Randall's strength is his history of versatility

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Before he became an all-Pac 12 safety and a legitimate NFL prospect, Green Bay Packers first-round draft pick Damarious Randall was a small, relatively scrawny teenager.

Every coach who has worked with Green Bay Packers first-round draft pick Damarious Randall has at least one play that's forever etched in his memory.

For Keith Patterson, it came from his first Pac-12 game as Arizona State's defensive coordinator. Colorado was spread out with three receivers to the left and the Sun Devils were misaligned with only a cornerback and Randall — playing safety — in coverage.

Arizona State has an attacking style of defense, frequently deploying five or six rushers after the quarterback. The Sun Devils intercepted 56 passes over the past three years, but there's obvious risk involved.

The philosophy can result in mismatches. Defensive backs who can hold their ground are key to success. That's where Randall came in.

"They throw the ball out there and Damarious just runs over there and tackles the guy," Patterson recalled. "Afterward, he's just like, 'Hey, let's play the next play.' It's those kind of things that he made look so effortless."

It was one of 11 solo tackles Randall had in a 38-24 victory. It wasn't flashy, but it saved what could have been a game-breaking play. It went down as just another of his team-leading 177 tackles in two years in Tempe.

His coaches remember Randall as a chameleon who could do anything they ask, whether it was playing out of position at wide receiver during his days at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College or lining up at a multitude of spots in the Sun Devils' hybrid defensive scheme.

Those attributes caught the attention of NFL scouts. So Patterson wasn't surprised when Randall's name rose up the draft board in recent months and culminated last week with the Packers using their first-round pick on the 5-foot-11, 196-pound defensive back.

Before he became an all-Pac 12 safety and a legitimate NFL prospect, Randall was a small, relatively scrawny teenager. His size didn't stop him from starring in football and baseball at Pensacola (Fla.) High School, where he won a state football championship.

So the multisport athlete who couldn't be pigeon-holed had a decision to make after high school: pursue football or baseball in college?

Green Bay Packers first-round draft pick Damarious Randall is remembered by coaches as a chameleon who could do anything they ask.

A multidimensional athlete

Mike Bennett knew Damarious Randall, the person, long before he was introduced to Damarious Randall, the football player.

Randall's father, Victor, was a respected coach in the Pensacola area and even has a stadium named after him. Bennett had coached Randall's brothers during his 18 years as Pensacola High School's football coach.

Bennett met Randall when he was about 10 years old. From the start, Randall never was the biggest player. In fact, he was only about 5-9 and 155 pounds when he graduated, but his athleticism was unparalleled.

Bennett could play him at receiver, defensive back or as a returner — it didn't matter. A defensive-focused coach, Bennett liked Randall the most in the secondary because of his instincts, which were on full display during Pensacola's run to the state title in 2009.

As exciting as Pensacola's 28-7 win over Belen Jesuit was in the Class 3A state title game, it was Randall's performance in the state semifinals that stands out most. Jefferson was threatening to score when it drove to Pensacola's 20-yard line. Randall then halted the drive when he picked off a pass in the end zone with one hand.

Randall eventually sent Pensacola to state when he returned another interception for a touchdown in the waning moments of the 20-0 shutout.

"I'm yelling at him because he's coming right by me just to fall down because the game is over and he wouldn't do it," Bennett said, laughing. "He took it all the way back. Big mob in the end zone and he's in the bottom. I'm worried about somebody being hurt, especially him. Luckily nobody got hurt. I didn't know if he could breathe or not. He goes 70 yards and then all of a sudden has 70 people jumping on top of him."

Randall was a natural football player, but Bennett knew his family's background was in baseball and how much that sport meant to Randall.

When he graduated in 2010, Randall decided to follow in the baseball footsteps of his older brother, Patrick Norris, and committed to Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan.

Green Bay Packers first-round draft pick Damarious Randall has a history of versatility on and off the football field.

A new direction

At the time, baseball was the logical next step for Randall. He idolized Norris, a former receiver at Pensacola who was playing minor league baseball when Randall committed to Butler.

B.J. McVay was an aspiring young coach when Norris patrolled Butler's outfield. After undergoing a significant growth spurt after high school, it was obvious the 6-2, 195-pound switch-hitting Norris had a future in the sport.

When McVay was promoted to head coach in 2010, he saw many of the same characteristics in Randall, though he wasn't quite as lengthy as his older brother and weighed only about 160 pounds.

The kid had all the tools. He could hit. He was fast, instinctive and could field at multiple positions. But soon after his arrival, Randall aggravated a shoulder injury that he'd suffered in high school.

Depleted arm strength forced him out of his natural position at shortstop. He played second base and outfield, but the injury limited his availability as a freshman with the Grizzlies and gradually pushed him away from the sport.

Randall might well have excelled in baseball had it not been for the injury. "He was a pretty dynamic player when he was healthy," McVay said.

And McVay saw early signs that Randall's heart still belonged to football. McVay recalled a conversation in which Randall brought up the idea of playing both sports.

McVay told him he needed to choose.

So when Randall returned to Pensacola, he had a message for his high school football coach. He told Bennett that Kansas was too cold and he wanted to come home.

And one more thing.

"Coach, I want to play football."

The Packers clearly see Damarious Randall as a playmaker at cornerback.

'This kid could play on Sundays'

Ryan Felker doesn't know exactly how many schools Randall contacted when he decided to give football another shot.

He's just glad Mesa Community College was on the list.

"He sent out an email to everybody in the country probably with his old high school film on it," said Felker, who recently completed his third season as Mesa's head coach. "I was the first one, and only one, to call him back."

Felker inherited a football team that had won only one game in 2011. After a 49-2 win in their opener, the Thunderbirds were outscored 407-136 the rest of the season. The program was short on talent and players.

Felker had to quickly assemble a competitive roster, a tough task for a first-year coach in the junior-college ranks. As he combed through emails, Felker came across Randall's, which outlined a desire to get reacquainted with football.

The footage that was attached to the email was distant and grainy, but it was clear enough for Felker to see Randall's ability.

"The film wasn't very good because it looked like it was shot from the stands with an old camcorder, but you could see what kind of athlete he was," Felker said. "I like long DBs, so I said, 'Get on a plane. Let's go.' "

It took three games for Felker to realize he had something special. After knocking off a little rust and adding a few pounds, Randall quickly developed into one of Mesa's top defenders.

Felker played him everywhere. He was among the national leaders in interceptions (nine), punt return average (18.4) and kick return average (28.4). Banged up at receiver, Mesa need Randall to play offense in the Valley of the Sun Bowl, where he caught six passes for 116 yards and a touchdown.

He also had a punt return for a touchdown and interception in the game.

By the end of the season, Randall was drawing attention from more than a dozen FBS schools. That's when Felker called his alma mater, Arizona State.

"When I called them, I said 'Hey, look this kid could play on Sundays. You have to take my word on that,' " Felker said.

Arizona State defensive back Damarious Randall is considered a slot corner with return ability.

Final destination

Randall's first start at safety came Oct. 5, 2013, against Notre Dame in front of 66,960 people at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. He had 17 tackles in the game, eliminating any doubts about whether the stage would be too big for him.

Like Felker and Bennett, Arizona State coach Todd Graham and his coaching staff struggled to determine where to play Randall. Even after registering 71 tackles and three interceptions as a junior safety, there still was discussion about whether to move him to cornerback as a senior.

"We thought long and hard about moving him to corner going into this year," Patterson said. "But we just felt like with Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown, the development of him, that we were better suited to leave him at safety."

He started every game at boundary safety last season, leading Graham's defense in tackles (106), solo tackles (85) and interceptions (three). Patterson estimates the Sun Devils played man coverage 90 percent of the time with Randall often responsible for a receiver with no safety net behind him.

All of his coaches agree Randall's baseball background has helped him on the football field, particularly on the back end where safeties are asked to cover so much ground. His ability to flip his hips and control his body made him an all-conference player at Mesa and Arizona State.

"The thing that jumped off to me was that went the ball went into the air, the ability to cover ground," Patterson said. "In a weird way, it was like watching an outfielder chase a fly ball. He would just move under them so smooth and naturally gifted. He made it look so easy."

His instincts, quickness and intelligence are why Patterson believes Randall could be a fit for the Packers at either slot cornerback or on the perimeter.

"He has great feet, great body awareness, great speed," Patterson said. "To me, his body looks more like a corner than it does maybe necessarily at safety. I think that's where he's kind of a natural fit."

Randall still keeps in contact with Bennett and even had lunch with him Wednesday. On the other side of the country, he also left an indelible mark on the Felker family.

Felker's son, Brett, and wife, Regina, adore Randall. The family had dinner together last Thursday and cheered when Randall's name came off the draft board.

That's a moment Felker won't soon forget.

"He values all of his relationships," Felker said. "He's a guy at Arizona State he used to come back to Mesa every couple weeks and show up in the office. Good kid. Great attitude. Great personality. I think he's a perfect fit up in Green Bay."

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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