A couple months back, I got a call from our defensive coordinator, Joe Barry.
“We’ve been talking about it,” he said. “We broke down the film from last year and looked at how we utilized you.” He paused, almost apologetically. “We dropped you in coverage 80 percent of the year last year. At the end of the day, that’s not what we want you doing. You’re too big for that. We want you moving forward, and pass-rushing, and being able to be in the backfield.”
It was the middle of the offseason. We were a little over a month from when we’d have to report back for OTAs, and the team wanted me to move from outside linebacker, where I’d been for the past two seasons, to the defensive line.
For my first two seasons in the NFL, I’d played the strong side linebacker, or Sam. This was a big change, and I wasn’t sure how to take it at first. On the one hand, it was strange hearing, “Well, we don’t want you to do what you’ve been doing.”
On the other, it presented a new opportunity for me.
I’ve always held true to my relentless personality. I’ll do whatever a coach asks me to do. I have that tenacious attitude to accept whatever challenge they throw my way. So I got over the mixed feelings pretty quickly. In the end, there was no way I was passing up the challenge they were presenting to me.
When I got that call, my offseason work really amped up—there wasn’t much of a break, because I had to go full-swing, right into training and weight-gaining mode. I went and met with Ian Danney, who runs the performance center where I train in Arizona, and we put a plan in place based on my new offseason goals.
Because the team didn’t tell me at the beginning of the offseason, we had just a few weeks to get done what we needed to get done, so I just jumped right in full-tilt. I got a new diet plan, and had some meal prep going on, so I could get in even more calories.
It was a huge change, literally. When I played linebacker, my weight goal was more just maintenance and focusing on small areas of improvement. I had been doing a lot of high-volume training to come back lean and in really good shape to play linebacker.
Once I got the call, I had to switch up every part of my training regimen. So I started pushing more weight at lower repetitions and then having more rest in between, getting ready for taking on those blocks with two O-linemen coming at me at the same time. It was definitely intense.
The same was true for my diet. The protein shakes amped up. I started taking casein protein before bed, which takes longer to break down in your stomach, so you can still be digesting while you’re sleeping, rather than sleeping on an empty stomach, and potentially losing weight.
In the kitchen, it was just more frequent meals, rather than adding more to each meal. I didn’t really count calories, I just checked the scale. Every time I weighed in I wanted to be either the same weight or a pound heavier. The toughest part is you’re never really hungry, so you’re just constantly force-feeding yourself, then supplementing with shakes between meals.
It was pretty uncomfortable the whole time. As a linebacker, I’ve always had the mindset of staying away from unhealthy foods and being as lean as possible to stay fast.
It was also tough from a mental aspect. When I dropped down to the line, I switched from going with the starting group as a standing backer to running with the twos and threes on the line.
It was definitely intimidating to go from the top of the pecking order to a new position where you don’t really know how things work, and have to work your way back up from the bottom. All that unknown can eat you up. But I’ve never been one to turn down hard work.
Besides, you really can’t focus on that. You just have to focus on what you can control, and that was my attitude.
LIFE ON THE D-LINE
My teammates made the transition easy. The guys on D-line accepted me with open arms, especially Kedric Golston and Ricky Jean Francois. Everyone in that D-Line room enjoyed having me in there and they were always helping me out. So, it was a pretty fun transition. They’re a very tight-knit group.
Did I miss the OLBs? Sure I did. During our first day off during training camp I had a tough decision. I was in two different group chats—two different families- one with my D-line guys, and one with the linebacker guys. I was like, “Well, damn. Who am I supposed to go to dinner with?” I’m used to going out with the linebackers in training camp, so I just tried to combine both families and have a big get together with everyone.
Thanks to those guys, as well as Coach Akey, I got comfortable with the new D-line position pretty quickly. Coach Akey was super helpful in the transition. We were watching film pretty much all day, every day. He was always texting or calling me, or sitting aside and helping me with those little extra things I needed to work on, which I really appreciated.
And I could feel and see myself getting better.
I had a pick-six from the line of scrimmage a little over a week ago and everyone was very excited. Afterward, the outside linebacker coach and D-line coach were kind of joking and teasing each other, saying, “Oh, he’s going be back in my room on Monday.” Or, “Nope, he’s staying a D-lineman. I taught him that!”
That’s not a bad problem to have.
There are always new challenges with changing positions. It definitely required a bit of a change in my mentality on the field. I had always been the guy furthest on the outside of the line, trying to set the edge. Not being that guy anymore was tough. At times, I still felt myself instinctively lining up on the outside. A lot of the transition was getting rid of those little instinctual nuances.
But aside from those little things, it was great. I thought, overall, that it would be a lot more challenging—like pass rushing from the inside, especially going from play action run to pass. But in some ways, it almost seemed easier. For example, I had a shorter distance to the quarterback, so it was easier to get pressure and be disruptive.
I also thought it was going to be more challenging to be stout against the run—I thought that was going to be the hardest thing to do. But from Day 1 in camp, I was able to match the line foot-for-foot, get to my run gap, and play my responsibilities.
THE SAME, ONLY DIFFERENT
A few days ago, I heard from the coaches again.
They told me that they were going to start switching me off at individual period, and move me back and forth between the D-line and linebackers. It wasn’t clear what was going to happen because when we were in team period I was still running with the base D-line group. That went on for a couple of practices.
Then Coach Akey broke the news to me. “You’re going with the outside linebackers now,” he said. “You’re going to play Will linebacker for us.”
I didn’t ask a lot of questions about why they wanted this change and what happened, but I was ready to answer the bell. When it comes down to it, I think we were expecting to have Junior Galette in there, but when he injured his Achilles, we needed more depth at linebacker. Coming back from what we had last year, it’s really just Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith and Houston Bates on the ends, so we’re a little light at that position.
(That said, I was quarantined for 24 hours in my hotel room over the past week because I got hit with strep throat out of nowhere. Because of it, I lost about 10 pounds. There are rumors going around that they planted strep throat because they knew I was changing positions. If I catch something else and they move me to defensive back, I’ll know there’s something fishy going on around here.)
Coach Manusky, our outside linebackers coach, told me he was excited to have me in his room. He wants me to work hard and bring a lot of energy. I’ve been trying to do that.
In the end, the weight I gained to play on the line should actually help me. I’ve been looking good coming off the edge at 275 pounds, so I think they’ll be good with me keeping my weight. With this position, moving forward so much, it doesn’t hurt to have a little weight on you. There are guys across the league who play this position at 280 pounds and they’re a little shorter than me, so you can definitely be a little bigger.
DOWN THE LINE
The latest transition completed my journey down the line. I started as a Sam. I moved to a base defensive end. I gained 25 pounds to play the run, and be prepared for the play action pass. Now I’m going back to outside linebacker. I’ve seen it all. Our tight ends coach joked that he was ready for me to come play in his room any time. I’m ready.
Coming out of the draft, people called me a “joker,” a “tweener,” a guy who could do a lot of different things. So it’s cool to be able to hold true to that as I start my third season. It definitely gives our defense versatility and makes it harder for the offense to determine what package we’re in. I’m happy to add value wherever they need me.
I learned a lot of things while working with the D-line, and one of the most valuable was how to work with my hands. It’s not like defending tight ends. With the offensive line, they’re really powerful and strong. You learn that the best way to take on those blocks is truly with your hands, and getting extension, and really being able to control the block and angle.
I’ll be bringing that emphasis on using my hands back with me to the edge.
Playing for this franchise, I’m never short of motivation. I’m super thankful for everyone’s support, and all the love and support that fans have shown on social media and at camp. I’m eager for the season to begin and to do everything I can to help us win.