be a great player mentally. If he does, he's a big-time NFL prospect.
5. S Christian Scott, Jr. (6-1, 215) - Now is the time for all that incredible athletic ability to be put on display for all to see. Scott had a year to learn the mental part of playing defense. He's always been a contact-craving missile in the secondary. But his eyes weren't always in the right place or playing at the right depth. It kept him off the field. But after sitting out last season because of academics, he seems ready to show what he's got.
6. S Nolan Brewster, Jr. (6-2, 210) - Brewster shares many of the same traits Gideon has but is more physical. He provides great depth at the safety position and will play a bunch in 2010. He's rarely out of place on the field and totally gets the mental part of the game.
7. S Kenny Vaccaro, So. (6-1, 201) - This guy has become the most electric hitter at Texas since Bryant Westbrook. He played a bunch at the nickel in the spring and seemed to grasp it pretty well. He fits that profile because he can get off blocks near the line and make tackles. He's downhill but can also cover the slot. If Aaron Williams moves on after this season, Vaccaro's presence at the nickel will be huge.
8. CB Eryon Barnett, R-Fr. (6-2, 195) - He's got a long way to go to get in the same zip code as the top three corners on this team, but he'll need to play a lot this season to catch up. He's got the physical tools to succeed. Now, he just needs the reps and confidence.
9. CB Adrian White, Fr. (6-0, 175) - Like Barnett, White has a lot to learn, but the refreshing thing about White in the spring was his willingness to compete and stick his nose in the mix.
10. CB Carrington Byndom, Fr. (6-0, 175) - Coaches are expecting big things over time from him. If he can come in and grasp the details, he could take off pretty quickly. When you think that Texas could be starting over at cornerback in 2011, his growth this season will be crucial.
11. CB/S Adrian Phillips, Fr. (5-11, 199) - An incredible athlete, it could take Phillips some time to adjust to the secondary. But if he's anywhere near the playmaker he was at Garland, he should catch on quickly and learn from some serious talent in front of him.
12. S Bryant Jackson, Fr. (6-2, 186) - It's crowded at his position right now, so he can't get discouraged. He'll have to put in the time and grow because he'll be a key part of the depth in 2011.