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Titans rookie safety Kevin Byard reads passes like good outfielders read balls off the bat

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson has been hearing about Kevin Byard for years.

Middle Tennessee State defensive coordinator Steve Ellis played for Robinson when he was linebackers coach at Nicholls State, and the two have maintained a close friendship over the years.

And from the time Byard arrived in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Ellis was telling Robinson -- then in the front office of the New England Patriots -- about the Blue Raiders safety.

“Kevin’s a kid I’ve been bragging to Coach Rob about since we signed him,” Ellis said during a recruiting trip to Mississippi. “I’ve been talking about this kid for the last five years.”

Ellis said he often calls Robinson when he lands a recruit to share his excitement.

“I’ll call him and say, ‘I found this kid,’ Ellis said. “And he’ll say, 'Ellis, this kid's in high school.' But I say, ‘Coach, I’m telling you, I’m telling you, I’m telling you.’”

With Byard, the stars aligned five seasons later, when the Titans took him in the third round of the 2016 draft.

In the interim, Byard was always hanging around the stadium and the team’s facility doing what Ellis describes as “relentless work." Ellis and his family would come back from church some Sundays and see Byard running in Floyd Stadium by himself.

The determination and ethic reminded Ellis of Lardarius Webb, the Baltimore Ravens defensive back, who did the same sort of stuff in the Louisiana heat at Nicholls State when Ellis coached there.

Byard had 19 interceptions in his college career, many the result of his giant hands used in concert with the team’s constant emphasis on “elbows above the eyes.”

That approach had the defensive backs thinking about extending to catch the ball at the highest point, and Ellis said Byard attacked the ball, never flinching.

“I think Kevin’s best ability is his range once that quarterback releases that ball,” Ellis said. “From the launching point to the interception point, he’s the fastest I ever saw. It’s like in baseball, when that bat hits that ball, those really good outfielders, they are already gone.

“As soon as that hand comes off that ball from the quarterback, Kevin knows, he’s got great angles. Whether it’s to drive down, top down or he’s turning to get to post balls or he had to get to the middle of the field on top of those numbers. He gets a great jump on that ball.”

Byard is a great talker, who was a big hit in a Wednesday appearance on my Nashville radio show, The Midday 180.

“I didn’t know the extent of how much [Ellis] was selling me," Byard said. "He did tell me he was coached by Jon Robinson. And it’s definitely something great to have coaches who know people in the NFL who can put in a good word for you. That’s just something I think helped me out through this whole process.”

NFL Films executive producer Greg Cosell rates Byard as the best pure free-safety prospect taken in this year's draft, and said he showed his football IQ in recognizing formations and route concepts. That recognition suggests to Cosell that Byard will be able to contribute quickly.

In free agency, the Titans signed veteran Rashad Johnson from Arizona to play free safety. But he inked just a one-year deal. If Byard pans out quickly, Johnson could end up in a third-safety role like veteran George Wilson did in 2013-14.

Byard is eager to pay his dues and do whatever is required of him.

“I make friends easy and I’m going to go in there and do my part, do whatever they need me to do,” Byard said. “If it’s a guy needing me to carry his helmet and pads, I’m going to play that role as a freshman in college, as a rookie in the NFL. I’m going to play that role until guys feel able to trust me, and I think that will just by my study habits and the things that I am going to do when I first get there.”

As for Ellis as a Robinson advisor ...

“Remember this kid next year,” he told me of another Middle Tennessee State player. “Jeremy Cutrer will be the No. 1 cornerback in the country.”