INDIANAPOLIS – Shortly before Utah opened spring practice in 2012, Keith McGill was called into the coaches’ offices at the Eccles Football Facility and informed that he was moving to cornerback.
At the time, McGill was a 6-foot-3, 235-pound free safety, and he still harbored resentment toward his coaches at Cerritos, a junior college in suburban Los Angeles, for not allowing him to play running back when he enrolled in 2010.
Another move – especially one that didn’t seem logical – was tough for him to take.
“I thought it was a joke,” McGill said. “I went out there and I was telling all my teammates that I’m going to be playing corner, and they thought it was a joke. A year later, I’m still playing corner, so I kind of had to buy in.”
Such a transition represents one way teams are trying to find an answer for one of football’s most perplexing issues: How can defenses stop the taller, stronger, heavier receivers who have taken over the game in the last several years?
“Everybody would like to get longer, taller guys that run [fast], but there are just not very many humans like that in the world, you know?” said Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, whose top-ranked, Super Bowl-winning defense relied most of the season on Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner – a pair of tall, physical cornerbacks.
“Those are the two tallest cornerbacks to play together arguably in the history of the league, so it’s, ‘Well, let’s go do that.’ But there are no players like that. Look at this draft. There are only a couple of guys over 6-foot-1 at corner, so that’s just how it goes.”
Of the 39 cornerbacks invited to participate in the NFL combine this week, only four, including McGill, stand taller than 6 feet. Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste also measured in at 6-foot-3, while N.C. State’s Dontae Johnson is 6-foot-2 and Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir stands 6-foot-1.
Despite coming from a small school, Desir has emerged as a mid-round draft prospect. A Division II all-America selection, Desir stood out at the East-West Shrine Game in January and was a late addition to the Senior Bowl, where he held his own against some of the nation’s top receivers.
A big reason? His height.
“I think a lot of teams are looking for a big corner who can be aggressive, because the receivers now are [taller than] 6-foot-3,” said Desir, who said he had Division I scholarship offers out of high school but couldn’t qualify academically. “A guy who is tall and long, that can put their hands on receivers and be able to run with them as well – height would be a big plus because receivers are so much bigger now.”
Two wide receivers – Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin – figure to be taken in the first round because, in part, of their height. Each player measured in at the NFL combine at 6-foot-4, which immediately provides mismatches with cornerbacks who could be up to six inches shorter.
“If we’re going to have a conversation about the big-bodied wide receivers, then you have to go, ‘OK, who’s covering them?’” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “It’s the same thing with the tight ends – the 6-foot-4 Aaron Hernandez guy. At 6-foot-4, 250 [pounds], who’s covering him? Look at Seattle. I think that’s the prototype right now defensively. What are you looking for, and how do you cover these big bodies?”
McGill thinks he knows the answer. Team representatives have told him they like that he has experience playing both cornerback and safety, and that many are looking for players who are able to perform more than one role on defense.
While the only thing he knew how to do was jam wide receivers at the line of scrimmage during that first practice, he gradually learned the position. His numbers weren’t spectacular this past season – he had 37 tackles, broke up 12 passes and returned his only interception for a touchdown – but that inexperience makes him an intriguing developmental prospect.
As does his size.
“The coaches wouldn’t have moved me to corner if I didn’t have the length, if I didn’t have the size or the flexibility or the hips or the speed,” McGill said. “I’m able to play it successfully. I did a lot of trial and error this year. Not that I got outright beat or anything like that, but I’m still working through the things in my toolbox that I need to improve on.”