There has been a void of vocal leadership - maybe you’ve noticed - within the Texas program the past couple of seasons. Now, free safety Kenny Vaccaro is determined to put the matter in his rear view mirror. The senior recently laid down the law with his teammates. Here’s what he told them:
“I don’t want to be associated with a group of guys if they don’t care as much about the game as I do.”
Their genuine sense of surprise was not lost on Vaccaro. At least half of them have never had the likes of Vaccaro up close and extremely loud since they arrived at the Forty Acres.
“We haven’t had anybody call anybody out since Sergio (Kindle) and Lamarr (Houston) did it (in 2009),” Vaccaro said. “I was scared my freshman year of Sergio – we called him The Predator - and all these dudes like him around me. I was scared that if I didn’t make every tackle on kickoff, they were going to rip my head off.”
But that was two, long years - and 12 losses - ago.
“I don’t think any of the other players have talked since then. There have been leaders, but there hasn’t been the type of guy in the locker room that everybody respects and nobody says anything back to.”
Now, there is. These days, the locker room is filled with a number of in-your-grill personas. Vaccaro specifically mentioned junior weakside linebacker Jordan Hicks, junior strong safety Adrian Phillips and, of course, senior defensive end Alex Okafor, as fitting the bill. Already, there is an appreciable response from the underclassmen.
“After we say something, the other guys aren’t walking away from us saying that we’re idiots. They understand that we know what we’re talking about.”
The emergence of team leadership stems from a combination of things. It has to do with laying enough egos aside to count on your teammates as well as the street cred that comes from game-day productivity, coordinator Manny Diaz said Monday.
“If you have a guy who gets into somebody’s face and tries to be that person but he doesn’t have the respect of the football team,” Diaz said, “then you have a problem, it actually makes it worse. It’s detrimental. You go to any game, from Pee Wee to the pros, and sidelines are filled with guys who want to give speeches. We don’t need any more guys who say ‘Let’s go!' We need guys who, first and foremost, lead with their work ethic, their toughness and with their dependability. Age is a factor, too, but once they’ve checked off those boxes, then they’ve earned the right to bring the guys along."
Added Diaz, “Leadership is obviously important, but people put the cart before the horse. If you beg for leadership in the wrong place, it can pull a team in the other direction. Our team respects Kenny Vaccaro. If I’m a younger player, like Mykkele Thompson or Josh Turner, I wouldn’t want to make Kenny Vaccaro mad.”
For now, the leadership on the other side the ball is generally located in junior right guard Mason Walters.
“I don’t think anybody wants to say anything to Mason,” Vaccaro continued.
There is, understandably, a “sense of urgency” that comes with one’s senior year, Vaccaro added. (Or, as Okafor mused Monday, “My days are numbered”). And though fear is a powerful motivator, Vaccaro’s stance is one built on respect as well.
“Play for the person who is beside you and respects you," Vaccaro says. "There’s no doubt they get that now.”