First impressions, it's often said, are lasting ones.
Hired at the end of January 2020, Oklahoma outside linebackers/defensive ends coach Jamar Cain kept hearing reports about the athletic prowess of one of his new charges. So much so that he soon started to question their veracity.
"It was like Sasquatch. You hear stories, but you never see him," Cain laughs today at his naïveté.
Roughly a month after starting his new job at the university, Cain was forced to return to his home in Arizona because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Consequently, he had only a handful of opportunities to meet face-to-face with junior pass rusher Ronnie Perkins, the subject of the glowing reviews he'd been overhearing.
Player and coach eventually reunited briefly for in-person workouts last summer before the start of fall camp later that year. Yet, it wasn't till Halloween, when OU clobbered Texas Tech, that Cain finally got an in-game glimpse of the preternatural Perkins, all 6-3, 253 pounds of him.
"He chased a running back all the way down the field," Cain recalls, "and pushed him out at the 2-yard line. That was his first series of the game, like his third play. That's when I knew we had something special."
Of course, Cain had a clue before that particular play that Perkins was, as he put it, one of the top two or three players he's ever coached at the position. Perkins entered the 2020 season as Oklahoma's most fearsome pass rusher, but had to serve a half-season suspension for reportedly failing a drug test before the prior season's Peach Bowl versus LSU.
As a result, Perkins was allowed to practice with his team, but couldn't suit up for games until the end of October. In the interim, Perkins took out his frustrations on his team's starting offense. Relegated to scout team duty throughout his suspension, Perkins, according to Cain, took full advantage of every snap.
"At first," adds Cain, "he was like, 'Coach, I don't want to do it.' But once he went over there, the competitiveness kicked in. [Head coach Lincoln] Riley would come over and say to me, 'Could you tell Ronnie to calm down. We've got to get some plays off... We can't block Ronnie.' It was like game day for him every day. He'd come to me after and say, 'Coach, I just kicked their ass the whole practice.'"
View photos of Patriots third round pick Ronnie Perkins in action at Oklahoma.
Because Cain had to devote so much attention to the other defensive ends on his depth chart, in order to prepare them for the games that Perkins had to miss, the position coach spent considerable time after practice working with Perkins one-on-one. In those personal sessions, Cain quickly discovered a player he couldn't help but embrace.
"It was fun to coach him. I tell people this all the time. Ronnie's one of my favorite players to coach," Cain continues. "He was easy to coach because he practiced hard, did everything you asked him to do. He wanted to get better. With me only having him one year, he could have easily said, 'I'm not going to listen to you. It's worked for me the last two years.' He just took my coaching and made it his own."
That included having to accept that Cain and Riley wanted to manage the number of reps he saw in games, down from an average of 70-80 per game in his first two seasons with the Sooners to around 50 last season. His coaches wanted to unleash a motivated Perkins on opposing offenses, and the plan appeared to work like a charm. In just six games, Perkins registered 5.5 sacks, essentially equaling his totals in each of the previous two seasons that he played in their entirety.
"He probably had another three [sacks] that he just missed," maintains Cain. "He made his presence felt as soon as he got back."
Having that year of experience as somewhat of a role player made Perkins a better player, even though, as Cain admits, he was clearly the best defender the Sooners had. It could serve Perkins well here in Foxborough, too.
One of the nation's most coveted high school players before he joined Oklahoma three years ago, Perkins didn't take long to become a regular starter for the Sooners. So, when the Patriots selected Perkins in the third round of this year's NFL Draft, his position coach couldn't have been more thrilled. Not just because his player had made it to the highest level, but also that New England was the club that chose him.
"He's got to continue to study the game, because he's a smart kid, but there's so much more he's got to learn. I'm so happy he's with the Patriots because that was the best team for Ronnie Perkins," Cain contends. "He's going to be forced to learn the game. He's in good hands."
Likewise, Cain believes the Patriots are getting what he calls "the steal of this year's draft." Perkins might have more to learn and on which to improve when it comes to his technical abilities, Cain acknowledges, but this "loveable, smiling, happy guy all the time" can turn on an "alpha dog" mean streak when it's time to suit up for a game.
Like most rookies, Perkins could be asked to contribute on special teams initially, but there's little doubt that his new Patriots coaches will also want to insert Perkins into the pass-rush competition as soon as possible. Cain feels Perkins is more than ready for that challenge after three seasons dominating in the college ranks,
"He'll be a guy," Cain predicts, "that comes in there and just works and doesn't say much… he'll do whatever it takes to get on the field, including running down kicks on special teams. You don't see many guys come in and take over a game from that [defensive end] position, but he's the best player on the field. You can't take your eyes off him."
If that proves to be the case, Perkins could be in position to make yet another great first impression.