Now that Baltimore has punctuated the 2012 NFL season with their Super Bowl win over San Francisco, the league’s full attention has turned towards April’s NFL Draft. The first step on the road to the draft is this month’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, where over 300 NFL prospects hope to ensure that their names will called from the commissioner’s podium on draft weekend by performing speed, strength, and agility drills under the watchful eyes of NFL scouts and coaches.
FCS All-American and former Howard University linebacker Keith Pough is one of the prospects who’s been invited to participate in the combine. Pough, who’s fresh off of a strong performance at the East-West Shrine Game, broke the FCS career tackles for loss record this past season while winning Defensive Player of the Year honors in the MEAC conference. Pough checked in with BSO from Bommarito Performance Systems in Miami where he’s prepping for the combine to discuss when he discovered his love for physical contact on the football field, his career at Howard, and what he and NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor have in common.
BSO: How did you feel watching the Super Bowl knowing that you’re going to be playing in the NFL soon?
KP: It was surreal just knowing that my time is next. My class is here and I’ll have the privilege and opportunity to don the NFL logo. It was a surreal experience. Of course, I’m a Ravens fan so it was kind of like a two-edged sword. I was happy for the team, for Ray Lewis, who’s the greatest linebacker to ever do it and one of the best to ever play the game, but at the same time I was like ‘dang, I can no longer be a Ravens fan’ (unless they draft me). I really didn’t think about it until after the game was over, I was just thinking that in a couple of months hopefully I’ll be contributing to some organization with dreams and aspirations to experience that feeling, that confetti dropping and hoisting up the Lombardi Trophy which is really what it’s all about.
BSO: So you mentioned being a Ravens’ fan, is that the team that you’d want to draft you in April?
KP: Honestly I have no preference of what organization I go to or what organization drafts me. I just want to play the game and compete at the highest level in my craft. I think it’d just be a blessing just to get in the door, so I’m not picky on what team chooses me. I just want to be the best player and teammate that I can be. I feel that I fit well in any organization with my personality, my work ethic, and my people skills.
BSO: Speaking of work ethic, I hear that you’re quite a student of the game. Does that come from playing for your father in high school?
KP: Yes, it definitely helped my study habits and knowing what to look for on film and during practices and games. I’ve had a lot of great coaches throughout my career from high school, of course growing up with my father being a coach, and throughout college my defensive coordinator and my position coach really imparted so much knowledge and wisdom in me regarding the game that I’ve really been able to excel because of what they’ve taught me. So that has been a blessing. Going to the East-West Shrine Game, all throughout practice I would hear pretty much the same thing that my coaches (at Howard) were saying. Thing is, one of the false perceptions that people have is that if you go to a HBCU you’re not coached well or you don’t have the same caliber coaching. But now I’m on a big stage with guys from Ohio State, Kansas State, and University of South Carolina and these NFL coaches are saying the exact same things that HBCU coaches were saying. It’s not the coaching (at HBCUs), you get grade ‘A’ coaching, and you get professional coaching. It’s solely on the individual as to whether or not you can take that coaching.
BSO: Now tell our readers how you ended up at Howard in the first place coming out of SEC/ACC recruiting territory in Orangeburg, South Carolina where you’re from.
KP: I will try to make a long story as short as I can. I was 5’8” up until my junior year of high school and I played wide receiver. I hit a growth spurt that summer and hit six feet, but I really didn’t want to play defense because I wanted no part of contact whatsoever. I was a possession receiver, catch the ball get down and get out-of-bounds. I transferred schools when my father got a defensive coordinator position at Scott’s Branch High School in Summerton, S.C. (Pough’s alma mater). I actually played a little bit of quarterback but that didn’t happen so I ended up playing tight end and fullback even though I was only like 6’0”, 170 lbs. That summer we had a scrimmage and one of the linebackers kept getting into scuffles with the other team so my father sat him down and moved me down from safety (my position for that scrimmage) to outside linebacker. The other team ran at me on the next play and I filled the hole and made the tackle. After that, the team started running up the middle so my father moved me inside to middle linebacker and I was still able to cover the field sideline to sideline. What really sealed it is when the other team ran a bubble screen to this one guy they had moved to the slot for one play who was like 6’8”, 290 lbs. Me being 6’0”, 170 lbs playing middle linebacker, I just ran out there like ‘I gotta make this tackle or he’s going to score’, so I closed my eyes and just threw my body into him. I rolled over and I heard everyone in the stands screaming and yelling so I thought he had scored, but when I finished rolling over I saw him lying on his back so I was hype. Ever since then I just loved contact and yearned for contact.
The next Monday my father went into the head coach’s office and the head coach asked him “what do you think about your son playing linebacker?” and my father said “I was just coming to you to talk to you about the same thing”. That pretty much sealed my fate at linebacker. I only played linebacker for two years so I didn’t have a lot of big college offers on the table. I had preferred walk-on offers at LSU, Clemson, and Vanderbilt, as well as a few offers from some smaller schools like New Mexico, The Citadel, Gardner Webb, and every MEAC team, so I wasn’t highly recruited. Howard was more of an academic move for me because football wasn’t guaranteed. Where I am now is by virtue of a lot prayer, hard work, and dedication to the game. I did have a dream of being here as a kid, but if you look at what my height and size and what I had to go through in high school with my recruiting process, you could say that it wasn’t in the cards for me. But anything is possible when you put your mind to it and you never let what anyone says dictate or determine your future.
BSO: So is that the message that you’d share with some of these high school kids this week who don’t sign with major programs?
KP: Yes. It’s not a matter of where you go, because if you can play they will find you. If you look at the NFL Hall of Fame, a number of those guys come from small schools. Walter Payton. Deacon Jones. A lot of kids may not know as much about these guys, but I encourage them to do some research and Google them. Mel Blount. A lot of these guys are from small schools. Even now, Robert Mathis (Colts). Adrian Hamilton (Ravens) just won the Super Bowl, he came from Prairie View. Antoine Bethea (Colts), Geoff Pope (most recently with Eagles), Tracy White (Patriots). It’s a number of guys from small schools who make it and fulfill their dreams as NFL players. It’s just about putting in the hours every day, hard work, never being distracting, and being willing to sacrifice what’s necessary to make it to the next level.
BSO: What’s your relationship like with some of those other Howard alums who you mentioned (Bethea, Pope, and White), particularly Colts’ Safety Antoine Bethea?
KP: I’ve met Geoff Pope briefly. I’ve never met Ron Bartell or Marques Douglas. I’ve met Tracy White, he’s from South Carolina. He wrote me a very touching Facebook message not too long ago saying that he’s followed my career and he’s very proud of me and that it’s on me to carry on the legacy as a linebacker from Howard University since he’s retiring this year. Just to talk to him and for him to pass the torch on to me, it’s a blessing no doubt about it. Just to be mentioned with one of the greats in Howard history. As for Bethea, he’s like a big brother to me. Ever since my sophomore year when he came back to Howard to finish his degree in 2010, he took me under his wing and he’s really mentored me. He calls me his little brother and I look up to him as my big brother. Throughout this whole process I’ve gone to him for advice because it was new to me. He’s really looked out for me and had my best interests at heart. Definitely a great guy, I considered him the big brother that I never had. He’s definitely a humble, hard-working guy. The relationship is very close.
BSO: I see you that you and Bethea share the same agent (Adisa Bakari of Dow Lohnes Sports and Entertainment), did he help you with that as well?
KP: Yes, the process is crazy. You’ve got a lot of people pulling at you and wanting to represent you. I just reached out to him for advice ever since I knew that this was an option for me. He (Bethea) called me one day and asked if it was okay if he sent my information to his agent and said that his agent was a good guy who was about business. Dow Lohnes hasn’t let me down since I signed with them. They take care of their business and they know how to market small school guys. They have a number of small school clients like Justin Durant (Lions via Hampton University) and Kendall Langford (Dolphins via Hampton University). That was probably the number one thing I was looking for throughout the process.
BSO: You accomplished a lot during your time at Howard, breaking records both on the national level and at your school. Which accomplishment are you most proud of from your time at Howard?
KP: I would have to say having a winning season my senior year (Howard was 7-4 in 2012). A lot of people look at that as an average year, but given our history at Howard University (1-10 in 2010, no winning seasons since 2004)…like you said I had accomplished a lot, I’ve had the dominant seasons, the dominant games, but I’d never had a winning season. Everything else means nothing if you’re not a winner. You look at history, there have been a lot of great players who have all been forgotten because they didn’t have a winning team or win big games. Just to go down in Howard history as winner, it definitely means a lot.
BSO: What will you miss most about your time at Howard?
KP: The experience. I can explain it, but for those who know, no explanation is needed. Howard is Howard. Everything from The Showtime Marching Band to those beautiful days on the yard, the homecomings, the Howard-Hampton games, that whole experience. You have to be there. I tell a lot of guys that I’m training with that I could tell them about it, but they’d just have to be there to experience the Howard life. I will definitely miss the experience and the networks I’ve made and the bonds I’ve created with my former teammates, coaches, and professors. It was definitely a great 4-5 years of my life.
BSO: What did it mean to you to win the Pat Tillman Award at the East-West Shrine Game?
KP: Besides visiting the Shriner’s hospital and meeting those kids and having those kids bless my life it means a lot. Just everything Pat Tillman stood for as a man, giving up a lucrative contract and career in football to volunteer to serve his country and unfortunately paying the ultimate sacrifice, it speaks volumes about the type of man he was and it speaks on the direction I’m headed in my life and what people see in me and the standard and the light I’m held in. To whom much is given, much is required but I gladly take on the responsibility and the challenge of being the leader having won the Pat Tillman Award. Pat Tillman stood for all those things, all the intangibles: honesty, leadership, integrity, dignity, pride, selfless service. Everything he stood for are things you can’t teach. It’s a blessing and an honor and I often think about how much of a blessing it was to even be nominated for that award.
BSO: As far as the action on the field at the Shrine Game, how important did you think it was for you to show some of these NFL teams that you can make plays against the FBS level guys from those big schools you talked about earlier?
It was extremely important because that’s one of the knocks against small school guys. I’m not saying it’s just, but that’s just one of the double standards in this world. You go to a small school, you lack that level of competition. My mindset is that every time I line up, I don’t play the helmet, I don’t play the decal. I play my game, and that’s to dominate every snap. So it doesn’t matter who I line up against, my mindset is to dominate. For me to go into the East-West Shrine Game, and to prove that, it helped me out a lot and I think it really opened the eyes of a lot of scouts. Not to be boastful, I just wanted to play my game and prove that I belong. I proved that I belong on that stage and on that level. Competition breeds excellence, and I believe I performed at level to where there’s no more doubt that I can play with those guys from LSU, Alabama, or Ohio State.
BSO: Well you certainly got some attention because you got an invite to the NFL Combine. How did you find out about the invitation, and what’s the first thing you did when you got the news?
KP: An email was sent to my phone. I was lying across the bed and my phone just vibrated, and I thought ‘oh, it’s just another email’, and I opened it up I saw “NFL Combine”. I stared at it for like 30 seconds and started crying. It was just overwhelming because everything I’ve been through has led up to this very moment in time. Last year, I didn’t even watch the combine because I purposed it in my mind, I had a goal, I told myself that I’d be in Indianapolis this year for the 2013 combine. To have that come to fruition, it was mind-blowing. You put some much time and effort into what you do that you feel like you almost deserve it, and sometimes when it happens it’s almost unbelievable.
BSO: It seems like every year we hear about a player who has an outstanding performance in a particular drill at the combine, like the bench press, 40-yard dash, etc. Is there a particular drill that you’re looking forward to or is there one that you think you will stand out in?
KP: I’m going out to be dominant in all. My focus is to be in the top five in all the drills we do. All of them have a bearing on my future, so I can’t focus on one and not focus on the others. I have to be the best at all of them and maximize my God-given talent and God-given potential in all the drills we do. I don’t have the luxury for performing well in one drill and not doing well in another. I have to make every rep count, and every drill count. That’s how I live my life, I make every day count.
BSO: Do you pay much attention to the draft projections that come out online?
KP: Not at all. It’s nice to know what people think about you, but to me it doesn’t matter where I get drafted or which team picks me. I’ve proven I can play at that high level. The biggest thing is it’s all about economics now, what my signing bonus will be going into my rookie year. My focus is to make the team whether I get drafted or not. Of course I want to get drafted, I want to get drafted as high as possible but I can’t really focus on that right now because I have no control over where I go, it depends on the teams. I’m just working hard every day to maximize my potential and go as high as possible.
BSO: Do you see yourself as 4-3 OLB or are you more comfortable in a 3-4?
KP: I’m comfortable in both. I’ve had a lot of conversations with scouts and they ask me the same question. If you look at my numbers, I’ve been dominant in both and haven’t had problems picking up the schemes or learning different schemes. I played in the 3-4 for two years, and played in the 4-3 for two years and produced similar numbers. So I don’t really think it’s the defensive scheme that I play in, because I’m comfortable in both. I’m willing to play inside or outside, wherever they decide to put me.
BSO: For those who haven’t seen you play, other than Ray Lewis, is there a linebacker currently playing in the league who you liken yourself to?
KP: I’d like to take it back and venture to say Lawrence Taylor. If you watch LT’s game he was just relentless and passionate about the game. He was athletic, tall, and lanky coming off the edge making tackles, sacking quarterbacks. He was unstoppable and couldn’t be blocked. With my body size and my athletic ability, I have more of the makeup of a LT (tall, lanky, and athletic), but with the passion and intensity of a Ray Lewis, so I feel I embody both of the greats. Not putting myself on that pedestal, or trying to compare myself to them, but that’s who I pattern my game after. Those are two of my role models in the game because of who they are and what they mean to the game and what they both accomplished during their tenure in the league.
BSO: So in addition to Lewis and Taylor, who has had the biggest impact on you football career?
KP: It’s been a number of guys. Coach Willie Jeffries, Hall of Fame Black College Coach, he always said “if you see a turtle on a fence, best believe somebody put him there,” so I’ve a number of people who’ve contributed and invested in me. My strength and conditioning coach Darrell Heavy, both of my position coaches James Moses and Billy Jenkins (who played ten years in the league with the Rams), my defensive coordinators Andre Kramer and Rayford Petty, probably two of the best defense coordinators in the nation based on their knowledge of the game and their approach to the game and how they study film and scheme for the offense. They all definitely had a great impact on me in terms of football.
BSO: What aspect of the NFL lifestyle are you looking forward to the most?
KP: The competition. You’re here now it’s the best of the best. Some people shy away from it, but this is the true test. My thing is I have a mantra: be phenomenal, or be forgotten. Now I have the opportunity to play on the highest level there is to play on against the best in the world.
BSO: What do you think you’re going to buy with your first NFL paycheck?
KP: I have no idea. I don’t know (laughs). Honestly, I can’t even answer that because I have no idea. After I pass out and wake up, and pass out again, cry, and all of that I don’t know.
BSO: What’s a team getting when they draft Keith Pough?
KP: The hardest working man in America. They’re getting leader, a guy with high character. A guy you won’t have to worry about on the field or off the field. A guy who is self-disciplined who’s going to be where he’s supposed to be and do what he’s supposed to do. A guy who’s very coachable, who’s going to be the first guy in, and the last guy out. A guy who will be uplifting and encouraging at all times. Someone who’s going to work hard and be willing to play wherever, even if it’s special teams. I’m willing to be that role player for the team. Everybody’s not going to be the superstar or that highly paid guy on the billboards. You’ve got to have a lot of role players, and I’m willing to take on that responsibility and contribute in any way I can.