One of the reasons that the 2011 NFL draft is so unpredictable is the high percentage of players — especially first-round prospects — who can play different positions and do different things in different systems. Defensive linemen like Alabama's Marcell Dareus can play just about anywhere on a three- or four-man line, and there's a conga line of potential five-tech ends in the 6-foot-4, 280-pound range who could line up in multiple positions, depending on the scheme.
Similarly, there's some confusion in the defensive backfield of this draft class — Texas cornerback Aaron Williams might operate better as an NFL safety, and UCLA safety Rahim Moore might be a better nickel corner. One player who has managed to transcend such multi-position analysis is Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara, the outstanding defender who led a Cornhuskers pass defense that has been among the NCAA's best over the last two seasons.
Some wanted to question Amukamara's ability to play cornerback at the NFL level, wondering if he might be better off switching to safety because of his trail speed and fondness for tackling. But when you look at the game tape, it's pretty easy to see that Amukamara has the long-range speed and short-area quickness to excel under the most challenging circumstances. After he pulled off a 4.38 40-yard dash, a 38-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot-8 broad jump, credible times in the shuttle and cone drills, and a set of defensive back drills in which he didn't drop a single pass, the NFL seemed to take notice.
I recently spoke with Amukamara about a variety of subjects — we start with the adidas adiZero cleat he's now using, what he's working on in preparation for the draft, which teams he's visiting, and the particulars of his unique skill set. This is part one of the interview; part two can be found here.
Shutdown Corner: Let's start, if we could, by talking about the adiZero cleat, and how it's changed your game. Talking with Eric Berry and Titus Young, they told me that the light weight of the shoe makes them more confident. Has that been the case with you?
Prince Amukamara: For sure — I like to play fact and cut fast, and the adiZero definitely satisfies my needs with the way they're formed. It's just a really light cleat.
SC: You've been training down at API—what have you been working on?
PA: I've spent a lot of time in the weight room, and just trying to stay fast on the field. I've been working on my explosiveness, getting on and out of cuts, and trying to focus more on defensive back drills,
SC: Have you been out on any team visits lately? Any planned?
PA: I've been on a couple — the month of April should be hectic. I've visited with the Detroit Lions, and I'm actually on my way now to visit with the Cincinnati Bengals. Off the top of my head, I know I have visits coming with the San Francisco 49ers, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
SC: In watching you on tape, the thing that really pops out to me is your ability to shadow receivers whenever they go — you seem to have a real innate feel for man coverage, and close coverage in zone concepts. Some of that has to do with your speed, of course, but how much of that is developed over time?
PA: I developed all of that at Nebraska. I came in playing running back and switched to playing cornerback, and I just credit that to the coaches who educated me well on the position, and identifying that route recognition. I credit (my work in) the film room, too — the film room plays a big part in perfecting your craft.
SC: You're also a pretty sharp tackler when coming downhill on screens and running plays -- I wonder what your thoughts are when people think that you should switch to safety, because I see you more as a pure corner, and I wonder how much of that has to do with questions about your ability to play corner (which I don't see). But if a team wanted you to switch it up and be a legit range safety, would you be okay with that?
PA: I really want to play cornerback in the NFL, but if a team needs me to play safety, or in a nickel or dime spot, I have no problem with that, I'll compete at any spot, and like you said, I think that's one of my strengths. I love being physical — coming down and laying the wood at the safety level. So, I wouldn't mind doing that.
SC: I talked with Roy Helu a few weeks back about his experience with Bo Pelini — a pretty intense guy who his players would seem to run through a brick wall for. What's he like as a head coach? And what's Carl like as a defensive coordinator?
PA: The Pelini brothers were … it was an honor to be coached by them. Both of them are very intense and passionate about what they do. They have our backs on the field, but they have our backs off the field, as well. As a player, you always want to play harder for coaches who are ready to go into battle with you. Just the things they expressed when they came in; I think that's what turned the program around.
SC: One thing that is easily noticeable with Nebraska's defense, especially last year, was that you guys in the secondary were all clampdown players — not afraid to be aggressive and take risks. It seemed that most defenses would take a major hit after a force like Ndamukong Suh up front, but you guys were just as solid in pass defense in 2010 as you were in 2009. Can you talk a bit about the guys around you in that secondary, and how you worked together?
PA: When you get a group of guys together who are athletic and disciplined enough to play man coverage, you can do a lot. You can rush the defensive linemen, and do a lot of things with the linebackers. So, I think that it was our ability to play man — our coaches really gave us the freedom to …not do whatever we wanted, but to do some of the things we wanted. We were all on the same page, and we each knew what everyone else was doing. That made it easier to play.