August 5, 2012

Kenny Vaccaro impacts Texas D in every way

NFL scouts loved Kenny Vaccaro after last season.

One told me, "The best Longhorn in this year's draft would have been Vaccaro. He might have been a first-rounder with the way he can cover and the way he defends the run."

Even Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had his doubts about Vaccaro returning in 2012 after watching Vaccaro hurdle a Cal running back in the Holiday Bowl to record a sack - one of his 157 career tackles at UT.

"I've got to be honest, when he jumped over the guy in the bowl game, I thought 'Uh oh,'" Diaz said. "I was like, 'That was great. But oh man.'"

Even Kenny sounded like he might have made a mistake by not leaving early for the NFL when he discussed his decision to return to Texas for his senior year during spring football.

"I actually think I probably should have (entered the draft), but I think I can up my stock," Vaccaro said. "I watch this year's safety class, I think I can compete with those guys."

Vaccaro said in the spring he returned for his senior year to finish his degree, try to help Texas win a championship and possibly win the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. Vaccaro said becoming a father to a baby boy in the past year has changed his life.

"I want to get my degree because the way I play I'm so reckless that I might knock myself out," Vaccaro said. "So I'm definitely going to get that insurance policy. Everything I do will help him (my son) in the future."

FATHER FIGURE: Kenny's father - Ken Vaccaro - passed away from emphysema when Kenny was 16 and a sophomore in high school. His father was Kenny's best friend and the person who introduced him to football and shared a love of the Texas Longhorns. But he was also a lifelong smoker.

Kenny's mother, Alesia, works several jobs to help support Kenny, his younger brother, Kevin, now a football player at Texas, and twin sisters.

In 2010, Alesia Vaccaro brought the urn with Ken Vaccaro's ashes in it to the Texas-Oklahoma State game. Kenny had one of his best games at Texas that day, posting nine tackles, an interception and two pass breakups.

"My dad and I were real close," said Kenny. "The Oklahoma State game was my dad's birthday.

"And she brought my dad because he's cremated and she brought the urn with his ashes. I just knew it was going to be a special day and I was going to play well. I ended up having a pretty good game."

"In pre-game, I looked up at the sky and said, 'This one's for you, Dad.'"

FOOTBALL AS A REFUGE: Kenny said when his father died, he sought refuge in football to get away from all the adversity that seemed to follow him around.

"My family doesn't have that much money. I was getting moved school to school," Vaccaro said. "I tore my ACL my senior year. I never really had a mentor around. I just had football. That was my comfort zone. That was my home."

Kenny said it was his mother who pushed him to train well in sports while his father was the one who always bought his equipment and drove him to practices.

"He took me to all my practices," Kenny said. "My mom did the training side, and my dad did the execution. My mom and dad sort of switched roles because my mom is kind of like a general.

"My mom trained me in sports and academics ever since I was little. I used to do track. I've been running since I was four. She put me through AAU and nationals in track.

"I got burned out on that. She knew I had something special that might help the family. She kept pushing me. She kept me going, kept my grades right. She wanted me to not only be an athlete but a smart young man."

HARD HITTER: Vaccaro said there might have been some anger from losing his father that was carried over to the football field.

Vaccaro used to simply light people up as a hard-hitting safety at Brownwood. In fact, in his first game as a starter his sophomore year at Brownwood, he knocked a receiver out of the game with a concussion that included breaking a piece off the receiver's helmet.

"My coach at Brownwood (Steve Freeman) kept it for recruiting," Vaccaro said. "When coaches would come in and ask if this guy can be physical, he showed them the piece of cracked helmet."

Freeman coached Vaccaro at Brownwood, a team that also included TCU quarterback Casey Pachall.

"Kenny is one of the top players I've ever coached, and maybe the best defensive player," said Steve Freeman, who is now the coach at Breckenridge. "He has that rare ability to gather with impact and power at the same time. That's something you don't coach. Some of these guys are just born with. And when they deliver a blow, everyone knows it."

Freeman talks almost in disbelief about the play Vaccaro made that cracked another kid's helmet.

"Kenny came up to force the play, and when he hit the kid, I thought I saw the kid's mouthpiece fly out," Freeman said. "But I looked, and it wasn't the kid's mouthpiece, it was from the earhole down of the kid's helmet. The hit just broke that part of the helmet clean off.

"Obviously, that's a pretty good lick. I still have that piece of cracked helmet in my office."

I asked why he would keep it, and Freeman said, "Because I've never seen anything like that before or since."

Vaccaro's best Earl Thomas, who was selected No. 14 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks after picking off nine passes in 2009.

"I first got here and moved into Jester Dorms and Earl lived right across from me," Vaccaro said. "It seemed like we were up there playing dominoes, and then I blink and he's in Seattle as a first-round draft pick.

"Coach (Will Muschamp) constantly told us how hard Earl played and how hard he worked, and I just try to pattern my game after him. He was just a good role model for me because he loved football, and I love football too. I'm just trying to mimic my game around him. Hopefully, I can do half of what he did."

Vaccaro would love to win the Thorpe Award this season, something Thomas, Aaron Ross and Michael Huff also won at Texas.

"We're DBU," Vaccaro said.

Vaccaro has said he was also inspired by Robert Griffin III, whom he competed against in track in the 400 in high school.

"Robert was so disciplined in the way he trained," Vaccaro said. "I've tried to train like him."

LEARNING A LESSON: Vaccaro apologized on Twitter for an incident back in May in which he, Alex Okafor and Barrett Matthews were cited by police on Sixth Street for failing to obey a lawful order. The misdemeanor charges were ultimately dropped when a judge said there was insufficient evidence.

"I've learned from this and will do everything I need to do to be a better player and more importantly a better person," Vaccaro tweeted.

Mack Brown said the players were reprimanded/punished privately and will not miss any game time.

"They didn't do anything wrong, other than they didn't show proper respect to authority when the police asked them to leave," Brown said.

Mack said Vaccaro has learned from the situation and will be a key leader on the team this season.

"Kenny is driven, athletic, tough, smart. He's got everything," Mack said. "He's played a little bit all over the place at nickel, safety and corner. It will be a great year for him to have a great year with his technique at safety."

STAYING FOCUSED: During spring football, Vaccaro said secondary coach Duane Akina gave him added motivation to stay focused.

"Sometimes I get bored back there since I've been here three years and know the game," Vaccaro said. "But Coach Akina told me I need to pretend like it's my first time out there."

Vaccaro said he's "put it on myself to learn the whole defense and put everybody in place because when something goes wrong in the course of a game, maybe I can help guys out at linebacker or another position."

Vaccaro has also warned his best friend, Casey Pachall, that it will be a big adjustment for TCU from the Mountain West to the Big 12.

"He always tells me that with us coming into the league, it's not going to be easy," Pachall said at Big 12 Football Media Days. "I know their defense is good. It's going to be interesting playing against him, because I've always had him on my side.

"It will be exciting. We've been best friends our whole lives. He's really smart for his position and incredibly athletic. He's an overall star at safety."

Added Vaccaro's high school coach, Steve Freeman, "He's worked for everything he's gotten. He was blessed with some talent, and he's used that talent.

"Hopefully, he'll be blessed to keep using those talents. I've seen guys with talent who didn't work hard, and Kenny is one who never took it for granted."

Vaccaro has never been shy, and he says the 2012 defense is going to be better than 2011.

"This defense is gonna be better than last year - oh yeah," Vaccaro said. "No offense to anyone, but it's faster."

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