He walks around with the same bashful smile, soft spoken voice and bubbly attitude everywhere he goes.
He’s kind, welcoming and open hearted to any that cross his path. There isn’t a person that walks by that doesn’t get a handshake, sheepish grin or ‘Hello, how are you?’ greeting from Giants’ rookie linebacker Devon Kennard. Kennard’s been that way for as long as he can remember. Growing up, in high school and at USC.
But when Kennard steps foot on the football field, it all changes.
“When you step in between the lines, you need to flip that switch,” Kennard said. “It’s either hit, or be hit.”
Through the early portions of Giants’ training camp, Kennard’s been doing the hitting.
It’s become a fairly regular occurrence, actually. All in attendance—players, coaches, fans—keep their eyes glued on the 23 year old, waiting for what they know is coming, just not when. Then, it’s heard. A large collision of pads followed by a warrior-like bellow from Kennard before being swarmed by teammates.
It happened when Kennard pancaked Bennett Jackson in the team’s first practice with pads, and then it was David Wilson the next day followed by Henry Hynoski. Day in and day out, Kennard continues to stand out.
The team has awarded his physicality with praise and playing time. Despite being drafted in the fifth round, Kennard has been running with the first team ever since middle linebacker Jon Beason was injured during the offseason conditioning program.
“It’s an honor,” Kennard said. “But at the same time it’s not like I’v’e done much of anything yet. We haven’t played any game, any preseason game or anything like that. I still have a long ways to go.”
A Championship Pedigree
From an early age, Kennard always had an idea of what it would take to make it in the NFL. Just as early, he wanted nothing more than to make it there.
Kennard’s father, Derek, played 11 seasons of professional football from 1984-1996 as an offensive lineman. Derek was most known for his four-year stint with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he spent the majority of his career, while also earning a ring in Super Bowl XXX with the Dallas Cowboys.
“I just always wanted to play football,” Kennard said. “My dad played it for a long time so I always wanted to.”
Where on the field would he play? Well, that didn’t matter any to him. As long as it was him between the lines, Kennard was happy. He was physical, fiery and had a relentless work ethic. It was nearly impossible for him not to succeed.
But there was one game in particular where he says he took the jump from good to great. It happened when he was a junior in high school playing his, at the time, ‘natural’ defensive end position.
“I came around and I had this huge sack,” Kennard said, smiling. “I ended up having five sacks that game. That was the big moment that rocketed my career.”
After being drafted by the Giants, Kennard wasted no time in diving headfirst into the team’s playbook from the moment he got his hands on it. Some of the schemes, tendencies and terminology came natural, but others he had to work on.
While some rookies enjoy the limelight of being NFL super stars, Kennard hides from it. Sure, he could go out to clubs, or he could put to use his tireless work ethic and perfect his craft. The same work ethic his father taught him when he was younger. The same work ethic his father had throughout the duration of his career.
“I spent a lot of time in the playbook,” Kennard said. “Over the summer, I spent hours and hours all day during (organized team activities). Then, I’d come home and I’m in the playbook for hours until I go to sleep.
“Then I wake up and I’m doing it all over again. Even when we’re off, I’m doing the same thing. It’s the same thing now. I’m trying to learn as much as I can and get the full understanding of the entire defense so I can play multiple roles and do whatever they ask me.”
Kennard’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed. With the team unable to wear pads in spring workouts, it was Kennard’s head that had coaches and teammates turning theirs. Quickly it became evident New York got a bit more than they bargained for in the fifth-round pick from USC.
“He was able to retain a lot of that information,” Giants’ defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. “He was able to go out on the field and execute and earn some of the trust of his fellow teammates and the trust of his coaches.
While at USC, Kennard played four different positions. He began his career as a defensive end playing primarily in pass situations. Then came the switch to strong side linebacker, followed by middle linebacker and finally the weak side.
There were different meeting rooms, different expectations and different assignments. But none of it bothered him. Sure, it was a lot for anyone to take in. Then again, Kennard isn’t like many others.
“I’m a very selfless player,” Kennard said. “I want to do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
The same versatility that Kennard displayed in college has been shown again at the professional level. Throughout the offseason, Kennard has spent time at every one of the positions he played in college.
When Beason went down with an injury, it was Kennard that filled in at middle linebacker. When Jameel McClain took over in the middle for Beason, Kennard slid over to the outside. He’s played weak side linebacker in the team’s three-safety package and even saw a few snaps at defensive end.
“Kennard’s a very smart kid,” McClain said. “He’s taken advantage of the opportunity in front of him. When opportunity comes, we all have to take advantage of it. This is a prime example of what you’re seeing from him.”
McClain admitted that throughout his six-year NFL career, he’s never seen a player come in and play as many positions as Kennard, having been converted from another position entirely. But when looking at the way he plays, there’s one name that pops into his mind.
“To be honest, if I was to compare him to anyone I’d compare him to me and how I came up in this league. “McClain said. “I came in as a converted linebacker in Baltimore. I played all the positions and got thrown around a bit. It’s pretty unique in that aspect.”
It’s one thing to see a first-round pick get instant reps with the first team. Even a second or third rounder to contribute immediately is expected in today’s NFL. But a fifth rounder? One that was considered by some a reach? One who scouts thought would contribute strictly on special teams early in his career?
Well, there’s not much normal about that.
“Pittsburgh, I think, started Jack Lambert, right away?” Linebackers coach Jim Herrman said. “He turned out pretty good. “
Kennard admitted that while he has a history at defensive end, right now he’s enjoying his time at linebacker. He always liked to hit people, sack people, control the run and help his team win. Linebacker allows him to do that.
But when asked what position he enjoys most, there was no hesitation, no second thought and no pause. The answer was given before the question was done being asked.
“I love playing defense,” Kennard said.