Rollins a 'fresh piece of clay' for Packers
Thirteen months ago, Quinten Rollins arrived at 24,000-seat Yager Stadium, grabbed a helmet and pads from the equipment room, and started the rest of his life.
His basketball career was over. After four seasons playing point guard at Miami (Ohio) University, Rollins was taking a new path. He had an invitation to try out for first-year coach Chuck Martin's football team.
Nothing was guaranteed. Even if Rollins made the roster, there was no promise the future Green Bay Packers cornerback would receive a scholarship.
"We were taking a flyer," Martin told Press-Gazette Media this week. "We had no idea how he'd do. For us it was, we had nothing to lose."
In recent years, losing was all Miami's football program knew.
Martin inherited a team that finished 0-12 the previous season. His program needed talent, and Rollins' potential was intriguing. He was a three-time football captain in high school in nearby Wilmington, Ohio, three-time all-conference, but this was a different level. In high school, Rollins was a dynamic quarterback and running back. At Miami, he would play corner.
The first practice was rough, Rollins thought. He had never covered a receiver, never shed a block, never tackled. After years of playing basketball, even wearing a helmet felt strange.
"He didn't know a thing about football," defensive coordinator Matt Pawlowski said.
Frustrated, Rollins said, he went home that night and thought about quitting.
"Just being the competitor I am," Rollins said, "I expected to go out there and still excel like I did in high school. But I didn't see that happening, and I'm like, 'Maybe this is the wrong sport.' "
But Martin saw potential. He said Rollins was "one of the most elite athletes" he'd ever evaluated. Rollins mirrored receivers step for step like a point guard playing man-to-man defense. Each route was a full-court press.
By the end of that first practice, the coach said, it was clear Rollins would be a starting cornerback. He was on scholarship by the end of spring. Rollins' improvement was rapid, learning something every day. Expectations grew.
When the season opened, there were reasons to believe Rollins could be a success for a program that desperately needed one. He finished with seven interceptions and was voted Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year, but nobody predicted Rollins would be taken in the second round of the NFL draft.
His coaches marvel when they look back at the past 13 months, stunned at what they witnessed.
"I knew pretty early he was going to be a great player for us," Martin said, "but not in my wildest dreams did I think he was going to be a second-rounder. Crazy to think a kid can come off the basketball court and a year later be a second-round draft choice in the NFL.
"You think of kids that play their whole life and train under the best people, and been coached by the best people, and they can't even get drafted. Then this kid goes out there and, here we go."
'This kid is freaky'
If he had a jump shot, Rollins might not be in Green Bay today.
He was a "silky smooth" point guard at Miami. He had a tight handle, a quick first step, enough explosion to dunk without a running start. A menace on defense, Rollins wrecked opposing offenses with quick hands and natural anticipation.
Miami basketball coach John Cooper said Rollins was a rare athlete — long and strong, fast and quick. Rollins looked the part of a big-time basketball prospect.
He just couldn't shoot.
"That was his Achilles' heel," Cooper said. "If he could really shoot the ball, he would've been a major, major, major-league problem. Major league."
Rollins said he accepted Miami's basketball scholarship without ever pausing to consider football. It was the fastest route to free education. But the NBA isn't looking for point guards who shoot 24 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
So he improvised.
During Rollins' final season of basketball, a Baltimore Ravens scout called Cooper's director of basketball operations. The scout suggested Rollins give football another try. Cooper said he wasn't surprised someone wanted to see of Rollins still could play football.
Cooper knew about Rollins' past and said he'd always wondered how his point guard might do on the field.
"Toward the end of the season, I looked at one of my assistants one day," Cooper said, "and I told him, 'You know, it wouldn't shock me if three years from now we're huddling up before the end of practice, and we all go home and watch Q on Monday night football.' "
The Packers hardly cared about Rollins' basketball experience. When deciding whether to draft him, director of college scouting Brian Gutekunst said, the team didn't watch a single basketball highlight.
"We're looking for football players," Gutekunst said, "not basketball players."
For Rollins, the two sports intertwined.
On defense, Rollins chewed up court space. He read the floor like a defensive back, instinctively jumping passing lanes. He had quick footwork and "cat-like" balance, sticking to his man like a cornerback.
The same hands that clanked jump shots were a brick wall against dribblers.
"He was heavy-handed," Cooper said, "meaning there were times when he got fouls, and it's not so much that he was fouling but he was heavy-handed with his hands. When he put his hand on a guy, it was almost jarring a guy."
Cooper said Rollins had the strongest hands on the team, but they also were soft and sure. He made difficult catches look easy, Cooper said. Rollins could rebound in traffic against players almost a foot taller. He had a knack for pickpocketing point guards, finishing second on Miami's career steals list with 214.
Only Ron Harper, the eighth overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft, had more at Miami with 287.
"If he could get his hands on the ball," Cooper said, "he wouldn't let go. It was his ball."
Rollins was not the first basketball-to-football transition Cooper coached. And while he couldn't break down football's fundamentals, he'd been around the game enough to recognize Rollins' potential.
Two days after Miami hired Martin, Cooper called him. He shared the advice passed along from the Ravens' scout. Cooper didn't know how Rollins would handle playing cornerback, but he still remembers the feedback from Martin after his first football practice.
"We were talking about him in my office," Cooper said, "and I was like, 'Hey, I can tell you as far as the ability to close on a ball and go up and grab a ball. What I can't tell you are his hips, what kind of hips he'll have once he gets down to football.' That was one of the first things I wanted to know.
"After that first practice, I'm like, 'So what do you guys think? What kind of hips does he have?' And they were like, 'Man, this kid is freaky.' "
'This kid has a shot'
Soon, it was clear Rollins' athleticism would transfer to football.
At the end of one spring practice, Rollins lined up for red-zone drills. He still didn't know much about playing cornerback, said Pawlowski, the defensive coordinator, but natural ability took over. In the end zone, Rollins covered Miami's top receiver one-on-one, defending a high fade route.
"He just beat the snot out of the kid and ran him out of bounds," Pawlowski said. "There was no room for the kid to catch it near the sideline."
Martin tested Rollins over and over. He lined four, five receivers against him. Each finished with the same result — blanket coverage, incomplete.
"Finally," Pawlowski said, "Chuck moved Quinten over to offense and brought in our second-best corner to go cover him. Throw the same fade route, Q goes up and catches the thing with one hand in the corner of the end zone. That's how we ended practice."
Rollins was Miami's best athlete as soon as he stepped onto the football field. Martin said it took about 10 minutes to recognize his raw talent. But there were other unknowns.
Start with physicality. Martin said he never expected Rollins to deliver hard hits. The first three weeks of the season, he left Rollins out at field cornerback, away from the action. With the football spotted on the opposite hash mark, Rollins was protected against being too involved in stopping the run.
That changed after Miami's trip to Michigan in September.
"He started knocking the daylights out of people," Martin said. "Some unbelievable open-field tackles. I thought he'd cover great and play the ball in the air because he's ridiculous at playing the ball in the air, but I just figured he'd never hit anyone. He looked like a safety hitting people.
"After the Michigan game, we moved him to the boundary. We were like, 'Let's get him close to the action. We've seen that he can hit people.' That was probably the most shocking."
Rollins' understanding of the game also came slowly, but steadily.
The basics coaches take for granted with college cornerbacks became part of Pawlowski's daily lesson plans. When Martin discussed proper "splits" against receivers — the space between players on the field — he said Rollins first had to ask what a "split" was. This was teaching one letter of the alphabet, every day.
Anything beyond man coverage was a foreign concept. But, Miami defensive backs coach John Hauser said, nobody in the RedHawks' secondary could cover like Rollins. He had four interceptions in the first four games last season, including one at Michigan.
"His short-area quickness is off-the-charts good," Hauser said. "Then his ability to just catch the ball and track the ball from Day 1 was really pretty elite. Those are the two things that I thought, 'Man, this kid has a shot to play for us,' because he could track the ball better than anyone I've coached, and he could run from Point A to Point B pretty quick."
At times, his lack of knowledge combined with his raw ability to create highlights.
Martin said Rollins' most impressive play last season was one that ended up not counting. In Week 7, Miami's defense jumped offsides against Akron. Pulling from his experience playing offense in high school, Rollins stopped. The receiver he was supposed to cover kept running, trying to take advantage of a free play.
"Quinten, just not knowing anything, he's standing there while Akron is doing the old, 'Look, the defense jumped, run a go route and throw the fade ball,' " Martin said. "It's standard operating procedure if you've played little league football, but because he's never played corner, he's just standing there. The receiver is running by him, and I literally said on the headset, 'That's a touchdown because Quinten doesn't know what the hell is going on. He thinks the play is dead, and it's not dead.' "
Hearing panic from the sideline, Rollins turned and sprinted downfield. He was impossibly late, Martin thought, but he closed ground with the football hanging in the air. At the last moment, Rollins lunged and intercepted the pass.
"It was one of his most amazing plays all year," Martin said. "That was a for-sure touchdown, and if we hadn't jumped offsides we'd have an interception. The kid doesn't even know what's going on out there, and he somehow reacted and made that play.
"First thing out of my mouth was, 'NFL (general managers) are going to like that one because people can't do that.'"
'Fresh piece of clay'
Until draft day, Rollins said, he had no idea the Packers were interested. He had one, 10-minute conversation with cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt at the NFL combine in February. Beyond that, nothing.
"I never heard from the Green Bay Packers," Rollins said. "I talked to Joe for 10 minutes at the combine, and he was just seeing what I knew about football. That was it. I had teams in mind I thought were going to take me that didn't take me, and then Green Bay, Wisconsin, popped up on my phone. It was shocking."
Behind the scenes, Pawlowski said, he knew how intrigued the Packers were with Rollins' raw talent. He remembers Gutekunst's visit to Oxford, Ohio, last September.
"He loved him way back then," Pawlowski said of Gutekunst. "He said, 'Hey, he's the talk of the country right now with the NFL scouts.'"
Rollins' transition to football is ongoing. At the pro level, Pawlowski said, he expects some early struggles. Nobody doubts Rollins' short-area speed, but Pawlowski wonders about his ability to recover when beaten by NFL receivers. Rollins ran a 4.57-second, 40-yard dash at the combine, slow for a cornerback.
Martin said he doesn't worry about the physical part of Rollins' transition. He thinks Rollins is athletic enough to compete with anybody.
His interception returned for a touchdown against former UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley — the Packers' fifth-round pick — highlighted the Packers' rookie minicamp last weekend.
"He was happy with what he did," Hauser said, "but he was looking forward to going against the (starters) when OTAs start up. That's just his mindset. He was excited he had a pick, but he said he dropped two. He said he should've had two more, which I think he was more (ticked) about than anything."
In all his predraft conversations with scouts, Martin said, personnel evaluators wanted to know about Rollins' football knowledge. The answer was simple, he said.
Thirteen months after his first college football practice, Rollins still doesn't know much about football. Last season, Rollins said, he was "out there just playing." Martin said Rollins' lack of experience is a good thing for the Packers.
"Green Bay has a fresh piece of clay," Martin said. "He's got really no bad habits. He really doesn't have any habits. You're going to get to mold him into exactly how you want him. He's going to learn it quick, and he's going to do it exactly how you want.
"He's not going to have a preconceived notion of how to play Cover 2 or how to play man. He's going to play man the way you want him to play it, which will be pretty fun for their DB coach."
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