ASHBURN — Before last season, Cole Holcomb’s fiancee told the Washington linebacker that he had to do something to stick out more in the NFL. Maybe a mullet, however, wasn’t exactly what she was thinking.
But that’s where Holcomb’s mind went. After sporting a mohawk, Holcomb changed his look. And as a result, he started to let the back of his hair grow.
Now down past his shoulders and neck, Holcomb’s locks flow and flow — sporting a buzz cut on the sides, for good measure.
“It’s kind of become a thing now,” Holcomb said. “I can’t get rid of it. It’s not going anywhere.”
Give the Holcombs credit, he definitely stands out. But the true growth for Holcomb — not just his hairstyle — may be on the football field where the 25-year-old looks like he’s taken another step as he enters his third year.
Coach Ron Rivera praised Holcomb for making “big strides” over last season and continuing into training camp.
Washington drafted first-rounder Jamin Davis to help upgrade its linebacking core — a weak point of the team’s top-five defense in 2020. But Holcomb’s rise may be just as important to that improvement.
Known for his speed, Holcomb now plays at a measured pace, not biting on as many plays compared to earlier in his career, Rivera said. Holcomb can still fly to the ball, but he’s more disciplined than before.
“Young guys want to make every play, but the truth is you can’t,” Rivera said. “We have a little saying we tell the guys: ‘I want 11 guys doing one thing at a time, not one guy trying to do 11.’ And Cole understands that now. He gets that if I do my job, I’ll make the plays that I should and every now and then I’ll make a play that I shouldn’t.”
The area where Holcomb’s discipline could truly make an impact is in pass coverage. With Washington in a zone-based scheme, Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likes linebackers to drop back into coverage and take away the middle of the field.
Holcomb has excelled in this area throughout camp: On Thursday, for example, he played tight coverage against Logan Thomas and his presence prevented the tight end from hauling in the pass.
Holcomb’s development in the passing game started last year. According to Football Outsiders, the former fifth-rounder only allowed 3.1 yards per target compared to the 8.2 he allowed as a rookie in 2019.
In general, Holcomb got better as the season progressed — finishing with 72 tackles, 2 ½ sacks, six tackles for loss and an interception. He was still productive despite missing five games due to injury.
Holcomb said that last year, he stopped worrying about trying to “be right.” He wrote a phrase on his arm every day: “Just go.” He learned to trust in himself, he said, and that he could overcome his mistakes. As that happened, Holcomb gained a better understanding of the team’s scheme and what it asked him to do. He started to grasp when to fully unleash his speed at the right times.
“Sometimes being fast and out of control is not as good as, ‘Hey, I can tone it down just a little bit,’” Holcomb said. “Instead of going and blowing up an (offensive) linemen and making a big hit, but the ball is running right by you, ‘Hey, use your agility at that point.’ … You can use it in different ways.”
The hope for Washington is that Davis and Holcomb can be a tandem that can play off each other. Historically, Rivera has had a great track record of coaching star linebackers — whether it was Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher as a coordinator in Chicago or Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis as a head coach in Carolina.
Rivera said he sees encouraging signs, noting Holcomb and Davis are communicating pre-snap and are often on the same page.
Davis, too, said Holcomb has been his “right-hand man.” He credited Holcomb, as well as fellow linebacker Jon Bostic, for helping his transition to the NFL.
“They would just get me right back on track so I can be where I need to be to make plays,” Davis said.
Holcomb is happy to do it. Someday soon, others will notice Davis, just like they’re paying attention to Holcomb now.
It’s too soon to say whether Davis is willing to sport a mullet, though. They are a lot of work, after all.
“I don’t want to frizz it out,” Holcomb said. “I’ve got some leave-in conditioner that I’ll throw in there, got to comb it every day or else it’ll start dreading up. It’s kind of curly, so if I don’t comb it out, it’ll start dreading up and I’ll start looking rough back there.”