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NFL Draft: Giants 4th-round pick Darnay Holmes is a quick learner

UCLA defensive back Darnay Holmes runs a drill

UCLA defensive back Darnay Holmes runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 1, 2020. Credit: AP/Michael Conroy

Darnay Holmes saw some of his teammates at UCLA playing a game and he asked what they were up to.

Chess, they told him. Sometimes kooky head coach Chip Kelly, always looking for a non-traditional edge, had encouraged his quarterbacks to spend some time learning the tactics and strategies of the centuries-old game. He thought it would be good to open their minds and foster some competitiveness. It was meant to be a passing exercise; after checkmate they would move on to the next outside-the-64-box pursuit.

But Holmes, a cornerback, was immediately hooked.

“I’m the type of player who wants to get insight on everything that’s going on,” Holmes said. “When you go to UCLA, you’re around a lot of different things, you have access to different pools of people . . . I walked up to the chess master [Seth Makowsky] and asked him ‘Do you mind helping me out with chess?’ ”

The Giants chose Holmes with the 110th overall pick near the top of the fourth round of the NFL draft on Saturday, not to play a board game but to play football. Yet a lot of what makes Holmes, an undersized but intense defensive back, so appealing to the team can be traced to the moves he learned shuffling rooks and knights. Listed as a generous 5-10 and 195 pounds he may look like a pawn, but he thinks like a king.

“The reason I play chess is I want to have efficient thoughts,” Holmes said. “I want to make sure I am making forceful moves and I want to make sure everybody responds to things that I do. Everything I’m doing, I’m not a piece, I’m a player.”

It’s just one unsurprising layer to an intriguing person the Giants added to their young secondary. Holmes grew up in sometimes daunting circumstances in Los Angeles. When he was 12 his father, former NFL running back Darik Holmes, was shot multiple times during a drug deal gone bad. Darik survived and turned his life around to become a motivational speaker. Later, in 2017, his mother was evicted from her apartment after she lost her job and he had to help her move her belongings out shortly after he and the Bruins had lost to Kansas State in the Cactus Bowl. She has since found a new home.

And even though he entered UCLA as one of the top recruits in the country, he’s faced adversity on the field, too. As a senior at Calabasas High he was wide open for the game-tying touchdown in overtime on the final play of the state championship game. He dropped it and his team lost.

But Holmes has always been looking to improve his own situation or his family’s. He developed personal relationships with some of the greatest players in the history of the NFL, pulling tips on football and life from Hall of Famers Aeneas Williams, Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson.

“Those guys are constantly providing me with insight that will allow me to be disciplined and have freedom,” Holmes said. “Freedom equals discipline.”

He pushed himself to earn his degree from UCLA in two and a half years, not because of anything football related.

“The school curriculum allowed me to implement a strict routine, a routine that allowed me not to sway away into different distractions,” he said. “[The thinking] was, I’m going to graduate in three years and then from there I’m going to figure out what I want to do. Right away I was a student, then after I graduated, it was like 'OK, how can I pursue my athlete endeavor?' ”

The Giants answered that question on Saturday.

He’ll likely compete with last year’s draft pick Corey Ballentine and Grant Haley for the nickelback job, a position he was only introduced to in the Senior Bowl after playing on the outside throughout his career. He said he loved it, but he has not yet had conversations with the Giants about where and how they want to use him.

“I’m just ready to contribute,” he said. “Wherever they put me, I’m going to maximize that role and I’m going to make sure that I understand that role. That’s my main thing is understanding it and grasping all the concepts.”

In football… and all other pursuits.

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