Texas S Michael Huff could be considered a cornerback by some NFL teams
(The 2006 NFL Draft is scheduled to take place on the weekend of April 29-30, during which nearly 300 college standouts will enter into the professional ranks. During the months of March and April, Buccaneers.com will run a series of features on these NFL hopefuls, taking a closer look at some of the names you'll be hearing on draft weekend. There is no correlation between the players chosen for these features and the Buccaneers' draft plans, and any mentions of draft status or scouting reports are from outside sources. Our next feature: Texas safety Michael Huff.)
If this April's draft unfolds as many analysts are predicting, University of Texas safety Michael Huff will be off the board by the 10th pick of the first round.
And if that happens, Huff will probably be the first defensive back drafted, as such top-rated cornerbacks as Tye Hill, Johnathan Joseph and Ashton Youbouty are expected to go in the middle of the first round.
That wouldn't surprise anyone, as Huff has shown the potential to become an impact player quickly on the NFL level. It would buck the usual trend, however, as only twice in the last dozen years has a safety been the first defensive back selected. Teams seem much less reluctant to use a top-10 pick on a cornerback, perhaps because that position is viewed to be more critical and more difficult to fill.
The NFL might be undergoing a change in its way of thinking about the safety position, however. Over a recent 10-year period, from 1992-2001, only one safety was drafted higher than 20th overall. That honor went to Patrick Bates, taken 12th overall by the Raiders out of Texas A&M in 1993. In three of those 10 drafts, there wasn't a single safety taken in the first round. And only twice – 1993 and 2001, when Adam Archuleta was taken 20th – was a safety taken higher than a cornerback.
In the last four drafts, however, the safety position has had something of a top-level resurgence. There has been at least one safety taken among the top 16 players each year, peaking at fifth overall with Sean Taylor to the Redskins in 2004. And these players are quickly establishing themselves as stars, from Roy Williams (eighth, 2002) in Dallas to Troy Polamalu (16, 2003) in Pittsburgh.
Is it just coincidence, a run of top prospects at the position that will soon dry up again? After all, Eric Turner did go second overall in 1991 and Mark Carrier went sixth overall the year before, giving the safeties some top-pick recognition 15 years ago.
Or are these new safeties perhaps redefining the position into something that is worthy of the premium picks? Polamalu was on the short list of candidates for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors last year, and his ability to make plays all over the field was highlighted during the Steelers run to the Super Bowl title. Ed Reed of Baltimore was the Defensive Player of the Year the season before. The Ravens took him 24th overall in 2002…would he last that long if available this year?
Huff, who should keep the safety resurgence going for at least one more year, believes that things have changed.
"In the NFL right now there's a new breed of safety with guys like [Troy] Polamalu and Ed Reed," said the hard-hitting, 6-1, 205-pounder. They definitely do more than just cover the middle of the field deep. They've got to cover, blitz, just do it all."
Huff was technically the strong safety for the national-champion Longhorns, but he displayed that type of versatility in Texas' defense. He and the free safety, Michael Griffin, would swap roles for different alignments, and Huff also covered the slot receiver on occasion, like a nickel back. Huff finished second on the team with 97 tackles (to Griffin's 116) and added two sacks, an interception, 14 passes defensed, four forced fumbles, three quarterback pressures and one fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown.
In short, he did it all. He hopes to be the same type of player in the NFL, to continue redefining his position.
"I just make plays," said Huff, who won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back this past year. "Ed Reed and Polamalu, they're play-makers. They're anywhere on the field and they do it all. Hopefully, I can carry on that tradition of the position."
Of course, he would first have to stay at that position. His strong work in coverage has led some scouts to believe he could excel at cornerback in the NFL, and even with the higher profile being gained at the safety position, most teams would still jump at the chance to get an elite corner.
During his junior season, Huff was put into man-to-man coverage with Oklahoma wide receiver Mark Clayton, an eventual first-round pick of the Ravens. Huff limited Clayton – the most difficult opponent he said he faced during his Longhorn career – to three catches for 19 yards, and also found time to make 18 tackles on the day. The Texas coaching staff knew that Huff could make the move to the corner if they needed him to, but they preferred to keep him at safety, which is considered the "quarterback" of the defense, in order to rely on his experience and savvy.
Huff passed the Mark Clayton test with flying colors. His latest exam came at the NFL Scouting Combine, where teams wanted to see if he had the speed and agility to handle the cornerback position. Highlighted by a 4.34-second time in the 40-yard dash, Huff handled the drills marvelously.
Of course, that means he heads into the draft unsure of where he will end up…not only what city but what position. The prospect of going very high in the draft, and his own laid-back approach to the issue of his proper position, keeps the waiting period from being too nerve-wracking.
"I want to be on the field, so wherever a team needs me, that's fine," said Huff. "I'll play corner, safety, linebacker…it doesn't matter as long as I'm on the field.
"I love making plays. Going out there and doing what I can, whether it's hitting somebody across the middle or getting a pick and going back to score. It's a lot of fun. Whatever type of cover team I'm on, that's what I'll do."
Huff, who played wide receiver in high school, has had a particular knack for turning his turnovers into points. Through his first three seasons at Texas he had six picks, and he scored touchdowns on four of them. Last year, Huff failed to score on his one interception but he did return that aforementioned fumble for a score.
He can't really explain how so many of his takeaways result in points.
"I just love getting in the end zone," said Huff. "I guess that's just my offensive mindset. I played receiver in high school and I just love getting the ball in my hands and scoring."
Huff and the Texas defense may have been overshadowed by the Vince Young phenomenon, but they held nine of their 12 regular-season opponents to 20 points or less last year. That's good because preventing touchdowns, not scoring them, is the primary job of a safety. Then again, Huff may be looking to redefine that notion, too.