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When you’re the son of a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback and two-time NFL interceptions leader, one who shares the first and last names of his father and plays the same position, it’s hard to completely separate the two.
And it’s not as if Florida State cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. isn’t proud of the achievements of his father who played 11 years in the NFL, winning two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots. It’s just that the younger Samuel is trying to make his own name — even if it’s virtually the same name — as he approaches his NFL journey.
“That comes from training and having that overall swag about myself,” the FSU corner told Yahoo Sports by phone recently. “It’s just my natural confidence.”
The junior corner has opted out and declared for the 2021 NFL draft. Samuel is now in the midst of training for the scouting combine in February and other pre-draft workouts. He’s virtually injury-free, save for a few little aches and pains from the season.
Samuel turned in the best season of his three-year career with the Seminoles, notching a career-high and team-best three interceptions in eight games, plus nine passes defended, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. He also ran his three picks back for 74 yards, including 38- and 36-yard returns in the opener against Georgia Tech.
“Scouts were saying [last year] they wanted me to make more plays on the ball,” Samuel said, “so that’s what I did.”
Samuel landed late in Round 1 in our most recent 2021 NFL mock draft. It’s a good year for cornerbacks, including some more physically blessed ones. Samuel’s fearless approach, his knack for timing up passes and transitioning extremely well have him earning strong grades from scouts.
His performance against a 2019 Florida squad loaded with receiver talent caught scouts’ eyes last season, followed by a strong bowl game performance against Arizona State’s Frank Darby. Good performances against Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina and Pitt this season have only enhanced Samuel’s stock.
Biggest concerns from scouts
Size might be one of Samuel’s biggest knocks in the scouting world. He believes that shouldn’t hold him back, not even if he’s tasked with covering some of the DK Metcalf-sized wideouts in the league.
Samuel says he’s at 185 pounds now, with plans to be at 190 or more by the time the scouting combine rolls around. What Samuel measures, height-wise, could be significant. Although he’s listed on the FSU roster as being 5-foot-10, some evaluators say he could check in slightly below the 5-9 mark.
The most recent first-round cornerback at 5-9 (or a hair shorter) and 190 pounds or fewer was Jason Verrett back in 2014. Two smaller corners went late in Round 1 last year — 5-10, 198-pound Noah Igbinoghene to the Miami Dolphins and 5-10, 191-pound Jeff Gladney to the Minnesota Vikings.
“I’ll never be the biggest, or even the fastest guy on the field, and I know that,” Samuel said. “I know my technique has to be great all the time. Playing with leverage. I see undersized cornerbacks playing against big receivers and they win because they play with technique.
“I am never going to make my [lack of] size a reason to fail. A lot of people out there are way smaller than me.”
Samuel said a more recent question from scouts has been about his press-coverage technique — as in, they want to see more of it. The Seminoles ran a lot of press in Samuel’s freshman year of 2018 under former coordinator Harlon Barnett. This season, under new coordinator Adam Fuller, FSU played a lot of off-man and Cover 3.
“That’s what I am doing now, just drilling on [press] technique,” Samuel said. “For me, my biggest thing is I don’t want them to touch me before I touch them. Then I might be at a disadvantage. My feet and my hands, whatever my plan is on a given play, that’s where I need to gain that initial advantage.”
Asked which wideouts were his best challenges in college, Samuels cited the offenses of Florida, Clemson, Notre Dame as being the toughest tests for him and his teammates but didn’t give specific names.
“Honestly, I feel like whenever I give up a play … that’s on me. It’s my fault,” he said. “It’s less about [what the receiver] does and more me not being my best on that play. I can correct my technique the next time and get them. Those bad plays I had, those are on me.”
Toughened by losing
In three years with the Noles, Samuel never experienced a winning team. FSU’s record during his time in school was 14-20. There was a coaching change, with Willie Taggart getting fired a year ago, replaced first by interim Odell Haggins and then this offseason by Mike Norvell.
FSU was stung during that time by controversy, player defections, lost recruits, underclassmen declaring, upset losses, losses to rivals and just about every other setback imaginable. And though Samuel said he had to carefully weigh the pros and cons of opting out early (and before the end of the season), he didn’t regret his time at Tallahassee.
“I came from a powerhouse high school at St. Thomas [Aquinas in Sunrise, Florida],” Samuel said. “The last few years we’ve been losing, and I feel like it helped me mentally and physically. You have to work harder when you’re not winning.
“I know the NFL is up and down, there’s bad teams, tough seasons. I tried to work hard on my craft every day, [no matter] our record. So to me, it’s just early preparation for that experience.”
And of course, having a father who played in the league doesn’t hurt. It was made clear before the interview that Samuel has tired of the questions about dad, which is understandable.
“I’m just trying to make my own way,” Samuel said. “It’s not about not wanting to be him, or whatever. Just me trying to showcase my ability to cover and make plays.
“Some of it is genetics, but I mean, I have always assumed nothing is just going to be given to me because of my name. I want to work for everything I have a shot at. That’s where the hard work pays off. If you don’t put in the time, eventually you’ll fail. I don’t want that to happen.”
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