Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
AUSTIN, Texas -- Dan Buckner came to college thinking he had the skills to become a top receiver.
But after participating in several rocky early practices last season as a freshman, Buckner quickly learned that raw talent wouldn’t be enough to propel him into the Longhorns’ starting lineup.
“When you choose to come to Texas, you are in for a rude awakening,” Buckner said. “Everybody is a great player and all the players at your position are just as good as you are. A lot of it is having a good work ethic, and I didn’t have one.”
That realization caught Buckner, a former prep All-American, with the subtlety of a forearm shiver. But it made him realize he would have to approach his sophomore season with a different attitude if he ever wanted to leave the bench.
A fortuitous position switch to flex receiver has enabled Buckner’s to blossom as one of the Longhorns’ surprise contributors this season. Buckner has grabbed 17 receptions for 223 yards and shares the team lead with two touchdown receptions.
“Kids want to play and he wanted to be a part of it,” Texas coach Mack Brown said of Buckner. “Now, he’s becoming a vital part of it.”
Texas -- as usual -- has an armada of speedy wide receivers who can step up and make big offensive plays. Buckner said he felt lost during his freshman season when he saw action in 12 games but caught only five passes.
So when Texas coaches came to Buckner during the spring about a move to flex receiver, Buckner was initially hesitant.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Buckner said. “But I decided to try hard and just make the best of my opportunities.”
His role in the offense has substantially expanded as the Longhorns have lost four tight ends to season- or career-threatening injuries during fall camp. Those departures have led Texas again to base its offense around a heavy dose of four-receiver sets employing Buckner as a flex receiver.
It’s the same position that Jordan Shipley had and he developed into an All-Big 12 receiver, producing 89 catches for 1,060 yards last season.
Buckner’s move inside has enabled the speedy Shipley to move outside as one of the Longhorns’ top deep threats. And Buckner has adapted to playing inside like a seasoned veteran.
The position change means that Buckner often is matched against linebackers or safeties inside rather than facing quicker cornerbacks on the edge. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Buckner has the speed to beat linebackers, the jumping ability to outfight safeties for position and the bullish strength to run over tacklers.
“We just feel like he has been a go-to guy that (Texas quarterback) Colt (McCoy) can throw to down the middle,” Brown said. “People can cover the outs and they can bump the receivers, but it’s more difficult for linebackers and safeties to cover a wide receiver-type at flex tight end. Dan’s doing a great job to shake them off and make plays.”
After producing five catches in the Longhorns’ season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, Buckner snagged six receptions for 86 yards and his first career touchdown against Wyoming.
But he really emerged last week against Texas Tech, first snagging a key pass at the Red Raiders’ 1 to set up Texas’ second touchdown. His connection with McCoy was working so well that the Texas quarterback informed Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis he wanted to run a specific play for Buckner at the goal line.
Buckner beat a tight Texas Tech zone defense at the back of the end zone for a 3-yard TD reception that gave the Longhorns a pivotal late score that put the game out of reach.
“We were able to take advantage of him in the second half,” McCoy said. “I just kind of felt like Dan was going to have a big game.”
And while Buckner initially resisted the move to the new position, he is accepting of it now.
“The biggest change is the blocking, because the closer you are to the ball, the more demands you have,” Buckner said. “It’s different blocking 175 or 180-pound cornerbacks and linebackers. I thought I would get run over. But you just have to adapt and play.”