Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
AUSTIN, Texas -- Longhorns coaches have been adamant about what they've wanted at each practice from an emerging secondary this spring.
"The coaches are on us hard about getting turnovers after last year," Texas cornerback Chykie Brown said. "Every day in practice our goal is to get at least three turnovers. It's turned out pretty good."
And while the Texas secondary didn't exactly reach that goal in Sunday's Orange-White scrimmage with two turnovers, they can feel like they have accomplished something this spring as they get ready for the upcoming season.
If Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has any doubts about his defensive backs, all he has to think about is where they were at the same time last year.
"Comparing then to now is light years," Muschamp said. "It was an adventure every day as far as installation of our defense from day to day. It's a lot of fun the second year teaching and installing and working more on fundamentals rather than teaching schemes all the time."
The Longhorns struggled making big plays last season, producing a Big 12-low six interceptions and ranking 104th nationally and worst in the Big 12 with only 16 forced turnovers.
"If we had made more turnovers last year, the sky would have been the limit for us," Muschamp said. "But it's all on us. Playing hard and playing relentlessly is the most important thing to me and I think we're getting more guys to buy into that."
This spring, the most important number for the Longhorns' secondary might be eight -- as in the quantity of talented defensive players with a chance to start. That depth will provide the Texas defensive coordinator with all kinds of weapons to tinker with as he attempts to counter the pass-happy offenses in the Big 12.
"It's good because it allows competition," Muschamp said about his secondary's depth. "These guys know if they don't perform, they're on the bench the next day. It allows for our guys to go out every day and play consistently well, and that's what makes guys compete and improve as football players. Your best motivator is competition."
At safety, Earl Thomas, Christian Scott, Nolan Brewster and Blake Gideon are in the mix for playing time.
Brown and Aaron Williams appear to have emerged as two of the most physical cornerbacks to have lined up for Texas in several years. Curtis Brown and Deon Beasley add solid depth at the position.
Chykie Brown knows about that competition. It has made this spring camp the most robust of any that he has ever experienced, he said.
"I know I can't sleep on any play," Chykie Brown said. "(Texas defensive backs) Coach (Duane) Akina has said that everybody is hungry back there. So you've got to be ready on every snap."
That depth enables the Longhorns to have the numbers to match most opponents in the pass-happy Big 12 Conference.
"The simplest answer is that there is so much competition back there that those guys can't miss a step. If a guy has a sore ankle, he'd better practice," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "They are at a high level of competition. We've had really good players back there, but I think the most we've ever had were six guys who we thought could go in there and play, and right now, we're sitting at a minimum of eight, which is pretty good."
The two players who showed the most improvement this spring were Thomas and Williams, Muschamp said.
The defense set the tone in the Orange-White scrimmage with two interceptions in the first five possessions. Thomas provided a pick-six return, intercepting a Colt McCoy pass and returning it 35 yards for a score. Brewster, who had a solid spring and worked mostly with the starters in the scrimmage, had the other interception.
Those plays punctuated a strong effort by the secondary in Texas' final spring work. The Texas defensive backs were able to do something that only one other secondary in the Big 12 has accomplished during Colt McCoy's career: holding him to less than 50 percent passing.
The Longhorns' offense was victimized by windy conditions, dropped passes and not having prime receiving threat Jordan Shipley in the lineup as he recovers from shoulder surgery. But the secondary's development has caught the attention of McCoy.
"They are just playing well together," McCoy said. "It's the same group of guys and they hardly lost anybody. They are rotating in and out and everybody they bring in is solid. That's another example of guys wanting to be on the field. There's a big group of those guys and only a few will play. They are having a very competitive camp."
Thomas was receiving the majority of his work at nickelback during the spring, which is a good thing for Texas.
His development -- he openly talked about winning the Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back, as did several of his teammates -- should enable him to employ his skill and athleticism at a position that is becoming vital in the Big 12. Texas used a 4-2-5 defensive alignment as its base in the spring game and likely will lean on it heavily in 2009.
"Wherever they put me in, I'm willing to play," Thomas said. "We don't know what's going on in terms of positions right now. They are just trying everybody at different places."
But after the tinkering, Muschamp is confident in the growth of his unit heading into the upcoming season.
"We threw a lot at the kids," Muschamp said. "We moved a bunch of guys around, but I've got a much better comfort level about where guys can go and where they can play. I think confidence as much as anything ... now after a number of reps accumulated over a period of time, they're reacting instead of thinking on the field as much as what we had to do last year."