Dan Shonka explains why former Arkansas safety Steve Atwater is a great example of how technique that was once lacking can be honed to a point that it brings forth other great skills lying beneath the surface.
I think it’s accurate to describe Ourlads’ Dan Shonka as one of the ultimate practitioners of football evaluation. Shonka has 39 years of football experience as a player, college recruiter, college coach, and a combined 16 years as a NFL scout for National Scouting Service, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins, and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Last week, Shonka agreed to speak with me about scouting, players, and the NFL. The scheduled 60 minutes became two hours of football talk that flew by. Dan was afraid I got more than I bargained for, but I told him that I got exactly what I wanted – just more than I could have expected.
I asked Shonka to indulge me in a game where I named a position on the field and he talked about skills he looked for that could or couldn’t be learned if the player didn’t exhibit them in the college game.
Waldman: Let’s play a game. I’ll name a position and you tell me about that position’s skill sets or attributes that either a prospect can develop easily or you tell me about specific skills that can’t be developed as easily.
Shonka: First, let me tell you that that No.1 thing that you have to have besides competitiveness and confidence is smarts. You’ve got to be smart. You know that’s probably killed more players than anything – the inability for players to learn fast.
Coaches are under so much pressure to win that those guys get left behind even if they are pretty good athletes or potential players. You have to be smart. You have to be able to grasp things quickly.
Waldman: You definitely have to think and process fast. I was just writing about receivers the other day and how many fine players early in their careers had drops as pros when they demonstrated good hands in college. A lot of that I attributed that to learning the system, new techniques, and that they aren’t processing things fast enough, which is distracting them from making plays that were once second nature to them.
They’re clouded with too many things to think about. Antonio Brown this year compared to last year and his decisiveness on the field is a great example. His skills are emerging on the field because he’s not longer thinking so hard about which route option he has to run or how he gets off a jam. He’s working in a more intuitive fashion.
Shonka: You’re exactly right. This is the thing that kills good football players. That’s what I was referring to about smarts. When you put a great athlete in a complex system he’s not a great athlete any more. He gets slower.
It’s not that the game slows down because you’re so much more experienced. What happens is that your brain isn’t reading and reacting as quickly when you’re inexperienced at the pro level. Take a pro-caliber linebacker for instance. He’s not thinking about stepping with his right foot as a take off and then using his left arm to shed and get underneath pads and do all that.
He just did it naturally. If he’s thinking about doing all those other things he’s no longer that great player. You might as take that son of a gun in the fourth round instead of the first one.
Waldman: I always think of it as fluidity or having an on field IQ. It all connects to the idea that the faster you can process without thinking consciously about it the more you can maximize your skills on the field. The more you have to think about it, the slower you get no matter how athletic you are.
Waldman: So let’s get back to this little game here. Tell me about the safety position and what a prospect can learn when he shows competitiveness, confidence, and intelligence on the field.
Shonka: This is the other sticky wicket, how your scheme works is important. Some secondary schemes have a safety play the strong or the free whereas some schemes have a definite strong player who plays run support and is an alley player. They will be locked up on the tight end but they don’t have to worry about getting back as a free safety. They might play some halves of the field but that’s about it. Whereas other teams have that free safety that covers sideline to sideline.
Anyway, for a safety the thing that is learn-able if they have all the physical abilities that the position needs is learning not to take false steps in coverage. They can certainly improve once they get technique down. Then they won’t do that foot-fire in one place on the path to breaking up a pass. They can stick their foot in the ground and drive on the ball.
On an intellectual level – and this depends on the team they play for in college – a guy has to be able to communicate with the other safety and the corners new assignments and adjustments because of the demands of the spread offenses that require quick changes from the defense. Intellectually their ability to communicate can be taught. And physically it’s ending the tendency to take false steps ad close on the ball quicker.
Waldman: Any real life examples?
Shonka: The big safety Steve Atwater. When I was going through Arkansas the rap on him was that he wouldn’t hit anybody! I couldn’t believe it. I was wondering what kind of tapes these guys were looking at.
He goes to Denver and he’s a well-known big hitter. Everyone has seen the tapes of him hitting Christian Okoye. Some guys look like they aren’t that big of a hitter, but they could become one because once they improve on these techniques the big hitting shows up.
Waldman: How about linebacker?
Shonka: Believe me, I’ve seen more than one linebacker get hit in the chops with the analysis “he doesn’t have long arms.” Yeah, but he has great instincts and he’s waiting at the pass for him, too. I think instincts are innate and I don’t know if those things be improved a whole lot.
I think some guys can see it and explode on it and get there. But those instinctive guys will be waiting at the pass and they can be a little slower with that 40 time and if they have great instincts they still make the play because they can get there before the fast guy does.
But to learn it? Maybe the guy was a two-down linebacker in college and he can learn coverage to help out and learn to be a three-down linebacker I guess.
Waldman: Defensive End.
Shonka: You’ve got to be able to have speed off the edge. The one way you can really improve as a defensive end is your hands technique of shedding and not allowing a guy into your body. I thought Chris Long had great hands at Virginia, but he always got stuck on blocks at the next level. But now it’s starting to fall into place. Hand use can be improved in the pros.
Waldman: Running Back.
Shonka: I always thought God made those!
I’ve asked great running backs “how did you do that?” and almost every one of them says, “I don’t know, I just felt it. I just did it. I don’t know how I did it. I ran with my eyes and boom.”
The No.1 one thing about running backs that they can improve upon is pass protection. They aren’t asked to do much more than run the ball in college and they don’t have much experience with pass protection. They have to be tough on blitz pickup so I think that’s one thing that they can come in the NFL with it as a weakness and improve upon it if they have the willingness to do so. They just have to be especially willing to stick their nose in there.
Waldman: Offensive Tackle.
Shonka: Technique. That’s the big thing. You have to really improve your techniques, but you also have to have really great lateral range to be a good offensive left tackle in the National Football League. Everything is so technique-oriented and that’s why some of those that come in early and play is because of pretty good coaching.
At Iowa they have great coaching, Kirk Ferentz coaches those offensive linemen. They may have an offensive line coach, but I guarantee you that Ferentz coaches those linemen. Same thing at Wisconsin they are well coached in the zone-blocking, inside stretch, outside zone blocking scheme. Those guys have an advantage coming into the league. But there are guys that don’t necessarily have that type of coaching when they enter the league.
One of the great offensive line coaches, and I’ve known him for 20 years and watched him coach at different places as well as recommended him to Philadelphia, is Bill Callahan. He’s tremendous.
I want to tell you something, Matt. The first time I talked to him was at Wisconsin. I knew him at Southern Illinois and other places, but I went into his office for the first time I saw how he grades his linemen on their footwork with a level of exactness I’ve never seen.
He has an individual page for each of them just on their footwork for that particular game.He looks at their steps size and grades them if their steps are too deep or if they opened up too much. His detail was unbelievable.
Shonka: I’m with you in regards to catching the ball. It’s like a fish hook in my eye when I see pro receivers dropping balls. Especially when you see them catch the ball all the time in college.
I will say that most of the time if the guy doesn’t have really good hands in college it carries over in the NFL. But they can improve their hands by knowing their assignments and making it second nature to get off the line and catch the ball. They can get a Jugs machine and work on it and improve their hands and velocity.
“Also, route running. One of the worst route runners in the league last year that came out in the last 2-3 years is Golden Tate. He was awful at Notre Dame. You wonder if he was ever coached at running routes. He was awful.” Photo by Amber Grundy.
There are receivers that do come out with good techniques as route runners. They know how to set up a defensive back. I think that’s one thing that can really be improved. You can really make great improvement on.
Waldman: Tight End.
Shonka: Now it’s really tough because most of these spread guys are in the slot, they stand up, and they don’t have to block. A tight must be able to bend and block and a lot of those guys are high cut and they really have to work to bend and block the edge.
Right now they are basically screen off type of guys and ultimately you see them screening guys off, but you still have to be able to block down and get the edge for toss sweeps and things like that. They have to really work to bend. They also have to work on their releases to get off even though a lot of the teams give the free releases.
The good teams don’t let you have a free release and you have to get off that line and get down the field and find your void in the zone and square your chest up for the QB to see your numbers. The blocking is really a big, big thing for tight ends.
Tomorrow: Shonka talks about specific draft prospects from the past and the present.