Futures: Texas FS Kenny Vaccaro
by Matt Waldman
Studying football players is a solitary pursuit. So it feels good when a performance catches your attention and months later you learn that it did the same for another writer, scout, or talent evaluator. Everyone enjoys that kind of validation.
The free safety didn’t have an incredible game, but his potential leaped off the screen -– and in one case, over running back Iso Sofele (see below) -– as a versatile prospect capable of starting at either safety position as well as being a force on special teams. According to Orangebloods.com writer Chip Brown, it was this Cal game that had an NFL scout tell him that Vaccaro would have been "the best Longhorn in the [2012 NFL Draft] ... He might have been a first-rounder with the way he can cover and the way he defends the run."
Vacarro might be the most impressive defender on an underachieving Longhorns defensive unit. Six defensive backs from Texas have earned top-50 selections in the NFL Draft, Vaccaro is likely to become the seventh in 2013. There’s a lot to like about his game.
Although his edge sometimes crosses the line to recklessness, I love Vaccaro’s ability to play with abandon. Once he improves his ability to disengage from blockers, he’ll be a consistent force in the box. As good of a tackler as he is and will become, the most impressive thing about Vacarro’s game is his pass defense. He can cover elite college receivers as disparate as the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Keenan Allen and the 5-foot-9, 174-pound Tavon Austin. While he’ll lose a battle or two, he’s shown that he can win these matchups when examining the overall scope of the game. Size. Speed. Skill. Intensity. Vaccaro has it all.
Versus the run
This is the typical highlight reel play you’ll see of a defender on television when his name is called on draft day. It may appear to be a fluff highlight, but there are worthwhile things about this play to begin telling Vaccaro’s story. This snap is Cal’s first offensive possession of the game. They are running a 21-personnel, strong-side I-formation set with the two receivers in a 1x1 position with 11:05 in the first quarter.
Vaccaro is the second-deepest defender on the field and at the strong side hash, where this running play is heading. The play-side receiver’s job is to block Vaccaro, but the free safety reads the direction of the run and, without hesitation, makes a beeline inside the blocker to the ball carrier.
There’s nothing magical about Vaccaro’s diagnosis or his technique to avoid the block. What I do like is that the free safety practices good technique as a defender at the line of scrimmage.
He bends his angle in a direction where his back is to the sideline to funnel the running back inside. This is good technique, because Vaccaro will have additional help if he fails to make the play on his own. The angle also puts Vaccaro’s shoulders square with his target, but at the same time prevents his opponent from squaring his pads on the free safety.
It’s more difficult for a ball carrier to break a tackle when he’s hit from an indirect angle. This is why you’ll often find me gushing about the potential of runners with the balance to run through these hits. Ryan Mathews is a good example of a back that has this skill.
Vaccaro delivers a good strike to the runner’s side with his pads low and finishes with a wrap to stuff the runner for a one-yard loss at the point of impact. The Longhorns free safety can unload when he is unblocked. One issue I’ve seen from Vaccaro’s tackling technique on other plays is that he sometimes drops his head when hitting. This is the kind of technique flaw that could end his career, and, at the risk of sounding dramatic, his life as he knows it.
Vaccaro is not a highlight-reel bully who doesn’t do the dirty work. Here’s a first-and-10 play against Kansas with 9:35 left where the Jayhawks are pulling the left guard and fullback to Vaccaro’s side so speedy running back Tony Pierson can get outside.
This is a play were the Texas free safety has to sacrifice his body to give his teammates a chance to stop the run.
Vaccaro cuts under the guard and fullback, dropping them like dominoes and forcing the runner inside. This gives the Longhorns defense a better chance to flow to the ball carrier and prevent the fleet-footed Pierson from beating their pursuit angles. There’s no box-score glory for Vaccaro on this play, but his effort is a vital part of good defensive football.
Here’s a hint of Vaccaro’s athleticism and aggressive style of play. This is a third-and-8 with 11:56 in the first half of the Cal game. Vaccaro is over Keenan Allen in the slot. Allen reads that Vaccaro is blitzing off the corner and Cal makes an adjustment to its protection. The offense sends running back Iso Sofele to pick up Vaccaro’s pressure from this 11-personnel, weak-side trips set.
The runner and the line work outside to that edge. Instead of working around or through the running back, Vaccaro times his leap like Sofele is the hurdle in the steeplechase, landing two feet from the quarterback.
Vaccaro finishes the drill by turning his pads square to the quarterback and bringing the passer to the turf. This isn’t the greatest hurdle in football history, but the point of this play is to illustrate Vaccaro’s willingness to play with abandon and throw his body around.
Here’s a second-and-3 with 10:20 in the third quarter. Vacarro is coming off the edge to get pressure on Cal’s Zach Maynard. The design of this play is a boot towards the free safety, but Maynard has to turn tail in the opposite direction because of Vacarro’s pressure.
Vacarro does a good job of getting his inside shoulder under the pads of his opponent and bending his lower body at a sharp enough angle to get the corner.
This leaves Maynard with few alternatives, and those he has will need to be executed post-haste. The quarterback turns away from pressure and makes a rushed throw that Longhorns (now Cleveland Browns) linebacker Emmanuel Acho comes within inches of intercepting in the red zone.
The fine line between aggressive, reckless, and dirty play
Vaccaro plays with an edge. Sometimes that edge crosses the line from aggressive to undisciplined. With 40 seconds left in third quarter against Kansas, running back James Sims takes a run to left end and gains six yards behind good blocks. Vaccaro wraps Sims high, around the neck, and with his left hand dangerously close to the runner’s facemask as he rides Sims out of bounds. This is the second play of the game where he wraps a runner high (more ahead).
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He also tries to spear his opponent on the opening play versus West Virginia. Vaccaro is within range of running back Andrew Buie falling to the ground and opts to "give a little extra to send an opening-play message." Many teams will like basic intensity and aggression, but Vaccaro will need to keep it in check. Otherwise, he can generate the type of game-changing penalties that have plagued the Lions defense in recent years.
Open Field Skills
A free safety has to demonstrate the speed to function as his defense’s last line. Here are two plays where Vaccaro displays both vertical and sideline-to-sideline speed to run down ball carriers. The first is a 64-yard run with 13:40 in the first half of the Longhorns' 2012 matchup with the Kansas Jayhawks.
James Sims is the type of back with enough speed to get into the secondary. If the defense is caught in a blitz with eight or more defenders in the box, Sims can take a play 40-to-60 yards to the house. This particular run is a second-and-10 zone play from a 1x3 receiver, 10-personnel shotgun set with nine Longhorn defenders within four yards of the line of scrimmage. A perfect scenario for a big run if the Jayhawks execute –- and they do.
Vaccaro works up the hash to take the inside slot receiver at the snap. As he diagnoses this as a run up the middle, Sims has a huge hole up the middle to the opposite side of the field.
As Sims reaches the first down marker he’s quick enough to split two Texas defensive backs. Vaccaro is one of them, mostly because he's still dealing with the slot receiver slowing his pursuit to the crease Sims has reached.
The pursuit of two Longhorns teammates and two Jayhawks receivers engulfs Vaccaro as Sims passes through the second level of the Longhorn defense. It’s easy to presume that Vaccaro will no longer be a factor in this play. But when Sims bounces the play to the flat, Vaccaro manages to hurdle a fallen teammate and closes the gap on the runner.
As Vaccaro is about to close, the free safety’s bigger, slower teammate gets in the way at the left hash and cuts off Vaccaro’s best angle to Sims.
Vaccaro has only one shot to get Sims and it means overcoming the runner’s angle with pure speed.
Sims gains another 20 yards, but Vaccaro manages to get within reach of the runner. He drags Sims to the turf from behind with a horse-collar tackle, drawing a penalty but saving a touchdown. This tackle isn’t as reckless as the first example, but it’s a pattern to monitor with Vaccaro.
There are even more impressive examples of Vaccaro’s speed. Two showed up here in a previous column on Tavon Austin. At the time I wrote the piece on Austin, I wasn’t sure how speedy either player was. Since that study session, I feel more comfortable saying that Austin may not have elite speed, but he’s still capable of breaking long plays against any defender if he gains the optimal angle in the open field.
With that in mind, check out the Austin piece once again and you’ll see two plays where Vaccaro runs down Austin. The first is an open-field tackle where the safety crosses the width of the field to meet Austin at the opposite sideline. Vaccaro’s speed minimizes what could have been a large gain on an end-around. The second play is a post where Vaccaro plays at linebacker depth and has underneath coverage to bracket Austin on the play.
Vaccaro’s speed and short-range acceleration is something that the Cal special teams unit fears to the extent that, with 11:08 in the half, the punt team’s execution of a kick is tailored to defend the free safety’s prowess.
The three punt protectors in the backfield are shifted to Vaccaro’s side. The fact that they leave the safety unblocked at the line of scrimmage indicates that they have concerns he’ll get off the edge too quickly to be touched. They prefer to address any pressure one level behind the line.
The kicker also slants away from Vaccaro as he takes his initial steps to punt the ball. The thought process behind this special teams play is Cal betting that they can complete the punt before Vaccaro makes it to the punter as long as they force the safety to cover the greatest amount of ground to his target.
Despite the extra distance to his target, Vaccaro gets within three yards of the punter just as the kicker drops the ball toward his leg. The safety doesn’t make a play on the ball, but the ground he covers is still a nice display of acceleration.
Executing the jam isn’t as difficult as overcoming it, nonetheless Vaccaro demonstrated quick hands against the Jayhawks’ slot receiver on this third-and-2 pass play from a weak-side trips alignment. When an offense is employing a trips set at this down and distance, there’s a strong likelihood of a quick throw where receivers are working in tandem to confuse the coverage. Vaccaro negates what might have been the quickest option with his press coverage.
The Texas safety is first to strike with his hands and the location of his punch to the receiver’s chest stands up the pass-catcher.
It forces the receiver to stop moving his feet and swipe away Vaccaro’s hand. What I like most about this play is Vaccaro’s ability to stay with the receiver’s attempt to redirect to the outside.
Vaccaro maintains position with his inside arm to the receiver’s chest and then re-positions his outside arm to the same spot with excellent leverage. This stalls the receiver’s outside release and effectively removes the pass-catcher from the quarterback’s consideration on this play. By the time the receiver works free to the inside, the quarterback is rolling right and forces a pass into tight coverage at the boundary that falls incomplete, forcing a punt.
As quarterback of the defense, the free safety sometimes has to demonstrate the judgment to prevent a big play with a similar type of damage control that we see from a quarterback that throws the ball away to avoid a sack. Vaccaro did a strong job of limiting Keenan Allen when assigned to Cal’s big-play weapon in last year’s Holiday Bowl, but there was a first-and-10 post pattern with 3:40 in the first quarter where Allen got the best of the Longhorns safety.
At the snap, Vaccaro turns towards the receiver and then runs with Allen. Because of the free safety’s pre-snap position away from the line of scrimmage as more of a linebacker, Allen gets a free release. The receiver’s acceleration is good enough to force the free safety to keep his back to the quarterback to maintain pace.
Vaccaro does not see the ball coming, but he reads Allen and knows the pass is on its way. The safety knows that with two defensive backs split high and Allen running untouched down the middle of the field, he's in trouble. A completed pass to the receiver means Vaccaro will remain in Allen’s rear-view mirror while the Cal wideout sprints untouched for six.
The free safety opts for the alternative: a 15-yard, pass interference penalty. If a defender is going to commit a foul it better be a smart, aggressive one that saves his unit yardage. When an offense makes a great play despite a foul meant to prevent it, this can generate even greater momentum. Vaccaro gets both hands around the back of the receiver as he turns into Allen and does a good job of creating no chance for the receiver to catch the ball.
The payoff comes in the succeeding plays of this drive. On the play after the penalty, Vaccaro and defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat drop Cal’s runner for an eight-yard loss on a reverse. The play after that, Texas tackles Allen on an inside screen for a four-yard loss to make it third-and-20. And to culminate the Longhorns’ stand, defensive back Quandre Diggs intercepts Cal quarterback Maynard to end the drive.
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Although Allen got the best of Vaccaro on this post pattern, Cal rarely targeted Allen when the free safety was matched against its star receiver. Allen caught nine passes for 82 yards and Allen was only targeted twice more against Vaccaro. The plays resulted in an incomplete pass and a screen pass where Allen was dropped for a two-yard loss.
What should make several NFL teams take notice is Vaccaro’s ability to limit a bigger receiver like Allen and then shut down a slot man like West Virginia’s Austin. Quarterback Geno Smith had 35 attempts in the contest with Austin catching 10 of them for 102 yards and a score. It was a good day for Austin –- when he didn’t have to deal with Vaccaro.
Vaccaro had responsibility in some form of coverage on Austin on 26 of Smith’s throws, but Austin’s production on those plays was minimal. Six of these plays were attempts with Vaccaro in shallow zone coverage. On those plays Austin had 21 yards on two catches –- and the longest came after he left the free safety’s zone. Austin was open four times and only once was this in Vaccaro’s area. On that play, the safety made the tackle.
What’s far more impressive is the number of times Vaccaro faced Austin in single coverage. The safety had Austin one-on-one on 18 pass plays; only three times did Vaccaro receive help from an additional defender in bracket coverage. The other 15 times Vaccaro covered Austin heads-up.
On those snaps in man coverage, I only saw Austin come open once; catching an out in the fourth quarter on third-and-11 for eight yards. Vaccaro made the tackle to prevent the first down. The remaining 14 times Vaccaro covered the slot receiver, Austin was only targeted three times. One of these plays was a crossing route where Vaccaro didn’t bite on Austin’s double move and forced Smith to throw the ball wide of the target. Smith was sacked five times and lost two fumbles on plays where Vaccaro had man coverage on Austin.
When the first half was over, West Virgina knew it had to work away from Vaccaro and they began using shovel passes where they motioned Austin towards the formation. The Texas safety still had responsibility for Austin on both of these "targets," tackling Austin after an eight-yard gain on one. The other resulted in a four-yard loss thanks to the defensive line. The rest of the attempts Austin received were on routes where the offense targeted him away from Vaccaro’s zone.
Excluding these shovel passes behind the line of scrimmage, Vaccaro neutralized one of the most dangerous slot receivers in the college game. He may still take bad angles to the ball carrier, get too reckless with his play, and have difficulty shedding blockers, but this quarterback of the defense is going to make an NFL team happy come April.