(STATS) — While one is sometimes the loneliest number, James Bradberry will be far from alone this weekend in Indianapolis.
The Samford Bulldogs defensive back is the lone player from the Southern Conference at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, but in the bigger picture, he’s one of the 330-plus players who will be measured, timed and scrutinized both physically and mentally by 32 teams trying to rebuild, reload and plan for the future.
“Once I got my Senior Bowl invite, I was definitely going to the combine,” said Bradberry, who made a name for himself among pro teams while in Mobile, Alabama, and the Philadelphia Eagles made it a point to get to know him better that week. “My agent told me and I received it through e-mail.”
His 6-foot-1, 213-pound frame is an instant calling card for NFL teams as press coverage at the line of scrimmage has taken on more importance given the evolution of the pro passing game. During Bradberry’s time with the Bulldogs, he grew into a top cornerback in the schemes of defensive coordinator Bill D’Ottavio, who implemented parts of the “Cover-3” scheme the Seahawks made popular in the NFL over the last two seasons following their Super Bowl 48 victory thanks to their physically imposing secondary.
“We used elements of it to compliment the things we’re doing and to counter some of the things we see on offense,” D’Ottavio explained. “We were a two-deep team and we mixed in some three-deep and a matchup zone. For a good portion, it was James and Jaquiski (Tartt) to take advantage of their abilities to play a matchup and play man within a zone concept.”
In some ways, Bradberry – a third-team STATS FCS All-American – is following the path Tartt set from Samford. The 6-1, 221-pound safety was a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers last year and enjoyed a productive rookie campaign with 51 tackles in 15 games, starting the final eight. Bradberry is pegged as a middle-round selection, but is fully confident in his ability to thrive at the NFL level after playing in a pro-style defense.
“We’re bigger corners, we press a lot and the NFL is going into the phase of press corners, taller corners,” Bradberry said. “(At Samford) it was a lot of man and I used my length.”
Though it sounds counterintuitive, another factor in Bradberry’s favor is his ability to defend against the run. The Southern Conference features two triple-option teams in The Citadel and Wofford, and they combined to throw 17 passes in those games this season. They were hardly leisurely strolls for Bradberry, who stuck his nose into the pile all season and finished with 29 solo tackles, including four for losses, to go with a pair of interceptions.
“We ask a lot of our corners, we use them in the run game, they’re heavily involved,” D’Ottavio said. “(James) was a dominant cover guy who was very involved in the run game. We play hard corner stuff, which is setting the edge in the run game and re-routing receivers.”
Bradberry is in line to be the fourth player selected during D’Ottavio’s nine-year run with the Bulldogs, who also produced veteran NFL safety Cortland Finnegan prior to his arrival. D’Ottavio eagerly shares credit with defensive backs coach Sam Shade on his players’ development – they’ve been on campus together for eight seasons – and the success is helping make Samford a destination for defensive backs.
“We’ve had some success, there’s no doubt. You have credibility and they make the opportunity,” D’Ottavio said. “It’s a win-win all the way around because at the end of the day, we’re recruiting the best available player.”
Bradberry’s biggest concern regarding the drills was the shuttle run, but he also knows scouts are looking beyond the timed metrics. His goals at Lucas Oil Field are to “run good times, run good 40s and show that I can backpedal smoothly and have a good hip transition coming out of breaks.”
And in case any team comes calling for more, Bradberry can always present D’Ottavio’s glowing recommendation.
“I gave him the toughest assignment every week,” the defensive coordinator said. “If you’re going to do that in man, you have to be able to zone, bail out and turn it into zone. He was very good for us in press coverage, he’s strong with his hands and has excellent body control.”
So Bradberry may be one of hundreds in Indianapolis this weekend, but there’s a good chance a team will find his one-on-one skills to fill that one need in its secondary.