The Patriots drafted Asante Samuel out of the University of Central Florida in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft. The 5-foot-10- inch, 185-pound cornerback, who broke the UCF record for pass breakups, wasted no time displaying his ball-hawking skills to Patriots fans. In New England's 2003 home opener, he sealed a Patriots' victory over the New York Jets with a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown.
In 2006, Samuel had a Pro Bowl caliber season, tying for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions, and recording 62 tackles, 24 p a s s e s defensed and a forced fumble. He led or tied for the team lead in pass breakups a team-best 11 times this season. The fourth-year cornerback was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week after posting eight tackles (7 solo) and a career-high three interceptions in the Patriots Week 12 victory over the Chicago Bears.
Samuel sat down with us to discuss the skills that have made him a top-tier NFL cornerback, and why he almost wasn't recruited to play football in college.
How does it feel to sort of exceed expectations with your performance this year?
It feels good. I've always been an underrated guy my whole life - not recruited in high school, going to Central Florida and being drafted in the fourth round. I've always had to work my way from the bottom up.
How were you not recruited coming out of high school?
When it was recruiting season, going into my senior year, I was still a quarterback. I had played quarterback my whole life, and I was only like 5- foot-7-inches. I was slow, too. I was a good quarterback - I could throw the ball pretty well and I could escape - but I didn't have the intangibles to be a Division I prospect. When my senior year came, I had a growth spurt. I grew to 5-foot-10-inches. That offseason, my coach moved me to defensive back, and I started working on my speed with a parachute, doing a lot of sprints. I developed the speed and I became a better athlete, which opened up a few more eyes.
You were already a great athlete, though. You were used in multiple roles, weren't you?
I played quarterback, safety, cornerback, kicker and punter. I played baseball and basketball too, but baseball only my freshman year. I led the team in home runs, but we weren't that good. And I was a pitcher, too, but I hurt my shoulder playing football so I was only able to pitch about four innings a game.
And how about basketball?
Basketball was my first love. That's what I really thought was going to take me to college.
But the height thing hurt you there, too?
Yeah. But I had a couple of looks. I was offered a scholarship by Loyola Chicago.
So you're an extremely competitive guy?
It seems like everything I do, and with everybody I hang around with, there is always some competition going on. In the locker room, people think I'm emailing on my phone, but I'm playing games, trying to top my scores. Competition is addictive to me. I compete in everything I do.
And how does that come out on the football field?
Every game, I'm trying to do something that I've never done; make a play that I've never made; make everyone go, 'Wow!'
Are there any guys that succeed at the NFL level who aren't competitive people?
No. You have to be competitive. You have to be ready for the competition, because there are always guys that are going to be as good as you or better than you. You have to always be on your A-game.
Can competitiveness be enough motivation alone to improve a player?
It can be. But I also love football. My love for football is what drives me the most. And then, of course, my three kids (son A.J., 7, and daughters Ashante, 2, and Amaya, 7 months) and my mother, who is retired. I want to do things for my kids that I never had and for my mother that she never had. When I'm out on the football field, I think about my kids and my mother.
How important are instincts to a cornerback?
I thrive on my instincts. I think that is the biggest part of my game.
Is instinct really just the ability to process a lot of information at once?
Maybe. Let me give you a couple of examples: If I have two receivers on my side and I'm in a certain coverage, and number two goes out quick, I know, nine times out of ten, number one is going to run a curl. Or if I'm in another coverage, with a trap coverage, and number one runs a go route, I'm looking inside to trap number two, and if I see him leaning towards me, I know he is getting ready to come out and I'm going to steal the ball.
So there is no such thing as someone who is just a 'ball hawk'? Because that is how you have been described.
Well, there's some of that too. Like, my first training camp with the Patriots I had something like 18 interceptions in practice. Some of it is processing information, and some of it is just having a sense for when the ball is going to be there. You need a combination of both. But the most important element is having good technique.
So since your competitiveness and instincts have always been there, is it your improved technique that has most contributed to your success?
Definitely. I had pretty good technique coming out of college, because I had a really great coach at Central Florida, Gene Chizik, who is the defensive coordinator at Texas and just got the head coach job at Iowa State. He taught me to play with good technique, read a quick game. He taught me a lot that I carried on to the NFL. But I am definitely always working to improve my technique.
You've won two Super Bowls as a Patriot and are in the playoffs again this year after recording 10 interceptions. Does it get better than this?
I love it here. This is the place I was basically born into. I was born into being a Patriot. I love the guys in the locker room and the camaraderie we have here. I've learned a lot here. I'm a guy that loves to play football for this team, loves to make plays... thrives on making plays.