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All-time Top 10: Defensive Backs

Texas has become DBU in recent years.

Nathan Vasher's interception against Nebraska in 2002 sealed Texas' 27-24 win and ended the Cornhuskers' home winning streak.

Over the past decade, the Longhorns seem to have a Thorpe Award finalist or winner every couple of seasons.

But if you think it’s just recently that Texas has had an abundance of talent at defensive back, you’d be dead wrong.

Today we look at the defensive players who are often asked to put themselves out on an island and prevent the big plays from happening: the defensive backs.

10. NATHAN VASHER (2000-03)

Why he’s in this spot?
He’s best described as a quick, versatile defensive back who capitalized on big play opportunities. You’d have to be to finish your career with a school-record 17 interceptions. But it doesn’t stop there. Vasher holds the school record for pass breakups in a single season (26) and for a career (64). If you haven’t figured it out, he was the epitome of a cover corner. He had great body control and was able to put himself between the receiver and the football. He posted 155 tackles, including 14 behind the line of scrimmage. His biggest moment probably came against Nebraska in 2002 when he leaped high in the air to intercept quarterback Jammal Lord’s pass at Texas’ 1-yard line to seal a 27-24 victory and break the Cornhuskers’ 26-game home winning streak. Also a superior punt returner.

How he ended up at Texas
Nathan was a standout two-way player at Texas High. He wasn’t necessarily a well-known commodity going into his senior year, but he had an outstanding senior season once he came back from a broken forearm and that caught Texas’ eye. Texas got on him only in the last month before signing day and took him away from A&M.

What they’re saying
Kirk Bohls: “We’re talking about a small player here. But Nathan Vasher played as big on the field as he was small in stature. The guy was a bundle of energy, could stop-start as fast as anyone, and just made plays all over the field.”

9. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (2003-06)

No. 10 Nathan Vasher

Why he’s in this spot?
For Texas fans, it’s hard to think of Griffin as anything but a safety, but he actually played running back in high school. That didn’t stop him from becoming an All-American (second team) on the defensive side of the ball. He started 28 games and accrued 364 tackles, eight interceptions, 23 pass breakups, nine forced fumbles and set a Texas school record with eight blocked punts (No. 2 all-time in the NCAA). He led the team in tackles in back-to-back seasons. His biggest play had to be in the national championship game when he came up with an interception in the corner of Texas’ end zone to halt a Southern Cal drive during the Longhorns’ 41-38 win.

How he ended up at Texas
He was a summer commitment. He went to the Texas A&M and Texas camps. He had offers from both and chose the Longhorns. What really propelled him to “blue chip” status was his performance in the 7-on-7 state championship game. That’s when he became a consensus top-10 recruit in the state. Austin Bowie was not a passing team and Michael Griffin on defense kind of put on a show.

What they’re saying
Kirk Bohls: “Michael Griffin was just tough, pure and simple. While better in run support than pass coverage, he was athletic enough to do both. And when he hit someone, the ball carrier knew it. He was a very versatile player who was great against both the run and the pass.”

8. BRYANT WESTBROOK (1993-1996)

Why he’s in this spot?
Some have said that his hit on Texas A&M’s Leeland McElroy in 1995 helped to start turn the series back in Texas’ favor. Westbrook (who received a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct for taunting after the hit) was a beast in the backfield. Receivers knew they had the possibility of being punished any time they touched the ball. Westbrook finished his career with 187 tackles, nine interceptions and 32 pass breakups. He was easily one of the most feared defensive backs to put on the burnt orange.

How he ended up at Texas
That was all Steve Bernstein, who recruited both players (Ricky Williams is the other) on these top 10 lists from California. Bernstein, who had decided to target San Diego and Orange County instead of Los Angeles, had his fingerprints all over this recruit. Westbrook was his first big get from the area. It was a competition between Colorado, Southern Cal and Nebraska. Many thought Westbrook was headed to Colorado for a long time, but Texas swooped in and ended up with quite a nice prize.

What they’re saying
Bobby Burton: “When I think of Bryant, I think of two games. The hit on Randy Kinder in the Notre Dame game was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. It was so loud and so vicious that the entire crowd gasped all at once. It was so intense I thought Kinder might have been paralyzed. Then the A&M game for the last SWC championship where he just tattooed Leeland McElroy a couple of times. He was an enforcer and you can't say that about many cornerbacks.”

7. BILL BRADLEY (1966-68)

Michael Griffin's interception in the endzone against USC in the BCS title game helped Texas win the 2005 national championship.

Why he’s in this spot?
Honestly, he could have been on a number of these top 10 lists if he had stuck to one position. He began his career at Texas as a quarterback and a running back. The problem was he wasn’t the optimal guy to have running the wishbone, so he transferred to the defensive side of the ball. It’s hard to imagine how good Bradley would have been if he’d started his career on defense. Look at his profile on mackbrown-texasfootball.com and it lists him as a quarterback, back, receiver and punter. He spent most of his time at Texas on offense, but his best game came on defense. His last game at Texas in 1968, Bradley recorded four interceptions against Texas A&M.

How he ended up at Texas
He’s one of those guys who just wanted to come to Texas. He could have gone to college at any school in the Southwest Conference in several sports. He liked Texas because Texas represented the best to the Palestine native. His high school coach felt the same way.

What they’re saying
Kirk Bohls: "He may not have ended up as Super Bill at quarterback as he was called before he ever showed up in Austin. But he selflessly kept the team together after losing his job to James Street and became a kick-butt defensive back who had four interceptions against Texas A&M. He was a hitter."

6. QUENTIN JAMMER (1997-98, 2000-01)

Why he’s in this spot?
He was a big, physical player who began his career at safety before switching to cornerback, where he was about as versatile as they come. He could shut down the opposition’s top receiver or come up and make a big hit to stop a running back. Jammer was a two-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection who, arguably, was the first in a long line of top defensive backs at Texas over the past 15 years. He finished his career with 188 tackles, seven interceptions and an impressive 57 pass breakups. Jammer really started Texas’ run of top-notch defensive backs. He was the first Longhorn to be selected a finalist for the Thorpe Award.

How he ended up at Texas
He was a high school quarterback who really was an outstanding all-around athlete. He was a top-10 state recruit. He could have gone to any school nationally, and Michigan was trying to get him. Texas A&M and Oklahoma were after him, too. Texas was always his school, though.

What they’re saying
Bobby Burton: “When you look at Quentin Jammer in college, you’re thinking outside linebacker and not cornerback. He was extremely physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage. They just couldn’t get off the line at times. Now he’s played more than 10 years in the league. He’s just a special player.”

5. MICHAEL HUFF (2002-05)

No. 9 Michael Griffin

Why he’s in this spot?
He was the first Texas player to win the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. Perhaps more important to Texas fans is he was selected the defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl after recording 12 tackles and a fumble recovery in the 2005 national championship game. Huff started an amazing 50 games for the Longhorns, recording 318 tackles, 44 pass breakups, six forced fumbles and seven interceptions. During his Thorpe season in 2005, he recorded 109 tackles, including 10 behind the line of scrimmage, two sacks, an interception and 14 pass breakups.

How he ended up at Texas
Really under-recruited. Texas came in late and offered him. He was only a three-star prospect, but he had that speed. If he didn’t go to Texas he probably was going to end up at Purdue, which was one of the few BCS schools after him. Great find by defensive backs coach Duane Akina.

What they’re saying
Kirk Bohls: “Michael Huff was as much a self-made man as Texas has ever had. He came to school as a skinny track star and left as a physical, in-your-face player who didn't mind sticking his nose into any pending collision. Was certainly deserving as a Thorpe Award winner.”

4. EARL THOMAS (2008-09)

Why he’s in this spot?
It’s hard to believe anybody expected Earl Thomas to be as good as he was when he arrived on campus in 2007. It didn’t take long to figure it out after he had redshirted his first year. In his first game, Thomas had five tackles, two pass breakups and a blocked punt. It was the beginning of a career where he started all 27 games, was a Thorpe Award finalist and a consensus first-team All-America selection his sophomore year. He finished with 149 tackles, 10 interceptions and 33 pass breakups. His 2009 season was as impressive as they come. Thomas set a Texas single-season record with eight interceptions, including one he returned 92 yards for a touchdown against Colorado.

How he ended up at Texas
Bobby Burton said he remembered when Gerry Hamilton told him Earl Thomas needed to be invited to the inaugural Offense-Defense All-American game. Hamilton said that Thomas wasn’t very big and he was
not the fastest guy, but he played big and he played fast. Thomas had committed to Texas in February of the prior year, so he wasn’t a guy that was big on a lot of the recruiting lists. Everybody knows how things turned out.

What they’re saying
Bobby Burton: “If you looked at Earl Thomas in high school, you'd have never thought he would make it on this list. He's not that tall, he wasn't that big, but the bottom line is he just has a special kind of instinct for football. The play he made against Oklahoma State was probably the play of the year in 2009. He read the QB, read the route and jumped it for a pick six. Coaches dream about players who can do things like that. There just aren't many of them.”

3. RAYMOND CLAYBORN (1973-76)

No. 8 Bryant Westbrook

Why he’s in this spot?
Clayborn is another defensive back who began life at Texas on the offensive side of the ball. He ended up switching to defensive back and recorded 127 tackles, six interceptions and 24 pass breakups during his career, which ended with an All-American selection in 1976. He was described by his peers as, “just a good guy who was never seen with a frown; A guy who was always having a good time.” Clayborn’s biggest asset was his football smarts. He was a guy who knew exactly where he was supposed to be.

How he ended up at Texas
According to former teammate Bob McKay, Clayborn was quarter-miler in high school. The two were on the Longhorn freshman team together and Clayborn was one of those guys who wanted to continue running track while he played football.

What they’re saying
Fred Akers: “I’ll never forget the first time he touched the ball. We were playing Arkansas and we pitched the ball back to him on the sweep and he took it 75 yards for a touchdown. He was just a competitor. He’s one of those guys who you wanted to get if you were going to end up with a championship team.”

2. JOHNNIE JOHNSON (1976-79)

Why he’s in this spot?
Just as Clayborn was leaving, Johnson was arriving to take his place. In fact, the two overlapped in 1976 as Johnson found the field the second he stepped on campus. He recorded 249 tackles, 13 interceptions and 32 pass breakups in his four years wearing burnt orange. He was selected the nation’s best defensive back in 1978 and was a consensus All-American in both 1978 and 1979. But that only told part of the story as Johnson also could be lethal with the ball in his hands. He finished his career with 1,004 return yards.

How he ended up at Texas
A stellar athlete out of LaGrange, Johnson visited Texas and Texas A&M, and that was about it, according to former Texas coach David McWilliams. Johnson was a great offensive player in high school, however, he projected better defensively in the long run. Texas was playing a little more of a pro-type defense, and that helped pave the way for him to head to Austin. When it came to recruiting Johnson, McWilliams said the Longhorns didn’t run into much trouble. Texas was in the midst of a run of landing a bunch of the best defensive backs who ever played in Austin. The Longhorns also were still in the midst of integrating, and Johnson was one of those recruits who helped keep the ball rolling in the right direction.

What they’re saying
Kirk Bohls: "He was a tremendous athlete in high school and started his first game in college. He was always in the right spot at the right time and played his best in the biggest games, especially against Oklahoma. He'd have won the Thorpe Award if it had existed then. Also a terrific punt returner."

1. JERRY GRAY (1981-84)

Bill Bradley played all over the field for Texas in the mid '60s.

Why he’s in this spot?
Just a winner. Another competitor who was smart, athletic and basically possessed all the qualities you looked for in a football player. He could have played quarterback but Fred Akers felt like he could go farther as a defensive back than he would at quarterback. That was a good decision as Gray ended up a two-time consensus All-American safety at Texas in 1983 and 1984 before being selected as a first-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Rams. Gray was one of those players who showed promise early and kept getting better every season he was on campus. He finished his career with 297 tackles, 14 interceptions and 19 pass break ups.

How he ended up at Texas
Oklahoma was after him real bad, but the Sooners wanted him to play quarterback. Gray had a decision to make. McWilliams did his best to persuade Gray. McWilliams told Gray that he could play quarterback in college but they don’t have the wishbone in the NFL. He’d have a much better shot to have a long career as a defensive back. According
to McWilliams, “Gray was a thinker, a guy who would always analyze both sides. He’d think things out. He saw that his future was better on the defensive side of the ball.” It didn’t hurt that he knew his mother would be able to see him play more if he went to Texas.

What they’re saying
Kirk Bohls: "As good and fluid a defensive back as there has ever been. He was a two-time All-American who hit as hard as any Texas DB ever. Of course, we'll never forget the time he ran down Bo Jackson from behind at Memorial Stadium and separated his collarbone. Gray was so good, he could have been a star at three or four positions."

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