When it comes to evaluating players from smaller schools, Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone asks himself one question first.
Is the NFL going to be too big for them?
“I think the key to those players is to come in here and not have big eyes,” Marrone said. “Not come in and go ‘Wow, look at this.’ We all put our pads on the same way. I think if they don’t get awestruck or caught up … they have a good chance. If they get caught up, then I think it’s very difficult.”
When that same question is asked of linebacker Keith Pough – a Howard University product who’s hoping to beat the odds to make the Bills as an undrafted free agent – it’s hard not to like the answer.
“I perform the best on the biggest stages,” Pough responded without missing a beat. “I believe competition breeds excellence. It’s not a matter of the big lights – I’m going to perform, regardless, because I belong here.
“I should have been drafted, but I wasn’t. I’m fighting for a roster spot, and that’s the chip on my shoulder.”
If attitude is any part of the equation for an undrafted player, Pough should like his chances. But he’s more than just a scrappy David going up against big-school Goliaths.
Pough set a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) record for tackles for loss, amassing 71 in four years with the Bison.
“It was 15 percent me and 85 percent of the scheme,” he said of his production. “The scheme taught me my alignment, my assignment and technique and how I play. The 15 percent was just me making the tackle.
“That’s not really a difficult job. That’s what you do every day. It’s definitely a great accolade, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. The secondary staying in coverage, the D-line creating gaps for me and freeing me up.”
Pough, who was the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, is relentless in his film study.
“I pride myself in the preparation of the game, because that’s where it starts,” he said. “Knowing tendencies, knowing offensive schemes and being able to dictate what the offense can or can’t do because you watch so much film.”
Pough was the first Howard player ever to receive an invitation to the East-West Shrine Bowl, which has been played since 1925. He also attended the NFL Scouting Combine in February, but his measurables there were not on par with his on-field production. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.90 seconds and did 17 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press. At 6-foot-2 and 239 pounds, he’s got a lean build.
The Bills, though, feel Pough plays faster than his timed speed because of his anticipation. He’s also got long arms (33½ inches) and strong hands that helped him rack up 349 tackles in college.
Not bad for a player who started high school as a 5-foot-8 wide receiver. A growth spurt in the summer before his junior season shot Pough up to 6-feet, and he made the switch to linebacker, not by choice, but out of necessity.
“I didn’t really want any part of defense. I always was an offensive guy,” he said. “One of our linebackers got into a scuffle during a scrimmage, so my father, who’s been my coach my whole life, moved me to ‘backer.”
In his first game, Pough laid out a player who had about six inches and 100 pounds on him, and the decision to put him on defense permanently was made.
Pough had chances to walk on at FBS schools, but decided on a scholarship offer from Howard in part to help ease the financial burden on his family. It was also important for the native of Orangeburg, S.C., to attend a historically black college.
Several of Pough’s family members attended South Carolina State, and he “always wanted that camaraderie, that rivalry, that tradition that the” historically black college offers, he said.
Pough has one class remaining to earn his degree from Howard in physical education. For now, though, he’s focused on his opportunity in Buffalo.
It was at the combine that Pough bonded with his position coach with the Bills, Jim O’Neill.
“A five-minute conversation turned into an hour conversation just talking about football and different schemes,” Pough said. “The scheme we ran in college and how we defended certain plays. We just had that natural bond.
“You know when you meet somebody for the first time and you know this is a good person. He genuinely loves what he’s talking about, he’s passionate about it. It was a very intellectual conversation about football and then in regards to life.”
Pough remembered the conversation when the draft concluded, and it factored into his decision to join the Bills.
“A number of teams called me, but just talking with my agent, he felt that it was in my best interest to come to Buffalo and I felt the same because it’s similar to the same position I played in college,” he said.
The Bills see him playing on the strong side in coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme.
Marrone’s message to Pough and the other 33 players who took part in the rookie minicamp over the weekend was the same.
“You’re coming here with the opportunity to compete for a position,” the coach said. “Fifty-three guys are going to make the team. A lot of people don’t talk that way to players. No one wants to bring that stuff up. That’s just the reality of it and that’s the way it is.
“If you’re not going to have persistent thoughts about making this team and your thoughts are going to go to other places, you’re going to have a tough time making it.”
Pough and the other rookies will be joined today by the team’s veterans for the start of organized team activities. It’s a setting much different from Howard University, but one Pough feels he’s ready for.
“This is a different world from college. You’re not on scholarship. You have money; you get paid more than the coaches. It’s pretty much all about the character of that individual,” he said.
“I feel like I will succeed and I will thrive after I make the 53-man roster. I’m very confident in that.”