Dalvin Tomlinson remembers connecting with one of the special teams coaches at Alabama when he was still in high school and was being recruited by the program.
“He used to always joke about me playing kickoff in college,” recalled Tomlinson, now entering his fourth NFL season as a defensive lineman with the Giants.
Tomlinson never got a chance to play for that coach . . . until now. It was Joe Judge, who left for his first NFL gig with the Patriots before Tomlinson enrolled in 2012. Now that Judge is his head coach with the Giants, Tomlinson remembers that early encounter with fondness.
“It’s just crazy how small the world is,” he said.
It also illustrates something significant about Judge. From the very start of his career, it seems, he has been on the lookout for players who can help on special teams. No one should expect that to change, even as his job title description now includes every other facet of the team.
Which is why the Giants might have spent the sixth and seventh rounds of last month’s draft selecting six players who technically are linebackers and defensive backs: They were being added to the team's stockpile of gunners and blockers.
“You build your defense to build two-thirds of your team,” Judge said after the draft. “That’s really your defense and your kicking game for covering kicks. These guys have a lot of impact across the board right there.”
Their first impact almost certainly will come on special teams, and it’s far from a coincidence that nearly all of the late-round picks had a lot of experience there in college.
“Freshman and sophomore year, it was how I made my money, honestly,” Cam Brown, a 6-5, 233-pound linebacker and sixth-round pick, said of special teams at Penn State. “It was how I got on the field.”
“I started off on special teams and that was my way of getting on the field and getting on the roster [in college],’’ said 6-1, 229-pound former South Carolina linebacker TJ Brunson, a seventh-round pick. He grew from that meager role into a two-time captain for the defense.
“That was also how the coaches gained their trust in the players,” he said.
It’s no secret that players on the back end of the roster — and sixth- and seventh-round picks certainly qualify as that — need to pitch in on specials to make the team. That axiom likely will be 10 times as true for the Giants this season as Judge makes the rare jump from special teams coordinator with the Patriots to a head coach.
He has made it clear that he will not be running that unit — “T-Mac is the special teams coordinator here,” he said of Thomas McGaughey — but Judge undoubtedly will have more insight and opinions about it than most first-time head coaches. The way to a man’s heart might be through his stomach, but to earn Judge’s affection, you’d better play hard on special teams.
As for Tomlinson, will Judge finally be able to fulfill his nearly decade-old desire to send him barreling down the field under a kickoff?
“It hasn’t come up at all,” the 6-3, 318-pounder said with a chuckle. “I was a whole different body type back then when I was coming out of high school compared to now. I highly doubt I will be on kickoff.”
Then he considered the coach he was talking about.
“But if he wants to put me on it,” he added, “I’ll be more than happy to do it.”