How Quinten Rollins Became the 2015 NFL Draft's Unlikeliest Prospect

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterApril 27, 2015

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At the end of Miami of Ohio's football season, senior cornerback Quinten Rollins sat down with agents to discuss his draft prospects. It looked promising—current projections have him as high as the second round—so he decided to give Mom a call to let her know.

Her reaction?

"What?!"

That's what Kendra Rollins remembers saying to her son—not exactly the typical reaction to this news. But then again, the news normally would have been preceded by years of dominance at the youth, high school and college levels and by nearly as much time appearing on draft big boards. The cornerbacks he's being compared to in the 2015 draft class have all played at least three years of college football.

Rollins played just one. And even that came after a lengthy break from playing.

One year to learn the game. That's it. All the technique, the tape study, the formation recognition—everything that is vital to the success and shelf life of a defensive back in the pros—in one year. I'm talking about entry-level stuff here: freshman-year orientation for a cornerback.

For most, it would have been impossible.

Rollins did have a leg up, athletically. It's not like he was sitting around during his time away from football: He ran the point for four years for the Miami basketball team.

The former star high school running back from Wilmington High in Ohio already had a degree in sports studies in hand when he decided he wasn't ready to stop competing just yet and essentially walked on to the football team at Miami during the spring, using his final year of eligibility to get back on the football field.

There were no guarantees, no promises of playing time or glory. But it was an opportunity for Rollins to show what he could do, and he showed enough to get an invite to the Senior Bowl and the NFL Scouting Combine.

With a 5'11", 195-pound frame and mid-4.5 speed, he has the pro size to find the ball and challenge receivers and the athletic ability to possibly even play some free safety at the next level. He moves with effortless grace on the tape, finished the 2014 season with ridiculous on-the-ball production—including seven interceptions—and brought home the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year award.

As one NFL scout told me, he "has natural ball skills, balance and tackling ability," and "when he's in a position to make a play on the ball, he finishes."

In other words, book it: Less than a year after learning how to read wide receiver splits, Quinten Rollins is going to play in the NFL.

"You couldn't have told me at this time last year we would be where we are at right now," Kendra said.

It's been an unlikely story from the start.


Rollins grew up down the street from the high school in Wilmington, a town of 12,000-plus tucked away in the southwest corner of Ohio.

He met his father, who was incarcerated for the majority of Rollins' childhood, only once, when he was 15. With a lack of male role models at home, Kendra said Rollins "learned the ropes from two women"—her and grandmother Tamara.

"The way I seen it, my mother and grandmother, along with God, were my fathers," Rollins said.

Rollins was born when Kendra was just 16 years old, the oldest of her three boys. Kendra often worked two jobs and sometimes picked up a third shift at a local daycare in Wilmington, and the family moved back in with Tamara when they were struggling. Whatever it took, Kendra made sure her boys were taken care of.

"We lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and if there was anything we needed, they found a way to get it done," Rollins said. "May not have necessarily got our wants, but our needs were for sure taken care of, despite the lack of funds we had coming in.

"Come from a bloodline of hard workers."

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Kendra was determined to keep Rollins off the streets, and she believed that outside of the church, sports provided the best outlet for him. Sports were also a unique opportunity for the boy she calls "her special child." Rollins played baseball, football and basketball, often with the older kids in the neighborhood, and Kendra put in the time to work as often as she could with her son.

"I was the first one throwing a football with Rollins, shooting a basketball with him, pitching him a baseball," Kendra said. "We laugh sometimes, because I beat Q in one-on-one. He was like, 'Mom, I was 10 years old.' But I'm still going to take that victory.

"I kept him involved in sports, because that was the outlet."

Rollins flourished in high school focusing on basketball and football. That's when former Miami of Ohio assistant coach Jermaine Henderson began recruiting him, drawn to his obvious ability in both sports along with his competitiveness, which Henderson saw everywhere from high school games to summer league games, AAU ball and even at open gym sessions in Wilmington.

"Q was a hell of a football player," Henderson told me over the phone from his office at Missouri State, where he is now an assistant coach. "There [are] some guys who are tough, [and] there are some guys [who are] sport tough. Q was both."

Henderson recalled one Friday night game during Rollins' senior season where he finished with eight steals. He could have had five more. And on every one those five plays where he missed the steal, he ended up blocking the shot or somehow impacting the play. He just never quit.

"You say to yourself, 'Holy cow, this ain't normal,'" Henderson said. "He's got an inner personality that is killer."


Four years later, Rollins finished his basketball career with 106 starts, 391 assists and 214 steals—the second-most steals all-time at Miami of Ohio, behind former five-time NBA champion Ron Harper.

He had also taken on the greatest responsibility of his life, daughter Quinlyn, who was born his freshman year. And he finished his degree in four years.

"He had a daughter in college, and he never wavered at school—he got a great degree in four years," Henderson said. "I think it shows an incredible maturity."

The NBA wasn't calling, so he made the decision to give football another shot before conference play started during his final basketball season at Miami. That's when he began researching schools for a spot to play ball with his final year of college eligibility.

At the time, Miami had a vacant head coaching position, which eventually went to Chuck Martin. Rollins brought out his old high school highlight tapes (as a running back) and sent them over. Martin saw that Rollins was an athlete and invited him to come to spring ball. No scholarship, no guarantees. Rollins was going to compete for a spot on the Miami roster as a "tryout" player. That's it.

On the first day of spring ball at Miami, Rollins admits, he "took his lumps" during one-on-one drills with the receivers. It was new, challenging and Rollins had to learn the tricks of the trade at the cornerback position.

"It was rough," Rollins said. "Definitely a lot different from being in control as a point guard, in control of the game, managing the game, to being one of the positions where you control things the least. Definitely rough."

Oct 18, 2014; DeKalb, IL, USA; Northern Illinois Huskies quarterback Drew Hare (12) makes a catch against Miami (Oh) Redhawks defensive back Quinten Rollins (2) during the first half at Huskie Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Rollins is very critical of his own game, as the coaches and family close to him will tell you, but the Miami coaching staff saw a top-tier athlete during that first practice, a player who moved with ease, thanks to his basketball background. They knew they had something special in Rollins, despite his lack of experience.

"After the first practice, you could tell he had some tools as far as the flexibility, the bending," defensive backs coach John Hauser said. "Not a lot of guys I've coached could do that after three years of coaching. He walked out there the first day and could do a lot of that stuff."

There were 15 practices during the spring, and Rollins picked up a scholarship after the sessions concluded. But even with the coaches showing the belief in his skill set, Rollins still needed to transform his body. He was still built like a basketball player, not a football player who could hold up to 12 games in the MAC.

"The one thing he did, he worked harder than anyone I've been around. Not only physically, but mentally," Hauser said. "The kid watched film all summer of NFL guys, of college guys. He threw himself into it 100 percent."

Rollins changed his diet, hit the weight room and added size plus the functional strength needed to produce in the secondary, while diving into film study to advance his learning curve as a cornerback.

"I had to get my body right," Rollins said. "I couldn't go out there on the football field with my basketball body. So, I started adding on weight, eating a lot more meals as opposed to when I was a basketball player."

Due to the lack of depth in the program when Martin took over, the RedHawks didn't go live during the spring or even in fall camp. In fact, the first time Rollins took a player to the ground was in the season opener versus Marshall.

But he was a "natural," according to Hauser, a player who could shoot on a ball-carrier and get him down. He was always prepared to play, could recite scouting reports and put the team first. He was a physical player at the cornerback position who also had elite ball skills.

Hauser thinks Rollins could play cornerback in the NFL, or nickelback or safety. He has that type of talent and the desire to be perfect.

But even after Rollins lit up the MAC, NFL coaches and scouts wanted to see more. And he would get that opportunity at the Senior Bowl.


"Check out the basketball player from Miami…he can play."

That was a text I got from a scout before boarding a plane at O'Hare for the trip to Mobile, Alabama, for Senior Bowl workouts.

The level of competition was going to rise for Rollins, and one-on-one drills versus some of the top senior wide receivers would be the focus. There is nowhere to hide in Mobile, and the eyes of the NFL watch every rep with a pen and notebook in hand. There is a lot of pressure on these young prospects. It's a job interview.

And Rollins passed the test.

Was he perfect? Of course not. No one is during full-padded drills. However, the skill set, the footwork, the change-of-direction quickness and the ability to close on the ball were all there. Plus, he competed. When he gave up a play, he was right back on the line to play man coverage and work to stay in-phase throughout the route from both a press and off position.

More importantly, he progressed throughout the week. That's what scouts want to see: prospects who can adjust to their personnel, adapt their technique and show the ability to make the necessary corrections on the field.

Jan 22, 2015; Mobile, AL, USA; North squad defensive corner Quinten Rollins of Miami (Ohio) (22) runs through drills during Senior Bowl practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Rollins recalled a play from one-on-one drills on the first day of practice where he gave up a double move to Ohio State speedster Devin Smith. On the second day, Smith tried to run the same route, and Rollins shut him down.

"It was a great experience, getting to play against the best seniors in the country," Rollins said. "I didn't see that competition in conference play all season. Just to get out there and get a chance to compete and show my skills against some of the top receivers in the country.

"All I wanted was to really go out there and get better every day. From Day 1 to Day 2 and from Day 2 to Day 3. I felt like I did that."

The scouts I talked to at the end of the week in Mobile raved about Rollins' athleticism and his ability to change direction. He could stop and start with the best corners in the country. He was that quick.

The one question they had was with his straight-line or "recovery" speed. Rollins ran a 4.57 40 at the combine. He's not a burner, a track star on the field, but this is also a defensive back who is truly still developing. And with more experience, scouts expect his game speed to increase.

He will play faster and produce at the NFL level as a cornerback or at safety, where some teams worked him out at his pro day. The scouts see the truth with Rollins: He has an incredibly high ceiling as a pro prospect.


Rollins runs with a small circle of friends. Kendra actually had to convince him to have a draft party, and only family will be there when his name gets called: Kendra, his grandmother, Quinlyn, Rollins' brothers and his aunt and uncle.

But they won't be the only ones supporting this rare athlete.

Feb 23, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Miami Ohio defensive back Quinten Rollins catches a pass in a workout drill during the 2015 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Henderson spent 19 years at Miami as a player and coach with the RedHawks. He knows the pulse of campus. In his mind, there hasn't been this much hype about a football prospect from Miami since Ben Roethlisberger was throwing touchdowns in Oxford.

Surprising for a guy who's played only one year?

Rollins' basketball coach at Miami, John Cooper, doesn't think so. He remembers talking with Rollins during their senior exit meeting and bringing up the move to the football field, a move he thought would produce positive returns for his point guard.

"It would not surprise me, in three or four years, we'll finish up practice and the whole staff will go home and watch him on Monday Night Football," Cooper said.

 

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.