April 20, 2013

Physical safety Kenny Vaccaro making his case to be a high draft pick

The Dolphins are taking notice of Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, who was one of Miami’s final predraft guests.

Tavon Austin doesn’t need much time or space to get up to speed. So when he has both, he is nearly impossible to catch.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro had that unenviable assignment on a play late in October’s West Virginia-Texas showdown. Austin — the Mountaineers’ diminutive but electric wide receiver — took a pitch on an end-around and appeared to have the angle to the sidelines.

He didn’t. Vaccaro tracked Austin across the field, cut him off at the pass and tripped him up after just a short gain.

Now, one play doesn’t make a career. (Austin did have more than 100 yards receiving that night, although not all against Vaccaro.)

Still, that flash of athleticism helps give the counterpoint to doubts about Vaccaro’s speed — arguably the only thing stopping him from being a top-10 pick in next week’s NFL Draft. And should the Dolphins take Vaccaro over Austin at No. 12, it might be one of the reasons why.

Former NFL scout and current NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah called Vaccaro’s showdown with Austin the defensive back’s “highlight moment.”

“You got to see him move around,” Jeremiah said. “He’s a physical kid. He’ll light you up.”

The Dolphins have noticed. They made Vaccaro one of their final predraft guests, which could mean they have real interest in taking him in the first round. (It could also be a smokescreen.)

Should they pick Vaccaro, the Dolphins would get a player most everyone sees as the year’s best safety — Vaccaro included.

“I think I bring the most to the table,” Vaccaro said at the NFL Combine in February.

The two-time All-Big 12 selection appeared in 51 games at Texas, starting 32 at safety — including every game his final two years.

Vaccaro, a native of Brownwood, Texas, and nephew of former Redskins corner A.J. Johnson, toyed with the idea of jumping to the NFL last year. But he returned to win a national championship.

It didn’t work out. Texas lost four times (including to Austin’s Mountaineers) in 2012, yet Vaccaro was stellar. He had a career-high 92 tackles — 4.5 of which were for loss — and two interceptions en route to Pro Football Weekly All-American honors.

“I think he’s one of the 10 or 12 best players in the draft,” Jeremiah said.

In college, Vaccaro played both safety positions, nickel cornerback and the dime position. In one-on-one reps at practice, he went against wide receivers.

“He’s a good, physical safety,” said Baylor receiver Terrance Williams. “You have to be paying attention when he’s guarding you. He’s someone that will jam you at the line of scrimmage. He has a good job of being physical but not too physical.”

ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper isn’t quite so bullish.

Vaccaro ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at the Combine, which hurt his stock. Making matters worse, he didn’t run at Texas’ pro day because of a hip injury.

“Maybe three months ago or two months ago I would have said Vaccaro at 12; now I’m thinking more Vaccaro at 22 to St. Louis,” Kiper said recently. “Good football player, but I don’t know if you have to have the justification of the numbers to get up into the top 15, and I don’t think he did at this stage.”

To that, Vaccaro would say: Turn on the West Virginia tape.

“Me and Tavon were going at it all game,” Vaccaro said. “He’s a great player. I think I did pretty good. I would say he’s one of the most explosive players in the country and I’d say I was right there with him.”

• Randy Starks’ absence this week has made little impact on his contract situation. As of Friday, the two sides had not engaged in talks about an extension.

The Dolphins’ franchise tag designee has elected to sit out the voluntary program but will participate in the mandatory camps.

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