Linebacker, Appalachian State
The Bengals coaching staff must have been impressed with you at the Senior Bowl. What was your time and experience like with the Bengals down there?
"It definitely was a good week with them. I love the way they coach, the passion they have behind it and how they want to develop players and take their time coaching them. The week I had with them was really special. I got connected with Coach (Al) Golden, the linebackers coach and Coach Duff (Bengals senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner). I really enjoyed them coaching me hard at the linebacker position, since that was my first time actually fully playing that position. It showed me the way with that. The Senior Bowl week definitely went good for me."
Did you have more confidence you could play at this level based, on the Bengals' feedback at the Senior Bowl?
"I know I can play at this level based off the season I starting having last year. Every year, I just increase what I'm doing on the field. The Senior Bowl just increased that confidence with me having a standout (week) and playing a new position, and then just getting the confidence from the Bengals telling me how good a job I was doing out there."
Can you describe your responsibilities on defense at Appalachian State last season?
"Normally, I was in that hybrid position — the nickel linebacker, where I was defending the slot, taking away RPO (run-pass option) read, and sometimes defending the run depending on the back of the line."
What was your biggest takeaway from the Senior Bowl?
"Just being able to see the whole picture, the whole box, since I've only had to read a half of the box. To see the whole box, that was a little bit different."
How do you think playing running back in high school helped with transitioning to linebacker?
"Just knowing what the linebacker is trying to see. When I played running back, I just knew what I wanted to do, so I took that into account and tried to take away their cutback and make them one-dimensional."
What are your strengths as a player?
"(Strengths are) my instincts in being able to find the ball and cut down the ball, and my ability to play every down, whether that's in pass rush, in coverage or in man (coverage)."
Your dad Keith has coached a lot around the country. How did that affect you growing up and as a player?
"When I was in high school, it was almost like he was there, (talking) over the phone or FaceTime and things like that. With him coaching, I always took his advice, and I wanted his advice. He would always give me feedback from watching my games, and I knew it was going to be about the hard stuff, the real things I needed to get better at. He always did that and it paid off."
So he was commuting when you were in high school basically?
"I spent the summers with him."
How hard was that? A lot of time spent on FaceTime?
You were elected a captain at both Appalachian State and at the Senior Bowl. What does that say about your leadership, in your opinion?
"That just tells you what your teammates and your coaching staff thinks about you as a player and as a leader on the team. I always want to stand out, be in that leader role on the team, and really be that go-to guy on the team that all the guys want to be around and take some notes from. Just being a role model on the team."
Linebacker is a position of need on this team, and you may have a chance to play right away. How excited are you for that opportunity?
"I'm just ready to get suited up."
Ravens QB Lamar Jackson ran all over the NFL last year, and you will see him twice in the AFC North each season. How confident are you that you and the new LB corps can slow him down?
"I look at football as faceless opponents. Going in, you know he's a good player out in space. So every chance I can get, I want to make him one dimensional and take away any chance he has to cut back or do anything, and just take away any moves he has to try to get back. But I don't like to do too much talking before the games."
Is there a NFL linebacker you watch a lot on tape that you feel has a similar game to you?
"I usually watch Darius Leonard (of the Indianapolis Colts)."
What do you like about him?
"His passion for the game, his instincts. He goes hard every play, and I just like how he plays."
When did you think you were going to get drafted?
"I just try to go in with a clear head and let things take their own course. My agent kept telling me the third round."
Yesterday probably felt like a pretty long day for you then...
"It was a long night for me."
You hear so much about guys who go later than they thought they should, and the chip on their shoulder. Are you already feeling that right now?
"I always carry that chip on my shoulder, regardless if I would've went in the 2nd round (or later). That doesn't matter. I know there are people out there that doubted me. I just want to prove them wrong."
I guess being an Appalachian State guy, the chip has already been there ...
"(Laughs) Yeah, it's our motto."
When the Bengals took a linebacker in the third round, did that surprise you? Did you think that was it?
"It caught me off guard a little bit. I didn't know if I'd make it around to be a part of the Bengals organization after that. I'm glad I'm here."
Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons was impressed with you at the Senior Bowl. What's your feeling about helping out on special teams?
"I love special teams. My sophomore year, I was Special Teams Player of the Year, so I give my all to special teams, just like if it was on defense."
Special Teams Player of the Year with your team?
"With the team, yes sir."
What did you take from your year with (former Appalachian State head coach) Eliah Drinkwitz last year?
"He just wanted me to be a more vocal leader. I'm more of a lead-by-example type of guy, so he just wanted me to open up, and I feel like I did that. I feel like he took App State to higher ranks, trying to bring more new things to the offense, and things like that. I think he did a lot of great things at App."
How's your health right now?
"I feel great. I'm back running from my surgery. I think I'm doing pretty good."
I guess you'll be back for training camp, right?
"Yes, I'll be back in two-and-a-half weeks."
The injury that you had surgery on, did that occur during the Senior Bowl, or did you play through it?
"I played through it in the Senior Bowl. It happened the third game of the season."
And that was a stress fracture?
Did it hurt? I guess you can play with some pain ...
"It hurt, but I just wanted to fight through it for my teammates."
Did somebody tell you it might not be a great idea?
"Of course the doctors gave me the risk factor. They told me at any moment it could completely snap, but I just took those chances."
Because you couldn't travel and get checked out by teams, did you do anything to let teams know you were doing well?
"I sent videos of me doing treatment, rehab, upright lifts. I sent them some videos of me doing drills before I had the surgery. Then I showed them my weight, and things like that."
A lot of your game is based on speed, and to still be able to fight through that injury and play — that had to help you a little bit in the evaluation process ...
"Yeah, I would've thought that too. There's definitely more in the tank for me (laughs)."
Have you ever been timed in the 40?
What's your weight right now?
They talk about the modern linebacker a lot. Last year there were two guys who were your size picked in the first round. That seems to be the wave, doesn't it?
"Yeah, that's what it looks like (laughs)."
Did that give you hope when you saw Devin Bush and Devin White go last year?
"Honestly, I didn't pay too much attention to the draft with everything I had going on, getting better with football and being responsible with my daughter. So I didn't really focus too much on television (last year). My assistant coach played linebacker for Green Bay, so he showed me the way. He just told me, 'Give it all you got, and it's going to pay off.'"
Where are you at now?
Who are you with?
"My mom, brother, sister and daughter."
You've contacted your dad?
"Yes, he's on FaceTime."
He's probably at West Point, right?
"Yes sir. He didn't want to take the chance to travel down with the virus going on."
Do you have any plans for the rest of the day to celebrate?
"Just celebrate with my family that's downstairs, and enjoy them while I can."
How old is your daughter?
"She'll be 2 next month."
What's her name?
What did you like about Akeem Davis-Gaither at the Senior Bowl?
"With both Logan (LB Logan Wilson) and Akeem, we were able to spend a ton of time around them. The Senior Bowl access to those kids has been invaluable so far. We had a chance to really hone in and know these guys better than most."
What did you like about Davis-Gaither?
"He's a tough kid, a coach's son. He's a guy that is going to be the first in and last out of every meeting. We had a situation during the Senior Bowl where the other team ran a power play that he kind of misfit. Coach Golden (Bengals linebackers coach Al Golden) got him on the sideline, then in the fourth quarter they run the same play and he fit it perfectly. He's a guy that will work his tail off to do whatever we ask. He brings a ton of athleticism, and we're happy with the value we got at this point in the draft."
It looks like he can play both inside and outside at LB…
"He has some position flex, which we like. He can do both, so we can move him around a bit. He played nickel some at Appalachian State. He's been out of the box, in the box. A guy like that can really help our special teams. He has the potential to be on the field for all four downs."
What's it like to see your defense get revamped over a short period of time?
"It's exciting. It's a tribute to Duke and the scouts and coaches. We've all spent a ton of time evaluating these guys. We have a chance to bring in competition. Most of these guys are coming from winning programs, and all the free agents came from playoff teams. We're bringing in guys that are used to winning, which is so important."
How important is it to have versatility these days at linebacker?
"It's huge. With the different things offenses throw at you these days, the more guys that you can have doing multiple things, saves you some roster spots and allows you to be more flexible. With a guy that can maybe cover a running back, tight end, be a good blitzer, start outside and move inside, all of those things can really help you."
It seems like teams in this division need linebackers that can both run and play in space. That's a unique combination …
"For sure. And I think we've accomplished that with both guys we've taken so far. You watch Logan play on tape, and he has almost 33-inch arms and can get in and out of cuts to make plays that some guys can't. Certainly Akeem can do the same. Both give you that flexibility to be able to chase guys down but still be stout enough to take on and shed blocks."
How important is the transition in smaller school guys in handling the jump up to competition level?
"To a degree. They showed down at the Senior Bowl that they'll fit right in with those guys from the power conferences. Those guys did not flinch when they went against kids from LSU, Clemson, or Michigan. It didn't matter. We got a good feel for that down there."
Do you feel like you will add any more depth at linebacker?
"We're never satisfied. We'll keep an open mind as we go forward. They great job we did in free agency, and now what we've done in the draft so far allows us to look at best player available type situations. If there's a guy we feel like adds value later on in the draft, then we'll go with them. It's not out of the question."
You've talked about looking for linebackers that could line up properly and had solid mental makeup. How do Wilson and Akeem fit into that?
"They're both in that light. Akeem graduated back in May. He's a smart guy, a coach's son. His dad is a wide receiver coach at Army, I believe. Logan's done a great job picking things up. I spoke to his head coach yesterday and he raved about him. From a mental standpoint, both those guys are going to come in and that part of the game should not be an issue."
What's the challenge with all these new guys that you expect to be contributors? How long will it take to get the chemistry right?
"It's going to take time. That's just a part of it. I've seen it happen fairly quick with some guys, and others it takes a little bit longer. The good news is that everybody is on the same playing field. It's not like it's just us who will miss out on OTAs and rookie mini camps — the whole league is in the same boat. The learning curve for the rookies is going to be the same for everybody. The fact we'll have some new faces out there is just where we're at. We'll have to accelerate it a little on our end."
Were you encouraged when Davis-Gaither flashed as one of the best players on the field against better competition?
"Absolutely. You see him make plays against those caliber athletes, and those are the guys he will be playing against on Sundays. When you put all that together, it was a no-brainer for us."
There were some injury concerns out there, did you see any of that?
"We trust our doctors. We did our due diligence on that. If we felt there was an issue, we wouldn't have taken him. We feel good about it."
Coaching him for a week at the Senior Bowl probably helped…
"We concentrate as coaches on the football side of things. Our medical people will say 'yay' or 'nay,' and we didn't get any issues there. We're full-go. All these kids have something, let's face it. They've been playing football since they were nine years old. Akeem is no different. I'm not aware of anything that would hold this kid back."
What did you see about his intangibles at the Senior Bowl?
"He was the team captain on defense. He commanded respect in a week. The way he approaches every day, coming in first, leaving last, the way he practices — he has some natural leadership, which is great. The more of those guys you can add, the better."