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Legendary coach Duane Akina heaps praise on Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro

Texas v Rice Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro has been one of the team’s best performers on the defensive side of ball this season. Vaccaro was a big addition to the team in August following the season-ending injury to Johnathan Cyprien.

Before Vaccaro was a top 15 pick in the 2013 NFL draft, he honed his craft at the University of Texas where he was coached by legendary defensive backs coach Duane Akina.

In part one of our two-part interview with coach Akina, he spoke about Vaccaro’s development over his four years in Austin, why Vaccaro seems to getting better with each passing year and a whole lot more.

JM: At what point did you realize Kenny Vaccaro had a chance to really make something of himself at the next level?

DA: I knew that was the case pretty early on. I realized that he had some unique skills during his freshmen year. The common traits with all the great ones that I’ve had, all the first round picks that I’ve coached is that they all had a burning desire for football. Kenny loves football. I mean really. He’s incredibly passionate about it. It was so important to him to be a great player. He had the skill set to do it. We played a game against West Virginia and I matched him up with Tavon Austin. Kenny really locked him up. Anything Tavon had that game came on sweeps. I think he had nine catches and I can’t remember the exact number, but he had around 100 yards. One of those catches came on an empty, we were all in zone and Kenny wasn’t involved in that play. When Kenny had him man-to-man, he locked him down. Kenny is a big guy at 6-1, 215 pounds and he locked down a cat that ran a 4.3 40 yard dash.

I knew the tape of that game was going to circulate. He was already a dynamic, physical player but that game showed his capabilities in man coverage. He’s such a tenacious player. He’s an incredibly flexible player and that’s what makes him so unique. He’s really an intelligent player as well. He really learned how the game is played and I always talk about having a feel for the game. He’s an intellectual football player.

JM: How do you feel he grew as a player during his time at Texas?

DA: When Kenny first came in, he came from a smaller school where it was just see the ball, chase the ball. I had to tell him, yeah, I know the ball is way over there Kenny, but you have backside cutbacks as well (laughs). That idea of just playing within the framework of a defense, do your job kinda thing. Wherever that ball was, Kenny wanted to chase it. That was the starting point of changing some of his habits. He had a bit of a linebacker mentality. Him developing as a man coverage player was a lot of fun to watch. I watched him grow in that way. He became a really good press player. I even put him out there at corner a few times. His flexibility was really dynamic. He followed a couple of guys that were really flexible safeties.

JM: Do you recall anything about his work ethic?

DA: I’ll tell you an interesting story about how we ended up with Kenny in the first place. He came to our three day camp. He didn’t just come to a one or two day camp. He came to a three day camp with his quarterback. We were actually recruiting the quarterback originally. Kenny was the quarterback’s star wide receiver. The wide receiver coach comes up to me after one of the days in camp and says that I need to watch this Vaccaro kid because I think he fits what you’re looking for.

After we went through a drill, we had this little touch football game. I just happened to find myself on the side of the field that Kenny’s team was playing on. I was watching him play this touch football game and it was this mini tournament style with a final and everything. I told our guys that we had to see how good our insurance policy was because Vaccaro is flying around (laughs). He was laying out and I was concerned he was gonna hurt one of these kids. From there, we began tracking him. We fell in love with him due to his tenacity. He loved to play the game and that was the starting point of his recruitment process for us.

JM: Do you feel like he was the kinda guy that his teammates rallied around?

DA: Yeah, absolutely. Early on, Kenny was the type of guy that had to find out where the line was. As soon as he found that out, he became a great team leader by his senior year. He was a strong guy who certainly had the respect of all the players and coaches around him. He was a tough minded guy and he put everything into it. I still use a lot of his clips. I haven’t taught any clinics recently but when I do, I do a lesson on physical defensive backs and I still show clips of Kenny’s play at Texas. I have a couple of clips of Kenny covering kickoffs as a freshmen. Those clips are unbelievable. It was fun to watch. I pull out those old tapes from time to time.

JM: Do you recall any examples or anecdotes about his leadership style?

DA: There was this one time during practice, we were struggling a little bit and we weren’t being physical enough. Kenny just took it upon himself to change that. During his senior year, he practiced with a real physical nature. He helped our players truly understand what it meant to be physical and how to practice how you play. I would say that’s one story and memory that really jumps out at me when you talk about his leadership ability. He was always so tenacious during practice.

When New Orleans drafted him in the first round, I told them that half of their staff was going to love him, and the other half was going to hate him. Of course I meant that the defensive staff was going to love him, but the offensive staff was going to constantly be yelling, “hey, tell Kenny to calm down” (laughs). I don’t know if he still practices that way but I know that the New Orleans staff came back to me and said hey coach, you were right about that (laughs). He had some incredible practice habits.

JM: I don’t know if you’ve had an opportunity to watch him and the Titans this year, but he’s arguably having his best season as a pro. I say that confidently despite him being in his sixth season. Does that surprise you at all? He seems to be getting better.

DA: No, it doesn’t surprise me that you would say that. I thought that injuries early in his career really hurt him. I really thought he was a Pro Bowl caliber player when he left Texas. Earl Thomas really affected him too. He really looked up to Earl and Earl practiced the same way. Whatever Earl did, I felt like Kenny would be chasing that around. I know he had a couple of injuries because the New Orleans guys would tell me he was playing well but he just got nicked up here and there. His playing style leads to that. He’s a reckless type of player.

But I’m not surprised at all by any success that Kenny has had or is currently having. I have not had a chance to watch him this year. Sunday is a big work day for me. I don’t get a chance to watch much. When you’re out here, all we see are Oakland Raider games and San Francisco 49er games.

JM: I’m sorry you’ve been subjected to watching those two teams attempt to play football this season.

DA: That’s not very nice! (laughs hysterically).

To be continued in part two of our conversation with coach Duane Akina this Wednesday. Part two will touch on the 2006 Rose Bowl, Vince Young and a whole lot more.