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Exam Day

Nobody within the Texas football program will debate the fact that Carrington Byndom and Trey Hopkins are two of the smartest players on the team.

The big plays Carrington Byndom has let up this year have people wondering if his confidence is shaken.

Byndom carried a 97 grade average with him throughout his days at Lufkin. Hopkins is a biology major and plans on entering the medical field when his football career is over either as a pediatrician or an anesthesiologist.

While some players might not necessarily be able to carry the book smarts over to having cerebral prowess on the football field, both of them do. Byndom was a first-team All-Big 12 performer last season, and only three players on the entire roster have more career starts than Hopkins, who is only three full games into his junior season.

The 6-foot, 180-pound cornerback and the 6-foot-4, 300-pound offensive guard have even more parallels that you'd think.

Both have the same personality types – Kenny Vaccaro describes Byndom as, “Real chill,” on and off the field while Mason Walters said Hopkins was so quiet in the huddle at right tackle last season he'd forget he was there.

They were both pressed into action as true freshmen in 2010 when neither was truly ready. And while they've both earned their rightful places as impact players for the Longhorns, they're both looking for something different tonight when the Longhorns take on Oklahoma State in the Big 12 opener.

Hopkins is hoping his streak of being a dominant player can continue. Byndom is looking for consistently elite level of play to come back.

The situations the two multiple-year starters find themselves in is a coincidence. In another tie that binds them, last year's game against the Cowboys was a turning point in their respective careers.

Hopkins finished a rough two-game stretch after Texas' 38-26 loss to Oklahoma State in Austin as he unfortunately had a hand in the five sacks against David Ash. The week prior Hopkins was beaten several times in the Longhorns' 55-17 loss to Oklahoma.

Trey Hopkins is playing much better than he was entering the 2011 matchup with Oklahoma State.

He started to turn the corner during the Kansas and Texas Tech games, but there's no question that the two-game stretch was a low point for Hopkins. This week he recalled what he said were a lot of missed assignments, pressures allowed and sacks given up on his part during the meeting with the Cowboys.

The struggles are clearly behind him, and the argument can be made that he's been the best lineman on the team through the first three games. He earned the Bevo Beast award as the team's most productive lineman in each of the last two games.

Part of his outstanding play is due in part to being able to return to his natural position at guard. When he was recruited out of Galena Park North Shore in the 2010 class, Hopkins was viewed as an interior player, and one of the better ones in the country at that, but depth issues in the Texas program forced him to move out to tackle.

Hopkins has said numerous times that he feels more comfortable at guard, and Bryan Harsin said Hopkins' ability to pull on the outside power play and reach block on the inside zone has made a huge difference for the offense.

“Having him in there with some experience, it helps communicate what we're doing up front,” Harsin said. “He's a smart, hard worker, he's tough and athletic guy and he's as reliable as they come.”

Hopkins might know the Texas offense better than any lineman. He's prepared to play any of the five positions at the drop of a hat, but now only having to know one position has made a world of difference in his play.

“My focus on the field is more dominating – I'm going to dominate the person in front of me,” Hopkins said. “It's a legal street fight. That's what football is and that's what I focus on during the game.”

Confidence is something that many wonder if Byndom is lacking right now.

His performance against the Cowboys last season was the start of what wound up being one of the most dominating 2011 seasons for any cornerback in the country. Brandon Weeden targeted Justin Blackmon ten times against Texas last season with Byndom covering, and the then-sophomore cornerback held the future first-round draft choice to just 48 yards on four catches.

When the numbers were tallied at the end of the year, Byndom allowed 6.2 yards per pass attempt. That was better than the averages posted by Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick (6.6) and LSU's Morris Claiborne, the top two cornerbacks selected in last spring's NFL draft.

Put all of that together with his pick-six that helped the Longhorns win the final rivalry tilt against Texas A&M, and the expectations for Byndom were sky high entering this season. He's put together film that validates his ability, but those clips are buried under the images of the big plays he's given up in the minds of Longhorn fans.

An 82-yard touchdown and a 48-yard bomb down the field against Wyoming, as well as a 75-yard touchdown against Ole Miss have all happened on Byndom's side of the field this season. But even though a lot of Longhorn fans and media members have pushed the panic button based on Byndom's start, Manny Diaz isn't worried about his standout defender.

“If you play man-to-man it's not a crime for them to catch a fade,” Diaz said. “Let's make it a 25-yard gain.”

The latter part of Diaz's take is why Duane Akina is among the people within the program who haven't lost confidence in Byndom.

“He's playing well, but our standard is extremely high there and we just have to get [the receiver] on the ground,” Akina said. “When you play a real aggressive style of secondary play with a lot of bump-and-run and your own islands down there, that's going to happen.”

Diaz, Akina and Kenny Vaccaro say they haven't noticed a change in Byndom's confidence. Byndom himself said that people who are writing him off are rushing to judgement too quickly.

“I still feel like I can get the job done week in and week out,” Byndom said. “Nothing has changed. I'm still that guy who can cover a No. 1 receiver.”

The challenges now for Byndom to get back on track and Hopkins to stay there are different than they were last season against Oklahoma State.

There's no Blackmon or Weeden, but Byndom and the defense are facing an offense that leads the nation in scoring and total offense.

Hopkins and the offensive line are much better than they were last season, but the Cowboys' defensive line poses far and away the biggest test that group has had to date.

If the Longhorns are unable to establish the line of scrimmage on offense or prevent big plays in the passing game it could be a long night. That makes the need for Byndom and Hopkins to both play big one of great proportions.

Both have taken their share of tests in their lives and passed them with flying with colors. If the Longhorns are to start 4-0 and set themselves up for a run at the Big 12 title, then this another exam they'll both need to ace.

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