In Texas, football is a religious experience. There are three states - California, Florida and Texas - that lead the country in candidates for the NFL, but Texas has an energy all its own. The fervor of their passion pounds through the veins of fans and young players like the rush of liquor: hot and furious.
High school football games are held on Friday nights. Small towns swell; big towns are flooded with pickups, station wagons and SUVs pull in, loaded with the faithful. The atmosphere is carnival-like, but the mindset of those in the experience is far more serious than that. For Stephen Darcel McBath, it carried with it an initiation into the mysteries of the game that came to McBath at a very early age. He would soon rise to the top of the Texas football pantheon.
McBath wasn't a name that many of the Broncos fans were familiar with before April's draft. Names like Louis Delmas and Patrick Chung were more commonly known and another player in the defensive secondary wasn't exactly what most of the members were looking for when his name was called. A protesting murmur rippled through the posts. What was Josh McDaniels thinking? On Friday night, with Brian Dawkins sidelined by a hand injury that required a simple surgery, we got to find out that Darcel McBath is a solid young player.
Jeff Cordell was McBath's coach in 2003 when the local Gainesville Leopards went undefeated to win the state Class 3A Division I high school football championship. In Texas, that's much akin to winning the World Series, a match that holds somewhat less interest in that state unless a Texas team is in the Series. McBath was a jack of all trades on his team and even then he was getting noticed. Cordell said of McBath:
I basically got to watch him grow up when I was in Gainesville. He is a good kid with a great work ethic. We knew back then he had a lot of talent...I was talking with (former GHS defensive coordinator) Patrick Harvell the other day and we were talking about Darcel and how gifted he was even back then," Cordell said. "It’s a pretty proud moment for us.
The win came over rival Burnet, a team that featured Cowboys draftee, quarterback Stephen McGee and Texas Longhorns receiver Jordan Shipley. McBath also played on the Leopards' state championship basketball team. Sports were always his life.
On the day McBath was drafted, he had gone back to his roots, spending the day with family and friends in Gainesville. He had played with many of them at the Boys and Girls Club in Gainesville, a place he would later return to to sign autographs.
We were all thrilled," said Tricia West, the executive director of the facility. "I’ve never listened to the draft before in my life, but I was listening Saturday. He (McBath) has worked so hard to get to this point and he always has that smile."
McBath went on to college and became a Texas Tech Red Raider. He spent one year at cornerback before starting for the past three seasons at free safety, taking over for Chinedum Ndukwe. Darcel finished his college career with 218 tackles and 12 interceptions. McBath went up against WR Michael Crabtree daily in practice and feels that the level of competition sharpened his game. During his senior year he had seven interceptions, which tied for the NCAA lead (with 5 other players) and was an All-Big 12 selection. One of the players he was tied with for the NCAA lead was new Denver Broncos teammate Alphonso Smith. Both of them have reputations as ball-hawks. They will be integral parts of the next generation Denver Broncos.
That's essential to a Broncos defense that was porous, to put it gently, against the pass last year. Whether from lack of rush, pressure or scheme, Denver managed only 9 forced fumbles and 6 interceptions last season. That year, both Smith and McBath caught more than the entire 2008 Denver secondary. It's not a coincidence. The Broncos are looking to get much tougher in the defensive backfield, and Smith fits the mold described by head coach Josh McDaniels.
"He’s a playmaker, and I think that’s what they’re looking for," McBath said of Alphonso Smith. "They’re looking for guys to make plays on the ball and Alphonso is one of those guys." So is McBath. While the Broncos notched 4 sacks in Friday's game, a few of them were referred to as 'coverage sacks'. The secondary has stepped up already. McBath was thrilled to see his first NFL action.
"My mom would probably say that I came out of the womb wanting to be an NFL player," laughed McBath. "It has been a dream of mine since forever. As far back as I can remember I have wanted to play in the NFL." Now he will.
Denver brought in Renaldo Hill from the Miami Dolphins, a player who pulled down 3 INTs of his own in 2008, as did former Philadelphia Eagles mainstay Brian Dawkins. Dawkins added 6 forced fumbles, a fact that can be traced to his hammering style of tackling, his opportunistic style of stripping the ball when coming up to assist on a tackle and his pulse-pounding level of physicality at safety. Both 4th-round pick David Bruton out of Notre Dame and second-year player Josh Barrett are also fighting for a slot at safety, as is veteran holdover Vernon Fox. After the forgettable crews that manned the defensive backfield for Denver in 2008 some veteran leadership matched with talented youth are a welcome change. As is true for most of the Broncos' draft picks in 2009, McBath was a defensive captain for a Texas Tech Red Raiders team that was ranked as high as #2 in the nation last season. McBath is eager to learn from players like Dawkins and All-Everything cornerback Champ Bailey.
"They have some of the best players in the secondary in the league right now in Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey and I’m just eager to get up there and learn from them," he said. "I feel good, man, real good."
McBath had visited the Broncos in the time before the draft.
"The visit went very well," he said. "They wanted to know my football knowledge and I think I did very well. I think they like me as a person and it kind of showed when they drafted me in the second round. Denver is one of the teams that I really wanted to go to."
Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan has made no bones about how he feels about McBath.
"Anyone faces adversity," Nolan said. "They get through it, and they get through it positively. Obviously, it builds character in everybody. I would suggest the same about (Darcel). He seems to have his head screwed on right. He has got a good work ethic. When you face adversity, it forces you to do that."
How does he feel about the media attention that's been visited on the Broncos and 1st-year head coach McDaniels?
"Every team is under the microscope," McBath said. "If you’re doing the right things it doesn’t matter if you’re under the microscope or not. I just want them to know that I’ll give them 110 percent every time I’m on the field."
Nolan added, "You have to have a person like Darcel who respects the older player and respects what they stand for, because there are some that don't," the 12th-year NFL defensive coordinator said. "They are just too young to really know what it is supposed to look like. Darcel knows what it looks like.
"We do have some good veteran players. The starting four (in our) secondary is very experienced, and they are all very good pros. They take their jobs seriously and they work at it. If a young guy recognizes that, which not all of them do, they latch on to the right thing, and they could become a better pro themselves, but that is not always the case."
On his part, Head Coach McDaniels said, "He has started a lot of games. Not only productive in the passing game, but also a tackler, smart kid, very versatile, can play in the kicking game -- which as I've mentioned all spring, we're not trying to just improve one phase or the other."
From what he's shown to the coaches and fans alike in training camp, McBath has every possibility of making the team glad that they took him in the second round. "I think they like me as a person and it kind of showed when they drafted me in the second round," said Darcel, "Denver is one of the teams that I really wanted to go to."
Denver needs a next generation of secondary players who can learn from the likes of Dawkins, Bailey, Andre' Goodman and Hill and hopefully take over as starters in a few years. For many, McBath is an excellent example of that kind of player. A 6'1", 198 lb. true free safety with 9.5 inch hands, solid coverage skills and a 38-inch vertical leap, McBath may be our next starter at the position.
cfn.scout.com had this to say of McBath:
He’s just a nice all-around football player with good size, decent athleticism, and good ball skills. He’s not going to blow anyone up and he’s a competent tackler, if not a great one, but he’s great when the ball is in the air and will find a spot immediately on special teams. A former corner, he moves like one and could put up big-time interception numbers in the right package. A self-starter and a hard worker, he’ll make himself a long-time pro.
Post-Combine Skinny: He's the type of player that everyone wants. He wants to be a top player, he'll work for it, and he ran well with a 4.57. He was quick enough in the drills and did them effortlessly.
Positives: A leader. He took charge of the back seven … A great combination of speed and size … A playmaker both against the run and against the pass.
The Good: An aggressive, downhill type of safety who takes good angles in coverage and has the power to create collisions on contact. Is a strong tackler in all areas of the field and breaks down well in space. Reads and reacts quickly to plays and has a nose for the ball down the field. Has an impressive closing burst toward the ball with the physicality to work his way through receivers and break up plays. Possesses good hands in coverage.
The Bad: Struggles when asked to transition out of his back-pedal and run down the field. Gets a bit high
SI.com made an interesting point:
"McBath has been very productive in college, and he would do well in a zone system at the next level that reduces his area responsibilities and puts him in a position where he can consistently face the action." That makes McBath the third defensive back chosen by McDaniels whose scouting reports indicated that their best use would be in zone coverage. That's worth watching in the 2009 season.
McBath's only history of injury was a broken arm suffered in camp in 2005 that cost him part of the season. Since then, his health has been excellent. For those who can access it, The War Room has some interesting perspectives on him. Summed up, they say that he's not a huge hitter and doesn't hammer the run like Dawkins will. He's a safety with cornerback coverage skills. He used to have problems reading the play quickly, and that shows up in some of his scouting reports, but evaluated his senior year, others said,
"Has the top-level footwork, athleticism and speed to cover any tight end well in man coverage. Reads the quarterback fast in deep coverage and consistently reacts quickly. Plants, drives and closes fast on passes in front of him and gets there in time to either make a play on the ball or to hit the receiver right after ball arrives to break up the pass. Flashes the ability to cut in front of the receiver to make the very tough interception."
McDaniels and Brian Xanders have brought in a big, run-stuffing hitter in David Bruton and a coverage safety in Darcel McBath. It could just be me, but it looks like Denver has plans for these young men that don't include sitting on the bench. Said McBath of his situation,
"I'm blessed because I get to come into a system that has two future Hall of Famers -- those guys are great," McBath said. "My eyes are going to be wide open and I'm going to be trying to learn from those two guys. Those two guys alone, if I can pick up anything from them, I'll be a better player.""
It looks like he's a fast learner. Given the good work that he gave us in Friday night's preseason game, it looks like the Denver Broncos have a lot to look forward to in this young man. One thing that's certain is that McBath knows the right things to say.
"My goal is just try to be the best player that I can be, to work on my craft, get better at the little things in my game that I need to get better at and help this team win football games in any way that I need to, whatever it is," McBath said. "We are blessed. You have got to give it all you have got every day. You have got to try to be the best you can be, because there are guys out there busting their tails trying to be the best they can be so they can beat me. I am going to do the same. I am going to approach it like that every day and hopefully get better."
I'd hate to bet against him.