Eagles rookie Rasul Douglas might have third-round speed, but he shows first-round toughness

Rasul Douglas catches a ball during a training-camp drill.

In pro sports, there are enough stories like Rasul Douglas’ that the tendency is to treat them as commonplace. It’s easy to forget how tough, how strong, how persistent, and how lucky an athlete has to be to go from crashing with friends in an apartment and hoarding McDonald’s leftovers at Nassau Community College to signing a four-year, $3 million-plus contract to play cornerback for the Eagles, all in the space of less than three years.

Douglas checks all the boxes you are accustomed to seeing checked in these kinds of stories. Grew up in a tough environment, where gangs were prevalent (East Orange, N.J.), in a household with too many mouths to feed (two brothers, five sisters). Raised by a hard-working grandmother (Carletta Williams). Mentored by a kindly youth coach (Mike Davis), who describes the hug he got the night Douglas was drafted into the NFL as “a moment I will never forget.”

But Douglas’ life isn’t some sappy script that was bound to have a happy ending, once a guy with a long-limbed, muscular, 6-foot-2, 209-pound frame was pointed in the right direction and given a little encouragement. Douglas is here because there is an inner toughness, a maturity to him that isn’t often present in guys still a few weeks short of their 22nd birthday. Because he works and competes relentlessly, and always has.

Camera icon Courtesy of Mike Davis
Mike Davis (left), youth coach of Eagles rookie Rasul Douglas, along with Douglas (middle) and others.

“I was grown up early,” Douglas said this week. “Last year of high school, into college, I grew up to be like, ‘I know what I have to do, what I need to do, who I need to be around, who I need to associate with,’ things like that.

“I always had that want to win, compete. I’ll do anything to get better.”

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Cory Undlin, who coaches Eagles defensive backs, puts it this way: “He’s got all his stuff together. Obviously, maturity-wise, he’s there. He gets football.”

“Very, very competitive,” Davis said of the kid he met when Douglas was a Little League shortstop who idolized Derek Jeter. “Always serious, always competitive.”

At the end of challenging drills, Davis said, “Rasul would be the first one to say, ‘I can do it again, Coach. I can do it again.’ ”

Years later, after Douglas played two seasons at Nassau and transferred to West Virginia, he told Davis how hard the Long Island community college had been, with no on-campus housing, no scholarship, for a kid with little money and no car, whose academic background in high school was lacking.

Davis told Douglas he would have helped him, had he known.

“He said, ‘Well, I got out of it, didn’t I?’ I said, ‘You sure did.’ That told me that he wanted to do something on his own, to become a man,” Davis said.

Undlin hasn’t talked much to Douglas about where he came from, he said, but the coach has an idea, from being around Douglas and watching him.

“I think he probably had a little chip on his shoulder, that way. You wouldn’t get a sense of that just knowing him [off the field]. … You could just tell the kid was driven. ‘I want to make it in this league. I want to get here. I want to play.’ … It’s been fun to watch.”

For quite a while there, despite the best efforts of his grandmother and of Davis, Douglas wasn’t on a path that would lead him out of East Orange. He wasn’t an elite baseball prospect. He loved basketball — he still has the signed Vince Carter jersey he won as a Carter camp standout at age 9 — but didn’t have the size to attract serious college interest. His high school had academic majors; Douglas was a drummer who majored in band. As long as that was the case, he had to play at halftime during football games, not while the clock was running. Finally, as a junior, he listened to a coach’s pleading, switched from band to television and film, and embarked on a career as a safety and quarterback.

Even after he was no longer Douglas’ baseball coach, Davis stuck around.  Douglas said Davis showed him “people who did it before and messed up,” who dropped out and wasted their potential. “He showed me my options. You can’t make them take any route you want, but you can definitely show them.”

Despite Douglas’ rawness, colleges noticed him. Big kid, big hitter.

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“I had some looks. No grades, though,” he said. “I never looked at it like I wanted to go to college anyway. After high school, there wasn’t any plan to do anything, actually. … I don’t really look too far ahead.”

Coaches and friends, including Davis, showed him a way forward, to junior college, but the rest would be up to Douglas. After the Eagles drafted him in the third round, he told reporters, “Every time I eat, I always think I’m making up for a meal that I missed in junior college. … It definitely fuels me all the time, just thinking about what I went through, practicing on an empty stomach, going to school on an empty stomach. You can’t even focus.”

Life on scholarship at West Virginia was much better, though a problem with a transcript from an online course kept him from arriving until just before the 2015 season started. Douglas played mostly on special teams as a junior, then really blossomed last fall, making first-team all-Big 12, tying for the NCAA lead with eight interceptions.

“He loved to compete,” said Shelton Gibson, the Eagles’ fifth-round rookie wide receiver from West Virginia. Gibson had been asked his first impression of Douglas, once he finally got to Morgantown. “Loved to compete. … That next summer [2016], he worked his behind off.”

Undlin said he “went down and spent a bunch of time with him at West Virginia” this spring and came away convinced Douglas was a good fit for Jim Schwartz’s defense, even though some media draft reports tut-tutted his 4.59 speed in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine.

“A very humble guy. He’s got one thing on his mind right now, and that’s to be the best player he can be. I got that from him right away when I met with him at West Virginia,” Undlin said.

“Like his length, like his change of direction, like his mind-set. … The guy loves ball … comes in with the mind-set every single day to get better. He wants to talk football all the time. Loves watching tape, texting me, all that other stuff. I like where he’s going.”

At corner, often there’s a choice. Smaller guys are faster and quicker, better able to match elite wideouts downfield. Bigger guys are more physical, better able to bat away a jump ball on the sideline or in the end zone. If you’re a big, physical guy with elite burst, you’re a high first-round pick – say, Patrick Peterson (6-1, 203), who went fifth overall to the Cardinals in 2011. Most bigger corners, including Richard Sherman of the Seahawks (6-3, 194) and Josh Norman of the Redskins (6-0, 200), lack blinding speed. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sherman (4.54 40) and Norman (4.66) both were drafted in the fifth round.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Eagle cornerback Rasul Douglas  works a drill at practice.

Schwartz wants big, physical corners, though obviously speed can’t be ignored.

“You’ve got to be able to have some speed. … The majority of plays that corners make, at some point whether they’re in a backpedal, coming out of a backpedal, you have to get your feet in the ground and match a route, no matter what the route is,” Undlin said. “That change of direction at the top of the route, being able to be patient at the line of scrimmage – which he is, really heavy-handed in press, he’s got a lot of confidence up there, which is another really key, key ingredient to play corner.

“There’s a lot of guys who can go up there and just line up on a guy, and then the ball gets snapped, they just want to open the gate, turn, and run.”

Douglas isn’t like that, Undlin said. He said the Packers ran five slants against Douglas last week in the preseason opener. Only once, on the first pattern, did the receiver succeed in establishing inside position.

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As the 2017 draft neared, Davis asked Douglas if he wanted to rent a room at a restaurant or hotel and throw a big celebration, as many prospects do. Douglas didn’t want that. In the end, it was Davis, Williams, the seven siblings, and a few friends, at the Newark, N.J., home of Douglas’ aunt.

Camera icon Cory Royster / Cal Sport Media
West Virginia cornerback Rasul Douglas (13) defending on a pass to BYU’s Nick Kurtz during a game last September.

After Douglas got the call from the Eagles, he hugged his grandmother, Davis said, and “he hugged me,  a real tight hug. … It was beautiful … like winning a Super Bowl.”

When the Eagles drafted Douglas, there was a lot of buzz about how he might be able to step in and start right away. Even in a deep corner class, that’s a lot to ask of a guy who was taken 99th overall, after 16 other corners. Especially since Douglas really had only one season of full-time, major-college competition behind him. Seven years ago, he was in the high school band instead of on the football team. A few nuances are still being addressed.

“He’s a big guy. For those guys to be able to be efficient on the outside and be able to drop their body and hips and get out on efficient angles – we’ve got some work to do there,” Undlin said of Douglas at the end of the Eagles’ spring work. “He’s getting better. … We’ve spent a lot of time with that. … Arms control your feet. He’s got long arms; he’s got long legs. This part up here is what we’re trying to get right. Keep this in here and not out there – they go out here; the feet go out there.

“That will probably be his biggest change. He can run. He’s physical.  It’ll be an ongoing thing, and then we’ll see where he is when he gets there.”

Undlin and Douglas report solid progress in those refinements.

“Cory told me my arms were too wide. I think he called it ‘figure skating.’ … I’ve just been working at it every day, after practice, getting my reps in. I’ve definitely made a lot of progress,” Douglas said. “Looking better, feeling better. Just trying to keep grinding at it, every day.”

Camera icon CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer
Cory Undlin, the Eagles’ defensive backs coach, speaks to the media during training camp.

Undlin said Douglas’ technique was strong at Green Bay.

“He’s on the track that we want him right now. … He had a couple in the game that he looked close to what we want it to look like, and I think he now has a good understanding that you can’t play like that out there – you can’t play off coverage or press and get to the top of the route and have your arms flailing. It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t look good, either.”

Schwartz, the defensive coordinator, agreed that Douglas looked good against the Packers. “One of the things that’s impressed me about Rasul is, every time we’ve taken a step up in competition, he’s sort of met that challenge. … Our first padded practice, he really stood out. First preseason game, I thought he stood out.

“He’s got great length. He can get his hands on balls. … He’s on the right track. Like so many players … he’s just striving for consistency.”

This is not news to Douglas.

“I’m just trying to be the same player every day. I come in one day and I show them I can play. The next day, it’s like, ‘Is this guy a player?’ ” he said.

In preseason games, Douglas said, his quest is also to “show them that I know what I’m doing. That’s the biggest thing. When they put me out there, every call that [Undlin] throws at me, I know what I’m in, I know my job, I know why we’re running the defense we’re running.”

The trade last week for Buffalo cornerback Ronald Darby took some pressure off Douglas to start this year. Darby and second-year man Jalen Mills figure to be the starting outside corners, with Ron Brooks manning the nickel, assuming Brooks’ hamstring problem clears up. Douglas probably is vying for the fourth corner role, with veteran Patrick Robinson and second-year-man C.J. Smith, primarily. But in the long run, the plan for the top four corners would seem to be some combination of Darby, who is 23; Mills (also 23); currently injured second-round rookie Sidney Jones (21); and Douglas (22 on Aug. 29).

This is a plan that makes sense, for a team with a 24-year-old, second-year franchise quarterback.

“We’re all young. We’re all learning. We’re all competing,” Douglas said. “We’re going to get better.”