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The_Walk_On
The Walk-On
Cole Holcomb is one of Washington's rising stars, but he used to be a walk-on for the University of North Carolina. Here's how Holcomb went from being an unknown college linebacker to an NFL rookie standout.
By Zach Selby Sep 01, 2020
Photographs By JEFFREY A. CAMARATI


The cracks and thuds of shoulder pads and helmets filled the air around Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as the Tar Heels were in the midst of a spring scrimmage in 2015.

There were new voices on campus leading the defense -- among them defensive coordinator Gene Chizik and linebackers coach John Papuchis -- and they didn't care what your standing was in previous seasons; all they were concerned about was getting the right players on the field.

With the second-string defense on the field, one of the linebackers had to sit out because his shoe came off. And before Papuchis could yell, "We need a linebacker!" over the sea of Carolina blue helmets, a redshirt freshman was already sprinting onto the field.

On his first play, he made the tackle for a loss. On his next, he made another. That's when Chizik strode over to Papuchis and asked, "Who is that?"

"I think," Papuchis said before taking a moment to think, "it's Holcomb."

With the other player ready to come back onto the field, Papuchis stopped him. "No, wait. I want to see what he can do."

It was the opportunity Cole Holcomb had been waiting for, the climax of the work he had put in and the genesis of the accomplishments -- which included recording 105 tackles for Washington last season and leading all rookies with 74 solo tackles -- that followed.

He was no longer an unknown walk-on from New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

"I actually remember using it as an example...of [how] you prepare yourself for the opportunity when it presents itself," Papuchis said. "Those who do reap benefits and those who don't, the opportunity passes by. And he obviously took advantage of that opportunity."

A Hard-Working Late Bloomer

Holcomb has loved football since he was 6 years old. He enjoyed other sports, but none of them were quite as enticing. They were too slow for him.

His father, Jack, also loved football. He played growing up, but his path did not result in landing a spot on a Division I roster. He enlisted in the Navy instead and worked as a cook on the USS Opportune, then became a vacuum cleaner salesman and eventually a general manager and co-owner of two car dealerships.

Once Holcomb was old enough to play, coaching became his father's second job. He truly immersed himself in that role, too. He bought book after book on the subject to make sure he could be the teacher his son needed.

"It didn't leave the field sometimes," Holcomb said with a laugh. "If I had a bad practice, we were going to talk about it at home. So, those weren't always the good days."

New Smyrna Beach High School was undergoing change by the time Holcomb arrived there for his freshman year. The school found a new head coach, Lance Jenkins, who promised to instill a culture founded on hard work and accountability. Holcomb fit in almost immediately.

"He was never given anything," Jenkins said. "I think that translated from father to son. Cole has always been a hard worker."

Holcomb referred to himself as a "late bloomer" in high school. He was 5-foot-6 and 115 pounds as a freshman, so the coaches pinned him as a safety. He dedicated himself in the weight room, though, and by his senior year had sprouted to 6-foot-1 and packed on 85 pounds. That allowed him to play closer to the box and have more impact near the line of scrimmage.

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To Jenkins, Cole was talented enough to play for a Division I school, but the scholarship offers were sparse. The ones he did receive were from Division I-AA programs, so his best chance to play major college football was as a walk-on.

Jenkins began reaching out any Power 5 school that would take his call. Duke was interested, but those plans eventually fell through. Then he got in touch with then-North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora. The sales pitch was simple: "Cole is a program guy. He's going to work hard for you. He's a weight room animal."

"Hey, you just gotta trust me on this one," Jenkins remembers telling Holcomb. "Just stay on your toes quite a bit when you get up there. And when you meet these guys for the first time, just wear a nice heavy jacket. Make it look like you're bigger than you are."

North Carolina agreed to let Holcomb try and earn a spot, but his redshirt freshman season was a grind. He was constantly busy with getting stronger and learning the defense. There were days when all he could think about was going to sleep, and he was frustrated that he had to stand on the sidelines. Occasionally, he told his father that maybe college football wasn't for him.

"You're a turd," Holcomb remembers his father telling him in jest. "You're not even a polished turd. You're just a turd. But we'll get there. It's a process.

"That's what he kept saying," Holcomb recalled. "I think that's what you've got to understand. You've got to fall in love with it."

A Student Of The Game

Papuchis liked to design his film sessions in a way that forced his players to take notes and make outlines. He would ask questions to everyone -- from freshmen to juniors and seniors -- to see if they were actually paying attention.

Senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer knew that Holcomb, who was promoted to second string after his performance during the spring scrimmage, would have the right answer. That's how things normally went; Papuchis would ask the veterans, then some of the younger players, before finally coming back to Holcomb.

"He would try to prove a point," Schoettmer said of Papuchis. "[Holcomb] is paying his own way in school right now. He's not on scholarship. He's a number two on the depth chart. He knows every answer and we got juniors and seniors...that have been here three, four years and they can't answer the question and they're getting everything paid for."

Schoettmer had known Holcomb from the moment he stepped onto UNC's campus as a "185-pound soaking wet safety out of Florida" in the spring of 2014. Schoettmer was a former walk-on himself, so the coaching staff paired them together. Over time, they grew to become best friends who had more of a brotherly bond.

While Holcomb's physical development took time -- he gained 10 pounds and grew an inch between his first and second seasons -- his obsession for information never wavered. He was not the type to settle for a special teams role, Schoettmer said, so he would take vigorous notes every day.

"I was always answering questions in the back [of the room]," Holcomb said. "And [Papuchis] would be like, 'Hey, we're going to let some of these older guys answer because we want them to know this stuff. We know you know it.'"

With Schoettmer's help, Holcomb learned how to break down film. Schoettmer was rarely the biggest or strongest, but he was always in the right spot and could make all the checks on defense. He passed along that knowledge to his younger counterpart.

"Sometimes you're like, 'How does he know that?'" Holcomb said. "Jeff was very smart in that aspect. I definitely gravitated towards him trying to figure out how he did what he did."

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The film room became Holcomb's second home. He wasn't getting as many physical reps during practice, so he settled for mental reps while critiquing his teammates that actually did get to play. At times, he would even practice his footwork during meetings.

"That's what I had to do," Holcomb said. "So when that player's shoe fell off [during spring practice], I knew exactly what to do."

The coaches wanted to put players on the field who studied the game, and eventually that paid off for Holcomb. It wasn't much; although he was mostly a special teams player in 2015, he saw some action as a linebacker and recorded 15 tackles. But it was enough to show that he had something to offer on defense.

Once Holcomb became the starter as a redshirt sophomore, his passion for studying film only increased. He had a projector at his house, so he often invited his teammates over during the season to go over film of their next opponent. He even tried to break down film ahead of his coaches.

As a graduate assistant, Schoettmer vividly remembers Holcomb coming to his office two hours before practice a few times each week to ask about the game plan and what they were going to cover next.

"He would get a jump-start on everybody. And that was just how he prided himself. It showed in his play [during his] senior year because he was light years ahead of everybody. He made every check on the defense. He could do it all."

'The Kid's Just A Stud'

Mike Ekeler had lost count on how many times Holcomb mentioned he used to be a walk-on player.

It was 2018, and Ekeler was entering his first season as the linebackers coach after Papuchis had been promoted to defensive coordinator. By now, Holcomb had led the team in tackles in back-to-back seasons, broken up 12 passes, forced four fumbles and rarely missed a game. He had been on scholarship since 2016.

Ekeler had worked with at least 20 NFL-caliber linebackers, including Lavonte David, Will Compton and Roquan Smith, but Holcomb was unique. He needed Holcomb to rid himself of the "walk-on" label.

"I don't want to hear you say that ever again," Ekeler told him. "You're going to play in the NFL for 10 years. You're not a damn walk-on. When you take the field, you've got to know that there is nobody out there more talented than you."

It was important to Ekeler that Holcomb understood that because it was obvious to him. Holcomb worked his tail off, Ekeler said, and was amazingly smart. He even told Fedora, who was entering his sixth season as UNC's head coach, that Holcomb could call the position on his own.

Holcomb hadn't thought about playing in the NFL prior to that conversation, but teams were starting to call his coaches about him. Just before the season began, an executive called Papuchis wanting to know who was the best player on his team. He answered that it was Holcomb, and it wasn't even close.

The executive laughed at that.

"I just kept telling him and telling him and telling him, because what's true about Cole's game is he does every little thing right," Papuchis said. "The fact that he had the most tackles really is a reflection of the fact that he's in the right position more times than other people."

Meanwhile, Holcomb went on to put together one of his best seasons as a redshirt senior. He had 105 tackles, a sack, four pass breakups and eight tackles for a loss, all of which were close to or exceeded career-highs. Despite all that, he did not receive an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine.

"When you're training, you're in two different groups. There's a Combine group and a Pro Day group," Holcomb said. "I was like, 'I'm as good as those guys." It fueled me a little bit. I'm just as fast as those guys. I wanted that invite really bad."

The extra motivation clearly worked, as he recorded a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, a 132-inch broad jump and a 4.18-second shuttle. After that, he had plenty of attention from teams.

About two weeks before the 2019 NFL Draft, Ekeler's phone rang. It was then-Washington linebackers coach Rob Ryan, and he had one question: what did Ekeler think about Holcomb?

"Here's the deal: You draft Cole and you tell him something in the meeting, he's going to go out there on the practice field and execute it perfectly the first time," Ekeler said. "The kid's just a stud."

Whatever It Takes To Win

Holcomb sat in his parents' house with Schoettmer as plays from his rookie season in the NFL flashed in front of them.

Being in quarantine for the offseason certainly was not ideal, but Holcomb made the most of it. He used it as an opportunity to relive the 2019 season, which was certainly an impressive by most standards. In addition to finishing second on the team in tackles, Holcomb forced three fumbles and recorded a sack. As part of a defense that featured veterans like Landon Collins and Jon Bostic, Holcomb was undoubtedly one of the standouts.

It also helped that he was around his former teammate and coach to dissect all of Holcomb's 718 defensive snaps.

"Sometimes he'll notice concepts that I never really thought about," Holcomb said. "You have a coach's view from it. He was always trying to be a big brother. And then now, you see the coach come out of him. I like it. It's a good dynamic we have."

For six weeks, Holcomb and Schoettmer worked together to create an honest assessment of Holcomb's rookie year. They worked out together and even went through some position drills.

"It was almost like I was his quarantine linebacker's coach," Schoettmer said. "I thought we found a way to make it a positive."

It still hasn't set in for Holcomb that he was the most productive rookie linebacker in the NFL last year, mostly because he's a forward-thinking person. It was a good year, he said, but there were a lot of things he could have done better.

There were a handful of sacks that he should have made. He should have trusted his speed in coverage a little more. These are things he has noticed after hours of film study that he plans to change in his second year.

Outside of that, Holcomb has two main goals for the 2020 season: compete and help Washington make the playoffs.

"That's the goal, isn't it?" Holcomb said. "Everyone wants to win games and get to the end. Whatever's going to help us win the game, I'll do it."

Ironically, Holcomb is in a similar situation to the one he was in five years ago at UNC during that fateful spring scrimmage. There's a new coaching staff in Washington, and like then, every player is entering this season with a clean slate. They all need to prove they deserve to be on the field.

Ask anyone who has seen what Holcomb can do, and they'll tell you that he'll be just fine.

"He doesn't just always flash and stand out, but the more reps he gets, the more you're going to believe that he's the guy that should be playing," Papuchi said. "He got the opportunities that he needed. And hopefully he's able to establish himself as a guy they could build their defense around."

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