After spending the last 11 years in the college game, defensive backs coach Torrian Gray has made fundamentals a major focus for the Redskins, and players are benefiting.
Despite, perhaps, a general assumption that professional football players don't like to spend extra time honing the basic, rote skills of their position, the Redskins' offseason addition of defensive backs coach Torrian Gray has made sure his pupils do exactly that.
And they seem to be proving that assumption wrong.
Because, sometimes, according to head coach Jay Gruden and even veteran safety DeAngelo Hall, readdressing the fundamentals can be crucial for overall development, a reminder of what's important while progressing as a player.
"No disrespect to the coaches we had, they were more of the big-picture-type coaches and they're good coaches," Gruden said. "But Torrian is more of a hands-on, fundamental, technique guy, and I think that's something we really needed to work on."
If you need proof, just ask anyone in the defensive backs room, who will almost immediately tell you that during OTAs and minicamp, they felt as though they had gone back to school at their own position, and seem to be better for it.
"I'm actually learning football this year," said Will Blackmon, who migrated from cornerback to safety last season.
"I'm finally learning football," cornerback Dashaun Phillips said. "I'm learning techniques."
"He got us back to the basics," Hall said, "reading quarterbacks and drops and routes."
Hall, who is entering his 14th season, hasn't been able to see the field this offseason as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered last September. But as someone who has played under numerous defensive backs coaches, he's observed that Gray's style has been a welcome addition to a unit that is looking to rebound from an injury-riddled season.
Gray, who spent the last 11 years coaching at Virginia Tech and Florida, has an attention to detail that's unique only because most NFL coaches don't normally want to impose their technique onto a group of professionals. "You feel like you have professionals, let them do it their way," Hall said of a coach's general philosophy. But Hall feels the team needed the special focus, and that Gray has been "a breath of fresh air," especially for Will Blackmon and Deshazor Everett, who changed positions last year.
The Washington Redskins defense and special teams held their second minicamp practice of 2017 on June 14, 2017, at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park in Loudoun County, Va.
"You can always have a different technique," cornerback Josh Norman said. "Even coach Gray has a technique that I want to get down because he has put into the system that he wants us to do. So, I want to get that down and master that technique and philosophy of what he is trying to have us do. I think that a coach for me is only going to enhance my game even more because I am going to do my thing first, I am going to do that. I think if I can do that and add a little bit of what coach does as well then the sky is the limit."
This is still a learning process for Gray himself, who is figuring how to interact with a group of more experienced players. Instilling new drills and fundamentals takes time until the group sees the results of their labor and begins to buy in.
"These are professional guys, it's not like they're going to do everything you say the exact way you want it," Gray said. "You have to kind of show them the ropes, so I'm learning to get my point across in certain ways, but it's been fun."
So far, it hasn't been too difficult for players to adopt Gray's methods. His main message, posted on a sign he holds up at practice, is "greatness in the details," a reminder for his players that they will perform their best if the small things – footwork and progressions – are perfected.
"We just have to come out, and there's a lot of cliché things you can do, but we just do the detail things that we talk about—our reads, our keys, our fundamentals, our progressions and things like that," Gray said. "If we're detailed with those then we don't have any other choice but to be great. I just keep driving that home—greatness is in the details."
The results have spoken to Phillips, who has noticed real development in his game in the last month. Instead of just being thrown out to the field and being told what coverage to play, Gray has given him the tools to progress through each play with increased awareness about how to make certain reads, why he's lined up a certain way and where his help is behind him.
"I'm learning what to be looking for, to be able to slow myself down and just play ball, you know, versus using athletic ability all the time," Phillips said. "Once you understand the game, once you understand what's going on, you can slow things down and basically play faster, actually."
New coaches can offer challenges to established players, but under a new defensive system from coordinator Greg Manusky, everyone is reaping the benefits of Gray's foundational approach.
"It's just helpful because guys actually get to figure out what they're doing or why they're doing it, how they're doing it," safety Josh Evans said. "I think it keeps you sharp just because you know no one could afford to fall off."