Hands Off

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This is NFL Rookie Diaries, a series where NFL rookies take you inside their new lives as NFL players. From adjusting to playing the game at its highest level, to learning the locker room culture, to adjusting to life off the field, these rookies tell it like it is. Welcome to the NFL.

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“Don’t end up on SportsCenter.

That’s what one of my college coaches always used to say. As a cornerback, you’re usually on an island out there. So when you mess up, everybody notices. Don’t be on the wrong end of a highlight.

At Michigan State, we took a lot of pride in our secondary. We called it the “No Fly Zone”, and we wanted to play bump-and-run and be in your face the whole game. We wanted to be physical and disrupt your route and the timing of the offense. We were very hands-on.

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Coming into the league as a rookie, you know things are going to be different. This is the NFL. The wide receivers lining up across from you are bigger, stronger, faster and quicker than the best guys you saw in college. The schemes are more sophisticated. The game is faster. It’s more physical. But at the end of the day, it’s still football. It’s still the same game.

Until it isn’t.

I’ll admit, I was nervous before my first preseason game. Yeah, it was only preseason, but it was my first time taking the field in front of thousands of people in a uniform that didn’t say Michigan State on the front. On top of that, it was a nationally televised game — the Hall of Fame Game. I told myself, You got this. Just play your game.

Once the game started, all those nerves went away. I took the field and I played the game the only way I knew how, the way I was taught to play in one of the best defenses in college football.

And I got flagged. Three times. Once for pass interference and twice for defensive holding.

Turns out it’s not the same old game I played in college.

In college, you can make contact with the receiver anywhere on the field as long as he’s in front of you and the ball’s not in the air. In the NFL, you can make contact with the receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Jam him, get in his face, rough him up, whatever.

After five yards, you can’t touch him. At all.

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When I talked to one of the referees after one of my penalties, he told me that after five yards, think of it as flag football. You can’t touch anybody. Even just having your hands on a receiver’s back out of a break is enough to get a penalty.

Flag football.

The playbook, the size, the speed — there are some things you just know are going to be different when you make the jump from college to the NFL. But what I didn’t see coming was the fact that I was going to have to re-learn how to play the position I was drafted to play.

At this level, everybody has the speed to blow by you if you have poor technique or you’re out of position.

Lucky for me we have preseason games. If I would have gotten three penalties in a regular season game, Coach Zimmer would have pulled me in a heartbeat. But instead, the coaches left me in. The only way I was going to learn was to get out there and do it. They made it a point of emphasis in practice, too. They were easy on me at first because they knew I just needed to learn and work at it, but they also told me that if I ever wanted to see the field in a regular season game, I needed to fix it.

Basically, in college, you can get away with using your hands down the field. In the NFL, it’s all about using your feet. Since you can’t use your hands after five yards, you have to use your feet and your hips to stay in good position to make a play on the ball when it comes. If you try to use your hands more than your feet and hips, you’ll either get called for a penalty or you’ll get beat because you’re not in good position. At this level, everybody has the speed to blow by you if you have poor technique or you’re out of position.

I talked to my teammate and fellow cornerback Xavier Rhodes about it. He just came into the league a couple of years ago — also as a first-round pick — and he said he went through the same thing, and that all I could do is be aware of it and give it some time. It’s a big adjustment, because it’s a completely different style than I played at Michigan State, but he said he got flagged a lot early in his career, and it took him a while to adjust his game, too.

Old habits die hard. He told me to just be patient and work at it, and eventually, it would come.

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I haven’t had a flag thrown at me since (knock on wood).

It’s a gradual process tweaking your game to align with the way NFL referees call the game. It doesn’t happen overnight. The differences seem so small, but when you’re playing at such high speeds, you have to process information so quickly that even the smallest misstep — stopping for a fraction of a second to think about what you’re supposed to be doing — can be the difference between an incomplete pass and getting burned for a touchdown. You need to know the playbook inside and out and proper technique has to become muscle memory. If you can’t be comfortable out there to the point where you can just play and not think about your technique or what your job is or where you’re supposed to be, it’ll be a long day for you, and probably a short career, too.

I’m lucky to have guys like Xavier and the other corners like Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn — veteran guys who’ve been around a while — to learn from every day in practice. It’s only been a few weeks, but I’ve come a long way from that three-penalty game, and having a front-row seat to watch what those guys do every day will go a long way in making sure I don’t make it a habit of getting flagged for those unnecessary penalties down the field.

Or end up on SportsCenter.