The entire football world is deep in the throes of NFL Draft fever right now. I was lucky enough to talk to defensive back Justin Wyatt as he prepares for his draft day. He’s hoping to get picked as high as possible after a career where he played in multiple positions for two different colleges.
In the dynasty game, it’s easy to think of players purely as resources but this interview hopefully gives you some understanding into what life is actually like for the players going through the process.
Can you describe your college career? Where did you play and for whom?
Went into college as an athlete. I’ve played seven different positions. Out of high school, I committed to Ohio University over UCF, Cincinnati, Minnesota and Troy. I started off as a wide receiver then I got moved to cornerback and rotated at nickel defensive back. I left because I wanted to play at a bigger program.
Spring 2015 comes around, I enroll in JUCO in Cali and graduate the following December. I did well. I was on the verge of committing to the University of Colorado on signing day but my degree from JUCO didn’t process on time. So they pulled the scholarship. Then weeks later, I sent my film over to Troy and the coach who recruited me in high school was still there, and then a visit was set up and that was the icing on the cake.
In my senior year, 2017-18 season, I moved back to safety and was on the verge of having a stellar season. Then in fall camp, I tore my labrum in my shoulder and had season-ending surgery a few weeks later – a very sad and devastating part of my life that I wish to never experience again.
So months go by. I talk to compliance to see what my eligibility was looking like. They said my D1 clock was up but D2 goes by semesters and I had two left but only needed one. They said I just need to graduate from here. July 2018 I graduated from Troy with two degrees, and enrolled into Limestone College that fall.
I was open to playing multiple positions all years of college because it showed my versatility. It was cool doing half of practice with defense and then going to offense and vice versa.
Wow. That’s a rollercoaster! I knew it had been a bit of a ride for you but it sounds very dramatic when you break it out like that.
But my final season was my first real season playing one side of the ball. I excelled at it and I’m only going to get better because I got to focus on one position. But I knew what everyone’s job was – so it allowed me to play at a high level.
Do you see nickel or safety as your best position to focus on going forward? If it was entirely up to you, which would you choose?
In all honesty, I love playing nickel. That’s what I played in high school. But once again in high school I played seven different positions. I consider nickel to be a team’s best athlete. You can use them anywhere. You want me to be in the box, okay cool. Blitz off the edge, okay cool. Cover a tight end or their best slot, okay cool. It’s just so much you can do. It’s like you see the complete attributes of a player.
Then again, I love playing safety – that’s the first position I ever played. I enjoy making the checks and talking out there and getting the defense lined up. I know the game so much cause I watch so much film and I played so many positions. It’s like the game slows down for me. But I really enjoy playing in the box and being physical and coming downhill. Both positions go hand in hand with me. Few scouts see me as a strong safety but rotate in at nickel and vice versa.
I totally agree. Nickel is fascinating. It seems that the position is changing. In the old days, all slot WRs were little speedy guys. Now you’ve got TEs out there and big slots. Does that mean nickelbacks are also having to evolve?
The thing I’d say about nickel is that it’s a hybrid because you can make them how you want. In my opinio,n a really good nickel is a guy who can cover like a cornerback but hit like a linebacker.
With me as an example, I started the season off at 208 pounds. When we played run-heavy teams, I bulked up. When we played pass-heavy teams, I dropped weight to around 200-203. Personally I fill better with that playing weight. Just look at Deone Bucannon for the Arizona Cardinals . He’s listed as an LB but he’s 6-foot, 215 lbs and really he’s a hybrid. Or Mark Barron – he’s a hybrid. Nickel is a position is evolving because all LBs can’t run with TEs like Travis Kelce or Evan Engram. Teams need somebody in there who’s not afraid to help on run support but is an extra cover guy just in case.
What about Budda Baker? or Minkah Fitzpatrick? Or even Tyrann Mathieu? Are those the sort of players you’d like to be? Combining shifty slot ability with physicality?
Those are great players. I’ve been watching Tyrann Mathieu since I was in the tenth grade. One of my favorite players. And yes, those players cause havoc when they’re in the slot. Minkah is long and can cover ground and is really good at what he does. Budda Baker is just a real football player. He’s a technician at what he does. Mathieu is just one of those once-in-a-lifetime players you see. As a QB, pre-snap you have to identify and locate those kinds of players.
You’ve talked about nickel as a versatile defensive weapon. Are you looking to be a disrupter to offenses? Rather than just a solution to their strategy?
A disrupter at all times, especially when I’m blitzing. At the end of the day, I’m looking to do what the coaches ask scheme-wise and make as many plays as I can while doing my job.
One of the things I really liked about your tape was your pre-snap movement. You’ve talked about specifically lining up in spots to suggest different coverages. Did you find that your versatility was especially useful in fooling QBs? Were there any memorable times a QB was bamboozled into making an error?
Yes, there were. I go to the passing strength. Most of my blitzes came from the field and teams would check and call me out or change the running back over to my side. Well one game, I faked blitzed and dropped into coverage. My teammate got the sack from the backside and cause a fumbled. The QB had no protection backside.
I mess with the QB every play, walking around and disguising. Our DC put heavy emphasis on disguising everything.
Are there any NFL defensive coordinators you think you would be a good fit under? A lot of what you’ve just said reminds me of the Ryan brothers (Rex and Rob) and Mike Pettine.
I like those schemes. I was watching a few games of the Los Angeles Chargers and how they use Derwin James. They have a package where they have seven DBs on the field and my eyes lit up. The New Orleans Saints run nickel a lot. The New York Jets do as well. But the more games I watched, nickel is run a lot by teams because the way these TEs are moving nowadays you almost have to keep an extra DB out there.
Yep. Nickel was about 65% of defensive snaps in 2018. Amazing to think how fast that’s changed. That must be great for players like you, right?
Correct and I saw that the Baltimore Ravens nickel Tavon Young is the highest paid nickel in the league on $24m. I’ll take that eight days out of the week.
On the subject of heading into the NFL – what are you working on at the moment? What’s your training regime like? Do you have any specific goals you’re focusing on?
Well I had my pro day on March 11th then I started back training March 18th but it’s no longer performance training – it’s just regular training and perfecting my craft. DB drills and ball skills is an everyday thing like brushing your teeth. Then speed and agility. During pre-combine training, I was going five or six days a week. Now I train three days a week: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Two-a-days on Tuesday and Thursday. But Monday is my specific craft day. I’ll do a lot of running. The goal I’m working on is getting better each day. I check off a few boxes after pro day. Some scouts have said I was little tight in my hips but and I would struggle in man-to-man coverage.
Here’s a funny story: Tim Jennings is one of my trainers and he was like “man, you need to stretch more”. And that’s when it hit me. This is an eight-year NFL vet, it’s better for him to say it. Then from that point moving forward, I set an alarm to stretch every day before bed. I stretch about two or three times a day.
From training, I’ve gotten more explosive and faster. I have a video of me running 23mph for 11 sec on the performance treadmill.
Are there any specific teams or scouts who’ve given you good feedback or attention so far?
The Jets at the Senior Bowl said I looked really good. The Kansas City Chiefs/Indianapolis Colts have me on their radar. A Jacksonville Jaguars scout who ran the DB drills at my pro day remembered me from the senior bowl – we talked a bit. A few other teams are the Dallas Cowboys, Tennesee Titans, San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns. They said I looked extremely good in my drills.
My agent probably knows more but I don’t ask because the draft is approaching and the only thing that matters is which one of the 32 teams is going to call me
What’s your goal in the draft? Is there any specific range you’re looking at? Or are you just hoping for as high as possible?
I have a day three PFA grade. So, of course, the ultimate goal is to get drafted . But if not, then to sign with a team immediately after as a free agent. I just need to get into training camp and show them what I can do
Which team would you most love to play for?
To be honest, I don’t have a favorite team, but I’d loved to play in the AFC. I personally believe the best players are in the AFC and there’s a chance I get to play against or with Tom Brady.
My ultimate goal is to play in the NFL for ten years, manage a few pro bowl selections and at least one Super Bowl. and retire. I know in my first few years I’ll be heavily relied on to play special teams and I’m okay with that. In college, I got on my coaches daily to put me on special teams.
Rookie season goals:
- Make the 53-man roster.
- Ball out during preseason and training camp.
- Be a starter on special teams.
- Start on the sub packages.
- Rotate in at strong safety.
My end result throughout my career is to be the highest paid safety in the league.
Justin seems like a very focused and determined young man and he’s certainly doing all he can to maximize his chances for success as an NFL player.
It’s really hard not to cheer for anyone who shows the values of hard work and passion for his profession so I’ll be cheering hard for him to attain his ambitions.
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