Ryan Felker could tell the moment Damarious Randall stepped off the plane and onto the football field at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College that he had something special on his hands.
This kid was the total package. The athleticism was off the charts. He had a vast football IQ despite stepping away from the game to play baseball at Butler (Kan.) Community College. However, the real X-factor was a take-no-prisoners competitiveness matched only by an unshakable confidence in his ability.
Randall wanted to be the best in everything and he wasn't shy about letting you hear about it, either.
“He’s a competitor. He absolutely loves and has fun playing,” said Felker, now in his fourth season as Mesa's head coach. “I don’t care if it’s video games. I don’t care if it’s football or baseball. If you’re competing with him in an argument, he wants to win. He’s that way. He’ll sit in my office and argue about something that meant nothing. He’s that guy.”
Randall always backed it up, whether it was on the field or with a controller in his hands. So when the Green Bay Packers drafted him with the 30th pick in the 2015 NFL draft, Felker and his coaching staff looked at each other and smiled.
They knew he might not start immediately, but Randall was going to make it difficult for the coaching staff to keep him off the field. Felker certainly couldn’t. Randall played everywhere for the Thunderbirds before moving on to Arizona State.
“He’s not there to sit around. He wants to play,” Felker said. “He’s not the kind of kid who’ll sit on the couch while you’re playing video games with someone else.”
Randall is the first to tell you his rookie season hasn't been perfect, but he’s making Packers general manager Ted Thompson look wise for betting the 5-foot-11, 196-pound defensive back would be able to convert back to cornerback after playing his final two seasons at safety for the Sun Devils.
Randall has played nearly 75 percent of the defensive snaps this season and made the departures of Tramon Williams and Davon House palatable. His play has put him in the conversation for defensive rookie of the year with 35 tackles, 11 passes defensed and a pair of interceptions.
Oh, there's also his game-saving deflection last month against San Diego when he batted down a Philip Rivers pass intended for Danny Woodhead on fourth-and-goal to preserve a 27-20 victory, the Packers’ last win before a three-game slide.
Randall’s transition to the NFL ranks hasn't been without obstacles. He was slowed during the offseason program due to an ankle injury and drew the ire of cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt when he came in overweight. Through it all, Randall kept talking like he always has.
Whitt finally started to listen once training camp began. After missing the preseason opener against New England with a groin injury, Randall provided a glimpse of what was to come when he snagged an interception in his first NFL appearance against Pittsburgh.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached anybody as much confident as him,” Whitt said last week. “It's good because when he says something, when he says, ‘Joe, I can do this,’ he means it. Now, he might be misguided sometimes because he doesn’t know exactly what he’s getting himself into, but he means it. Wood (Charles Woodson) was like that, but I had Wood when he was so much older and he’s done it.”
Three days after Whitt’s comment, Randall told special-teams coach Ron Zook he was going to recover the on-side kick with the Packers trailing Detroit with less than a minute remaining and no timeouts. Sure enough, the rookie came up with the football after Lions receiver Calvin Johnson botched the recovery.
“He’s fearless and in situations like that, you want to put the guys in that can run and have good ball skills,” Zook said. “He not only got the ball but he actually grabbed 81 and pulled him a way to get it.”
All elite NFL cornerbacks must have confidence, but it comes in different forms. Whitt views Sam Shields as a highly confident cornerback. It’s just Shields rarely verbalizes it. The ability to harness that self-reliance is what allows players to survive on an island or man coverage without help over the top.
The other half of the battle is having a short memory and the ability to recover from the times you get beat downfield. Every 30 seconds, Felker said, you have to press the reset button. Otherwise, errors can compound. That’s what has impressed Whitt the most about Randall’s makeup.
He uses the Carolina game as an example when Cam Newton picked on Randall early. The rookie was boxed out on a 52-yard pass to Devin Funchess, flagged for a 34-yard pass interference call on tight end Greg Olsen and then allowed Funchess to beat him inside on a 14-yard touchdown off a slant route.
Randall kept his composure when the game was on the line in not only picking off a Newton pass intended for Ted Ginn, but also having presence of mind to get his feet in bounds.
“That’s a tip that he got from film study," Whitt said. "I asked him earlier in the game, he did something and I asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ He said, ‘They run that out out of that formation.’ I thought about it and said, ‘You know, you’re right.’ Later on, they ran it again out of that same formation and he picked it.
“That’s what’s going to separate him if he keeps doing stuff like that.”
Randall’s first taste of playing time was due to Morgan Burnett’s five-game absence with a calf strain. With Micah Hyde moving to safety, it opened up a spot in the nickel and dime sub-packages for Randall. He stayed in the rotation when Shields injured his shoulder in Denver and missed one game.
The Packers finally had their entire secondary available against the Lions, but continued to use Randall in every package regardless. The Lions' Johnson grabbed a few passes in his coverage, but Randall didn’t give up any big gains and came close to his third pick of the season.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers believes confidence is an “underrated” quality when evaluating the cornerback position. Ask many of Randall’s teammates about the rookie cornerback and most draw the same conclusion about what he’s brought to Green Bay’s defense.
“I like his confidence,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji. “You can tell has some baseball background. When the ball is in the air, you don’t see panic. You can see he’s attacking the ball and that bodes well for his career going forward because if you have that confidence early in your career, hopefully it only grows with your experience.”
Felker remembers his wife, Regina, often telling him that Randall was the best player he has coached. At first, he resisted based on all the other players who came out of his program, but recently he has begun to relent. “She likes to remind me, ‘I told you,’” Felker joked.
As he watched the Packers play Denver on Halloween, it wasn’t lost on Felker that it wasn’t that long ago Randall was playing for Mesa. Three years later, here he was picking off future Pro Football Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
Randall takes it all in stride. While he admits he isn’t short on confidence, Randall remains cognizant that he’s far from a finished product. If he wants to become the player he feels he can be, Randall is only as good as his technique and development.
“It’s just something I was born with,” Randall said. “Ever since I was little, a lot of people said I had a lot of confidence. It’s just something I believe in. I mean if you don’t have confidence in yourself, nobody will have confidence in you.”
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