Photo by Joe Glorioso for The Sports Capitol

Louisiana trio aiming for Redskins roster spots offers more than assumed

BY BEN STANDIG | JULY 30, 2018

RICHMOND — Derrius Guice isn’t just making the team. The second-round pick from LSU with rock star potential and running back wow might transform the Washington Redskins offense – and for reasons beyond running and cutting.

Trey Quinn faces a steep climb that comes with the status of being the final player selected in April’s NFL Draft. He’s now been around the Redskins’ office long enough to show his route-running potential from the slot – and that his quiet nature includes plenty of oddball.

Odds of any undrafted free agent latching on with an NFL team are never good. Danny Johnson’s combination of cornerback skill and personal maturity muck up the usual calculations, as does his atypical bio. What he’s shown to date with the Redskins messes with early roster projections.

These three Louisiana natives who spent ample time of their young lives in the state capital of Baton Rouge are now trying to make the nation’s capital home. All three are now on the Washington Redskins roster representing different levels of rookies entering the NFL.

***

Everything about Guice stands out. Blonde tips on his twisty hair. The deep well of genuine enthusiasm that overflows with his every breath. The sturdy legs that churn for yards and end up making defenders tackle air. The reality that the LSU product is the most talented running back to wear Burgundy and Gold since Clinton Portis.

There’s another part of the Guice portfolio that stands out for its subtlety: He’s a listener, a thinker.

Ask most players, nay humans, a question and be prepared for an answer that, maybe, corresponds to the neighborhood of the query or at best the city block. It’s not that respondents don’t have pinpoint control like an All-Star major league pitcher. What thoughts, emotions or memories are triggered by the question can trigger a reply that directionally is accurate, but not quite on target.

The Baton Rouge native’s hyperkinetic nature gives Guice the appearance of movement even when standing still. The frenzied look on the football field adds another layer of headache for defenders attempting to hone in on the target. In conversation, the body language makes the 21-year-old appear distracted. Pay attention, and one realizes it’s the opposite.

If there’s an unknown incentive in his contract that stipulates a bonus if he remains on the field long after practice ends, Guice is banking that money. On Friday, some 20 minutes after teammates began heading inside the training facility to cool off, ice their various bumps and bruises or merely to get away from the oppressive Richmond humidity, Guice remains outside in football gear to sign autographs and take pictures with fans. When the camera comes out, nobody needs to “say cheese.” The megawatt smile is always ready.

Following his personal fanfest after the Friday morning practice, Guice chatted with reporters about two days worth of training camp. Considering the pre-draft assault on his character that carried into the actual draft and led to a draft slide until the Redskins selected him 59th overall, it would be easy if Guice’s default mode with reporters were angry bitch face. Again, the opposite. That upbeat vibe, can’t stop, won’t stop. His eyes fixate on the questioner rather than shyly or uncomfortably looking away.

Among the questions Friday, what’s the most significant difference he’s discovered between the college and the pro ranks? Not exactly an in-depth philosophical inquiry, but one that offers the receiver wide open space with which to respond. Noting the players are faster, stronger is a natural counter. Taking no plays off is another. Consult your sports clichés guide for others. Guice paused for a beat or two, like a quarterback setting up a draw play, before answering while looking the reporter in the eyes.

“I still ain’t found out yet. I’m still trying to figure that out, to be honest. I don’t really know yet,” Guice responded while making direct eye contact.

A follow-up question asked for potential answers. “I’ll tell you when I know for sure what’s different. I don’t want to think. I’ll tell you when I figure out what’s really different.”

This is just one example of the rookie’s contemplative nature. His thoughtful mind also shows where his boss cares most.

“So, the physicality of Derrius Guice is not the issue. We just got to make sure he gets it mentally,” coach Jay Gruden said this week. “I don’t think he’s going to have a problem. He picked it up very fast in OTA’s. He didn’t have any mental mistakes, did a great job, so I anticipate Derrius getting plenty of looks – plenty of touches.”

***

If NFL fans know the name Trey Quinn, it’s likely as “Mr. Irrelevant.” That’s the nickname bestowed annually upon the player who is selected with the final pick in the NFL Draft. On April 28, the Redskins used No. 256 overall on the Lake Charles native. With the “Mr. Irrelevant” honor comes a multi-day celebration in California and attention that ordinarily doesn’t come with a final-round selection. It also means jokes and puns for days and days.

“I’ve heard plenty. I’ve heard 256 of them,” the slot receiver jokingly deadpanned to The Sports Capitol.

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Quinn politely absorbed all the attempts at clever during the nearly three months in between the Redskins drafting the SMU product and the start of training camp. Winning a professional job is what’s relevant now. That time gap is also notable, at least in Quinn’s mind.

During a conversation that ranged from learning “tricks of the trade” from receivers coach Ike Hilliard and Jamison Crowder, to why he doesn’t wear long-sleeve shirts under his uniform like some teammates – “I’m Irish-American. I start off with some pale complexion. Figured while I’m working, I might as well get a tan.” – Quinn revealed how he gets his mind off football as needed. Country music, specifically Cody Johnson and Johnny Cash, relaxes him. There was the obligatory playing Fortnite mention. As for television viewing, “I’m in love with “The Office.” I watch that on repeat the past six, seven years of my life.”

The sitcom set in a wacky 9-to-5 work world is nothing like Quinn’s gridiron life. Personalities translate, however. Quinn was asked which character with which he most identifies. He went with Dwight Schrute, the eccentric salesman who once described himself in three words: Hard-working. Alpha male. Jackhammer. Merciless. Insatiable.

“I think I’m just a weird, quirky dude,” said Quinn, who played with Guice for a stretch at LSU before transferring to SMU. “People out here don’t see that yet because I’m quiet until really three months into a relationship and then I start getting weird as shit. People don’t want to talk to me anymore. In that case, I’d say Dwight because he’s freakin’ weird.”

What’s also weird is how Quinn pundits, and subsequently fans, slotted Quinn on the Week 1 roster despite his draft status. The 6-foot target also faces a deep pool of competitors. While there are tiers within, 6-to-8 players appear legitimately competing for no more than three spots behind Crowder, Paul Richardson and Josh Doctson.

Quinn might just overcome the odds. Gruden is a fan. Slot receivers are necessary for the modern NFL. Now it’s just a matter of sharpening the tools while adjusting from SMU’s quick-paced attack to a deliberate professional offense.

“You’re in the huddle. You break out, you have time to scan the field and think about what you have to do,” Quinn said of what he sees running patterns from the slot. “It’s one of those things where the more repetitions you get, the quicker you’re able to think about it out there, and that’s what we’re all striving for, especially the rookies.”

That’s not weird at all.

***

The name Danny Johnson is common. The cornerback’s background is not.

The East Feliciana native isn’t the only college graduate on the Redskins roster. Not everyone finished with a 4.0 grade point average.

Some ponder furthering the education for their post-football career. This Southern University criminal justice major eventually plans on attending law school. Other players have kids. This one entered training camp with a seven-year-old son, Aiden.

Johnson compartmentalized football, school and family from high school on, and found good fortune with each.

“It was mainly all about what I wanted in life,” Johnson told The Sports Capitol back in May.

Now comes his professional life. Parenting is a constant challenge. It’s arguably child’s play considering the NFL employment numbers game. The Redskins training camp roster sits at 90. That number gets chopped to 53 by Week 1. After his OTA and minicamp work and just a few days into training camp, it’s becoming clear Johnson has the game to snag one.

“I figured it out,” Johnson confidently said of his first few days participating in an NFL training camp. “Yeah, it’s going pretty good. OTA and minicamp helped me out. Just pick up on the defense even more. Just learn more every day. Watch film, make my corrections and come back out and be ready for the next day.”

The 5-foot-9 corner with 4.4 speed and impressive coverage ability went undrafted because of his limited size and concerns over the competition level he faced in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Johnson has quickly made a big impression on his head coach.

Some uncertainty exists at cornerback after the Redskins traded Kendall Fuller and moved on from Bashaud Breeland. There are also seven players the team either drafted or added as a veteran free agent on the roster with at most six spots available. That includes Josh Holsey, who opened camp on the PUP list after suffering a significant toe injury. That’s enough names to have front of mind – and yet Johnson receives a mention from Gruden seemingly every time a broad cornerback topic surfaces.

As mini-camp concluded back in May, Gruden positively singled out the performance of two undrafted free agents: Wide receiver Cam Sims and Johnson.

On Saturday, Gruden was asked a direct question about which roster longshots stood out early in camp. He punted on answering. Later on, in response to a question about Quinton Dunbar and positional depth, Gruden couldn’t help himself.

“Danny [Johnson] is one of the undrafted free agents …we really like,” Gruden said. “He’s done a great job, so we have a number of guys over there that are doing pretty good.”

Johnson, a four-year starter at Southern who sports the nickname “Louisiana Pimp Dog,” sniffed out an interception in Saturday’s practice while defending Quinn.

“I knew I was in Cover-2, so I just knew I was at the high safety playing the nickel. I had to be over the top and (prepare to) break. I saw two verticals. I saw them break the corner routes, so I was just thinking drive and go,” Johnson explained.

Conventional thinking says undersized, undrafted corners coming out of the SWAC are roster long shots. If Johnson keeps up his current form, that thinking gets turned around, something that rarely happens to him on the field.

“I’m getting a lot of reps. I’m just trying to take advantage of everything,” Johnson said.

He added, “I’m just trying to make sure I grasp everything and make sure I’m doing the right thing when my name is called.”

Most 53-man roster projections include six corners and ten defensive backs overall. There’s enough cornerback talent to wonder how anyone gets cut. That’s why it’s time to start thinking about how 11 stay. At this pace, Johnson isn’t going anywhere except back to Ashburn and then to Arizona for Week 1.

Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.

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