Kam Curl is key to Washington's defense, and future

For Curl, the visits felt even more important. “Everybody and their mom” told him to stay at Arkansas, said his father, Greg, and there ...

For Curl, the visits felt even more important. “Everybody and their mom” told him to stay at Arkansas, said his father, Greg, and there was a lot of “negativity” when he chose to turn professional. But Curl bet on himself, confident he had done everything he could as a three-year starter in the SEC. He believed that if teams spent time with him, if they saw he could play cornerback and safety, they would realize he had the size, smarts and speed to be something special.

But as Curl waited at the gate, the plan fell apart. He got a text from a Baltimore Ravens official and a call from his agent, Jacob Presser, telling him not to get on the plane. The NFL was shutting down team facilities because of the coronavirus pandemic. He had to go home.

“It sucked,” Curl said. He lamented lost opportunities — the workouts “would’ve helped my draft stock,” he noted — but remained unfazed. “I had confidence in myself. I knew anybody that picked me up, I could come in and make the team.”

Eight months later, the seventh-round draft pick has become one of the most important defenders for the Washington Football Team. Starting Sunday, the team needs him to fill the void at strong safety left by a season-ending injury to Landon Collins. Coach Ron Rivera chose to make him the starter instead of signing veteran Eric Reid, and Curl appreciates the magnitude of that trust.

My job “is just doing everything I can do to go help the defense not lose a step in the back end,” Curl said. “I know I ain’t going to be no Landon Collins, but I’m going to come in and do what I can.”

In the long term, Curl’s development could be key to the franchise’s future. Recently, Rivera said the 21-year-old was “such a smart football player” who reminded him of a “young [Kendall] Fuller,” a cornerback who also can play safety whom Washington signed in the offseason for four years and $40 million. Rivera pointed out that, as the NFL gets faster and more positionless, Curl could become an essential piece.

Rivera noted the best modern offenses use “special” tight ends as receivers to create mismatches against slower linebackers. Defenses often counter by playing nickel, which swaps out a linebacker for a defensive back, and offenses sometimes respond by running at the nickel corner, who’s smaller. Washington was using Curl as its big nickel because he’s too quick to pass on and, at 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, too big to run over.

Soon after the draft, Washington’s coaches began to realize what they had in Curl. They hadn’t showed the most interest in him beforehand — he had spoken at length with the Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers — but they had seen enough at the NFL combine. Curl sponged up the defense over the summer, and after a rocky start to training camp, he showed a knack for learning from mistakes and not repeating them. By the end of September, it became clear how much changed when the Ravens canceled Curl’s flight.

“If he’d had the workouts, I think people would’ve saw a little bit more into him and he would’ve been drafted higher,” Rivera said. “So he’s a guy that we’re very fortunate to have.”

In some ways, Curl’s path to this point was laid before he was born. In the 1980s, Greg Curl was a teenager in Taft, Okla., a tiny, communal town he describes as similar to Mayberry from “The Andy Griffith Show” — “but Black.” Greg loved football and wanted to be like his uncle, who had played at Oklahoma as a walk-on, but even in a football-obsessed state, his high school was too small to field a team. Instead he played basketball, and he credited his hard fouls for a surprise invitation from Baylor to try out for its football team.

Greg never made it to Baylor. His father was strict, and he told him college football wasn’t an option: He needed to focus solely on academics or get a job. Greg met a Navy recruiter who showed him a clip of the movie “Top Gun,” which featured fighter pilots wearing leather jackets and riding motorcycles in Southern California. He asked, “Where do I sign?”

But football never went away. The balcony of Greg’s townhouse in suburban San Diego overlooked Helix High, and when he watched practice, he noticed two standout players, running back Reggie Bush and quarterback Alex Smith. In 2000, Kam turned 1 as Bush and Smith led Helix to a sectional championship.

A few years later, Kam started spending Saturdays in the “man cave” Greg set up for college football. He leaned toward the TV and held a football as they watched all the games, downing Hot Pockets from the microwave and drinks from the mini fridge. Kam started playing when he was 6, a running back who wore No. 28 in admiration of Sooners legend Adrian Peterson.

“Some kids sleep with a teddy bear,” Greg said. “He had a football.”

Saturday by Saturday, Greg noticed his son studying the games more than just watching them. Kam tuned out his two sisters if a game was on and spent hours scouring YouTube for highlights. On the field, he excelled. He scored from everywhere, and his fifth-grade team finished one win short of the national playoffs in Florida.

That fall, after Greg was laid off when the defense contractor he worked for downsized, the Curls moved to Oklahoma. Kam wasn’t bothered, Greg said, after he started playing football again. Soon, Kam’s attention to detail surprised even Greg as he rattled off obscure NFL transactions at the dinner table and stayed up late to update rosters on his Madden video game. He used the game to test how different schemes worked against one another.

Greg coached Kam most of his life, and when Kam got to Muskogee High, Greg became an assistant. He wanted to help his son chase his dream “because of my experience.” Yet on the sidelines, under the Friday night lights, Greg said he thought little about what his own career might have been. He was too excited for Kam, who had switched to safety and was receiving interest from colleges.

“I got to see this,” Greg said. “I got to experience this with him. I would sometimes speak a word of encouragement or a word of correction, and he’d give me that look and …” Greg trailed off, chuckling.

By his senior year, Kam held scholarship offers from big-time programs, including Oklahoma and Baylor. He still loved the Sooners, but after studying their scheme, he believed it prioritized smaller, faster defensive backs. He understood his strengths, and he committed to Arkansas in large part because the Razorbacks would let him play cornerback and safety. Then, in the first game of his freshman year, a top cornerback got hurt and Kam was a starter.

“It’s sort of like the same thing” as now, he said. “You never want to see it happen like that, but it’s the same type of opportunity I’m getting, so I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”

In Fayetteville, he was an aggressive, instinctual player. He broke up deep passes and got sacks from safety on plays without a called blitz. The unit often left him overextended — Arkansas was 8-28 in his three seasons — but he kept his swagger. In 2018, he was suspended for flirting with Mississippi State cheerleaders before a game.

This offseason, perhaps the most difficult ever, his confidence propelled him. He worried during the draft when the fifth and sixth rounds slipped by because teams had told him he might go then, but when he took a moment outside at the start of the seventh, his phone buzzed.

Now Greg doesn’t think about the canceled flight. He believes this was meant to be, that Kam wouldn’t have had the same opportunities elsewhere. But he knew it was hard for his son at the time. He remembered Kam driving from the airport back to campus, discouraged.

“He thought, ‘Is this going to be a problem?’ ” Greg said. He paused. “It turned out not to be.”

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Newsrust: Kam Curl is key to Washington's defense, and future
Kam Curl is key to Washington's defense, and future
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