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September 24, 2009

Alien ship or not, Dan Buckner is a new man

A year ago against UTEP, with Texas clinging to a 28-13 lead on the road against the Miners in what was called the biggest football game in the history of El Paso, Dan Buckner got pushed off of his route from the UTEP 14-yard-line.

Colt McCoy was intercepted in the end zone.

It proved to be McCoy's only interception in the first four games of the 2008 season.

Despite a 12-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter that gave Texas a 14-6 lead against UTEP, Buckner was hardly heard from again in 2008. He finished the season with just five catches for 84 yards.

"That play haunted me," Buckner said of the intercepted pass. "At the University of Texas, you're only going to get your number called a certain number of times.

"I was a freshman then. Maybe I catch more balls last year if I don't get jammed up on that play. But you can't think about that. It's gone. We're undefeated, and we're trying to win now."

ALIEN ABDUCTION

Receivers coach Bobby Kennedy jokes that an alien ship has come down and replaced the old Dan Buckner with the new one.

The old one, according to Kennedy, had no edge. Buckner, a self-admitted goofball who watches everything on the Disney Channel, including Hannah Montana, was serving as the class clown in practice as a freshman.

"Dan is really goofy," receiver John Chiles said. "I mean really goofy."

But then Jordan Shipley needed off-season shoulder surgery, and coaches moved Buckner from an outside receiver position to the flex/TE spot Shipley had so much success playing in 2008.

Buckner, who is also a top student, sort of shrugged his shoulders and made the move, knowing the coaches had big plans for D.J. Grant in that position. But then Grant went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first week of fall camp.

FROM GOOFBALL TO GO-TO GUY

Suddenly, Buckner the goofball had a chance to be Buckner the go-to guy.

"When I first got here I didn't know how to turn on the switch when I got on the field and be focused," Buckner said. "In high school, everyone is probably the best player on their team, gets a lot of attention and doesn't have to practice that hard.

"But here, you have to practice to get on the field and play. I didn't really learn that at first. After time, learning that, and transferring that to the field has allowed me to be successful."

Mack Brown has called Buckner one of the most pleasant surprises of the season so far.

"He may have the best hands on the team," Brown said. "He doesn't have good hands. He has great hands."

MAKING BIG PLAYS

Buckner has 17 catches for 223 yards and two touchdowns and trails only Shipley (26 catches for 314 yards) in receptions and yards. Buckner was the leading receiver by yards (six catches for 75 yards and a TD) against Texas Tech.

On his 3-yard scoring pass, Colt McCoy checked to the play because he felt James Kirkendoll would either be open on a quick slant or Buckner would be open dragging across the back of the end zone.

"Dan's playing great," McCoy said. "He's able to stretch the field. He works one-on-one on the linebackers. We had that against Tech, and that's a pretty good situation for us. I kind of felt like Dan was going to have a big game because we had attacked the flats and outside of the field so much in last year's game, and there was a big void in the middle against Tech.

"I knew we were going to be able to get him across the middle, and we did - twice. So I think as we come along and people start closing the middle for him, it will open some things up outside. We just have to play to what they give us."

MISMATCH BOTH WAYS

Offensive coordinator Greg Davis said Buckner gets less press coverage from the flex position, something that can benefit a bigger, taller receiver.

"Big guys, historically, have trouble getting off press coverage because there's more body to hit," Davis said, referring to Buckner getting pushed off his route against UTEP last year, leading to an interception. "Last year, Dan did not play fast. But he's gaining confidence as it goes, and he's playing faster."

Davis said while Buckner appears to be a hard cover for linebackers, Buckner also has to block linebackers. And at 6-4, 215 pounds, it can be hard for Buckner to get low enough to leverage a more compact, stronger player.

"There's mismatches both ways. Blocking linebackers has been a transition for him in an area that he will continue to get better at," Davis said. "But each week he is more comfortable because the slot receivers have the most flexibility and options of places to go.

"He's making those decisions much faster after three weeks and with much more confidence. Like most receivers, he's getting on the headset and telling me he's open all the time. And I say, 'Yeah, you're like 7-Eleven.'"

A NEW ATTITUDE

Buckner said blocking is an attitude.

"The hardest part of moving inside is blocking linebackers instead of blocking corners," Buckner said. "Blocking is a mental thing. You have to have the attitude to want to go block, and I'm trying to get that attitude of, 'No matter how much they weigh, just go block them and help the University of Texas make the play.'"

In one year, Buckner has gone from a high school star at Allen wearing No. 4 at Texas thinking he'd be the next Roy Williams or Limas Sweed on the outside, to a grinding hybrid tight end/receiver blocking linebackers on the inside.

"I didn't want to go inside," Buckner said. "But also I had to look at it getting me on the field as a sophomore at the University of Texas for the No. 2 ranked team in the nation.

"I was fortunate enough through these last three games for Colt to put the ball where it needs to be and to make some plays. Without the inside position, I might not be on the field right now."

BETTER FOR EVERYONE

Kennedy's jokes about an alien ship abducting the old Buckner and bringing down a new one are funny now - because Buckner has gone from dreading a move inside to enjoying the rewards of his hard work.

"We've come out with three wins. We're the No. 2 team getting a lot of attention right now. So it's definitely worked out better than I initially thought," Buckner said.

At this point, it's worked out better for everyone.



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