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Exclusive: Sharrod Neasman discusses his journey from college walk-on to the NFL

Sharrod Neasman spoke to The Falcoholic about his rise from being a walk-on to team captain, along with his first season in Atlanta.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Most successful undrafted players have a unique story about how they overcame major odds. From long days working to catch a coach’s eye at training camp to standout preseason performances, these players are fighting for recognition on a consistent basis against established veterans and drafted rookies. Some undrafted players are former high school or college stars that weren’t used to battling for roster survival, but find they have to now.

In Sharrod Neasman’s case, he has been battle-tested since high school. His chances of playing Division I football seemed bleak. Forget scholarship offers or other guarantees. Neasman struggled to find a college that would even give him an opportunity to tryout. He remained persistent in his quest to get one chance from a Division I football program.

Coming out of high school, I was really under recruited. I actually didn’t get any D1 offers. I knew that I had D1 talent and wanted to play D1 football. I had to reach out to different colleges to get a walk-on tryout. So I started searching online and finding emails or phone numbers to make it happen. I sent a ton of emails and made phone calls to different people. It didn’t work at all.

I’m sure these programs get thousands of emails from kids all over the place that want a shot to play on a D1 college football team. It’s a dream for many high school players. I eventually got in touch with a high school coach that had a good relationship with some of the guys over at FAU (Florida Atlantic University). He contacted them for me and let them know that they got a good football player ready to go.

They were ready to give me a shot, but then eventually said you can come, but you have to get accepted into the school on your own and go through the tryout like every other person that wants to make the team. I did the regular tryout. It was about 53 of us and only five made it. I was one of the five and that’s when it all started. From that point on, I just kept working.

Neasman earned his spot on the Florida Atlantic roster. After receiving no interest from other schools, he found his place on a Division 1 team in the Conference USA. There was still plenty of uncertainty going into his freshman year. The coaching staff had to make several personnel changes. An unbalanced roster forced them to move Neasman around, which ended up creating his path into becoming a defensive back.

The first week I had to undergo a position change from wide receiver to defensive back. They looked at my size and thought it would be a better fit. There weren’t many defensive backs on the roster. Injuries were affecting them, while they were loaded at wide receiver. I just wanted to do whatever it takes to get on the field. I never limited myself to being a wide receiver. I preferred playing wide receiver, but it was all about getting that shot.

In my freshman year, I was more of a special teams guy. I made the team as a backup and got some playing time. I got to start late in the season and remember not playing well at all. Didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t really like playing cornerback, so it was hard for me to dedicate time into trying to be good at it. There were definitely some bumps in the road.

Despite finding a role on the team, it was a difficult adjustment for Neasman. Moving to a new position can be very challenging, especially when you aren’t fully invested. Cornerback is one of the most demanding positions in football. He began to embrace the challenge in his sophomore season. By taking a more serious approach, Neasman received more playing time. His progression was sadly derailed following a gruesome injury.

I came back in my sophomore year and started to grow into it. Watching more film helped a lot. I started becoming more serious with my technique. I was still a walk-on going into my sophomore year. I did well in my freshman year, but not well enough to earn a scholarship. It didn’t affect me. I started getting more playing time on defense. I ended up playing eight out of the twelve games. In the tenth game of the season, I tore my ACL. It was devastating.

I’m a walk-on with a torn ACL and my head coach got fired at the end of the season. A whole new coaching staff was coming in, so everything went back to square one. I was pretty down at this point. I never suffered a major injury. I didn’t know how I was going to bounce back from it. It was scary. I had to train as hard I could and rehab properly. That helped me come back from my ACL tear in five months.

The setback proved to be added motivation. Neasman needed to stay focused and take the next step in his career. Impressing the new coaching staff was important, but he had other aspirations. Similar to most football players, the dream of playing in the NFL weighed heavily on him. It wasn’t about simply earning a starting job and playing every snap for his last two seasons. Neasman wanted to take play at the highest level. Witnessing his former teammates Keith Reaser and D’Joun Smith make it to the NFL inspired him.

The new head coach ended up honoring the scholarship I was supposed to get. From that moment on, I wanted to build a legacy for myself. I looked up to a ton of people over the years, especially the DBs (defensive backs) that I had played with. It seemed like every year another DB was going to the league. That’s when it really became a goal, not just a dream for me.

Dreaming about going to the NFL sounds so far-fetched, until you’ve seen someone that’s actually done it. I saw their work ethic and how they prepared for games. I spent a lot of time learning and picking their brains about everything. It made me think this was achievable, even coming from where I came from.

A few positive influences can help anyone in their pursuit of accomplishing a major goal. Reaser was selected in the fifth round by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2014 draft. The Indianapolis Colts picked Smith in the third round during the 2015 draft. Two former teammates made it from playing at Florida Atlantic.

That fueled Neasman into becoming a much-improved player. The new coaching staff moved him around, before keeping the current strong safety at his best position in his senior year. It proved to be a career-altering move that elevated him into becoming a team captain in 2015.

I took everything to another level in my last two years. I learned as much I could about defense, which helped me become an all-around defensive player. In my junior year, I played nickel back and linebacker because we didn’t really have a base package. I consider myself to be a versatile player. In my senior year, they switched me to safety, so I can be on the field at all times. That ended up being huge for me.

I think it (production) was from what I’ve been through. I didn’t allow myself to settle for mediocrity. That’s what pushed me into that leadership role because I demanded so much more from all of my teammates. I felt like I put in everything to play this game. I wasn’t going to let anybody just be mediocre and not put in the full effort. My teammates saw this burning passion and voted me team captain for my senior year.

Neasman produced 74 tackles, four passes defended, and three interceptions in his senior season. He earned the team’s 2015 Student-Athlete of the Year honor as well. To receive this accolade signified his remarkable development from being a walk-on to one of Florida Atlantic’s brightest stars. Neasman’s productive season generated some interest from NFL teams. Despite going undrafted, he was quickly signed by the Falcons.

Dan Quinn constantly preaches about the importance of versatility. It’s a vital staple within his defense. Neasman’s diverse background made Atlanta a great fit for him. By playing numerous positions in college, it showed he could grasp different roles. Neasman credits his versatility towards maintaining his place on the Falcons roster.

I actually went into training camp as a free safety. They eventually moved me to strong safety. The coaching staff knew I could learn different positions. That is why they were willing to try me out at free safety. I had the stature to play both positions. The coaching staff cross-trained me to learn both of them. It really helped a lot. In this league, you have to be really good at one thing or you got to be versatile. Being versatile definitely played a big role in me staying with the Falcons.

Neasman found a place on the practice squad. It was a memorable experience that prepared him for the NFL. The coaching staff demands practically everything from each player on the practice squad. They needed to be fully committed at all times. This approach greatly benefited Neasman, which eventually propelled him to the 53-man roster. Derrick Shelby’s season ending injury created an open roster spot. The former Owl wasn’t surprised about receiving the opportunity to fulfill his goal.

I felt that it was coming. I was getting more reps at practice. We do a great job at developing our guys. They were giving me game-time experience. I was getting calls from the sideline to make sure we were in tune, not just watching the game. We (practice squad) prepared as if we were playing. Questions were asked of us as if were playing in the game. That really helped me go through every week. Up until the sixth game, I was preparing myself to play, even though I wasn’t on the 53-man roster. That’s just how we do it. The Falcons’ development program really does a great job.

Although Neasman was inactive for several weeks, the coaching staff valued him. He was eventually going to receive his opportunity. Learning from veterans and retaining the same “game ready” approach helped groom him. Neasman made his official debut against the San Francisco 49ers. The coaching staff put him on special teams coverage. After Keanu Neal suffered minor injuries against Carolina and New Orleans, the former walk-on lined up at strong safety against the likes of Cam Newton and Drew Brees.

It was amazing to go out there and play against these guys you’ve watched. As you were growing up, we’ve seen both quarterbacks play in the Super Bowl. Both players are amazing athletes. I’ve watched them in college and all of that. I’m competing against guys that you look up to and played with in Madden. You were so hyped to play them in a video game. It was just an incredible feeling. I had to be on my P’s and Q’s knowing they were going to bring it on every snap.

After playing mostly special teams during the postseason, Neasman is looking to evolve as an overall player. The organization made a major personnel change by firing defensive coordinator Richard Smith. Quinn promoted secondary coach Marquand Manuel to become their new defensive coordinator. Nothing is expected to drastically change with him taking a bigger role. It has made Neasman more excited about the upcoming season based on his familiarity with Manuel.

We haven’t made any significant changes. We still live by the same thing and prepare the same way. Of course, the scheme will change by game situations. All it is that he (Manuel) is in the position to call the game now. Other than that, our defense and everything we do hasn’t changed at all.

Marquand is truly passionate about what he does. He is going to give you every ounce of everything he has every day. He’s done it. He’s played in the league. Went to Super Bowls and won it as a coach. He’s done it all. Nothing is holding him back. He will give you everything that he has learned. Eight years is a long time to be in the NFL.

He is going to give it all to you. That’s the type of coach and person Marquand is. It was amazing to see him get that promotion. I kind of already knew that he was going to get the job after I heard it was open.

The Falcons’ defense is considered to be one of the most promising units in the league. With an infusion of youth and speed, there is genuine optimism about this group. That enthusiasm starts with an extremely talented secondary. For all the praise, nobody quite knows who the leader is. Neasman didn’t hesitate about who he considers to be not only the leader, but also the most influential player to him.

The player I look up to the most is Ricardo Allen. He has been around and done it. He was on the practice squad at one point then worked himself up into becoming a starter. That’s why I think I can relate to him more. He is a big leader by constantly communicating and getting us organized on a regular basis.

As the Falcons continued to win games, they started to garner more headlines. A once-yearly playoff team found themselves back in the spotlight after three forgettable seasons between 2013 and 2015. Unlike in previous years, the Falcons built a motto within the locker room. Brotherhood was a powerful message that every player believed in. Outsiders may consider it a goofy cliché. The Falcons consider it to be a major part of their success. Neasman elaborated on the essence of brotherhood, along with how it united the team and encourages him going forward.

It’s the environment that Dan Quinn has created. Everyone on the team is real close. There is nobody that gets out casted. We all laugh and joke with each other. This is the real deal. I’ve never been apart of anything like it. I’ve been on teams where you realize certain guys click with certain guys. On our team, we all bond really well. It doesn’t matter if you are an offensive or defensive player. Everyone clicks as a group. It’s pretty much from the environment that DQ has created for us.

We make sure we go out and do things as groups all throughout the year. Matt Ryan gets us randomly together in the off-season. No coaches are involved. It’s just with us. We’ll have a player-held practice and put the work in as teammates. You come into this group and embrace it. You become friends with everyone on the team. Everyone is out there to help you become the best player you can be. That is what makes me so grateful to play for the Falcons.