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VOL. 43 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 8, 2019

Byard has high school coach, MTSU to thank for NFL career

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Pro Bowler Kevin Byard, a fourth-year player out of MTSU, has 14 career interceptions, including eight in 2017. He also holds the NFL record for longest touchdown pass by a defensive player, 66 yards to Dane Cruikshank on a fake punt last year against Texas.

-- Ap Photo/James Kenney

Fate intervened and made an interesting, yet defining, turn for Titans safety Kevin Byard in 2012 when he was coming out of Martin Luther King High School in Lithonia, Georgia.

Byard, now considered one of the top safeties in the NFL midway through his fourth professional season, was all set to attend the University of Kentucky to continue his football career.

That is, until the Wildcats pulled his scholarship offer in favor of a player who had changed his mind about going to Alabama. Had the Kentucky deal with Byard gone through, he would have joined UK and played wide receiver.

Instead, he wound up at Middle Tennessee, where the Blue Raiders had recruited him as a safety. Byard took to the position, collecting in 19 interceptions during his time at MTSU and parlaying that into a third-round pick by the Titans in 2016.

Byard’s primary focus in high school was offense, even though – like many high school prospects – he played on both offense and defense while there. Defense was an afterthought.

“I played receiver my senior year (of high school),” Byard recalls. “I had like 700 or 800 yards and seven touchdowns. In college, I played DB, but I only had like two picks in high school.

“I was athletic enough to play the position, but I really learned how to play it in college.”

Byard recalled the whole process that led him from thinking he was going to be a receiver in the SEC at Kentucky to becoming a star defensive back at Middle Tennessee.

“Coming into college, the University of Kentucky actually offered me as a receiver to play there, and then ended up pulling my scholarship offer toward the end, because they got a guy to decommit from Alabama and come to Kentucky.

“I’m not really sure where he’s at right now, but I don’t think he’s in the NFL,” Byard adds. “Middle Tennessee was always there, but they were recruiting me as a safety.”

It was Byard’s high school coach who helped to convince him defense might be his ticket.

“It’s funny, my high school coach (Michael Carson) told me, ‘There’s a lot of 5-11, 185 or 190 receivers out there that run a 4.4, but there’s not a lot of good DB’s that have ball skills,” Byard recalls. “I kind of took that to heart and felt like, ‘Hey, I can really make a career out of this.’”

The skills Byard learned from being a receiver helped in that regard, but it was at Middle Tennessee that he really became a student of the game and learned the nuances of being a free safety. He also bought into the philosophy that he could affect the outcome of games with turnovers.

“Going back to my college days at Middle Tennessee, I had 19 interceptions in four years. It’s something I prided myself on,” Byard says. “Every day in practice, I just told myself to make a play a day. That’s one thing my defensive coordinator in college always preached, that turnovers are probably the most important thing in winning or losing a ballgame.

“That was always my deal as a safety – to get turnovers. If we get turnovers, it helps us win games. So that’s always been my deal to try to get turnovers, whether it’s interceptions or fumble recoveries – that’s just always been my deal.”

That attitude has carried over to the NFL, where Byard has 15 interceptions midway through his fourth season. He also has two fumble recoveries.

Film study became a vital part of his life at MTSU and has carried over to his approach as a pro.

“I was a film study junkie in college, as well,” he says. “Every single day, anytime I had breaks between classes, I’d watch film.

“On Wednesday, I may be watching a whole first half of the opponent we’re playing. Thursday, I’d be watching third downs. Friday, I’d be watching red zone.

“So I really studied film in college. It was kind of easier in college, because offenses and quarterbacks weren’t as advanced as they are now.”

Byard also learned from watching NFL stars like Troy Polamalu and Earl Thomas and how they played the position. He also found a common denominator in their games that he incorporated into his own game – all-out effort.

“We had a Steelers film from 2010 or 2011 or one of those years, so I watched a lot of Troy Polamalu. Really, just watching him I learned that he was full speed every single play until the whistle blew, and I really respected that,” he says.

“I also watched film of Earl Thomas the year the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl. I watched how he covered the post and how hard he played on every single play, and that was kind of always my deal really being an effort guy.

“I always felt like I had the ball skills, but I learned that when I get to the NFL I’ve got to play this hard every play. Guys in college don’t play that hard – some do and some don’t. But I had to understand that when I get to this level, or to get to this level, it’s going to have to be something different something I can pop on film to say I’m out here running as hard as I can, and I really respect those guys’ games.”

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