When it comes to pre-draft evaluation, everyone has film. Everyone has heights and weights and 40 times and three-cone drills results. But not everyone knows the story behind the story.
Tony Karcich does. That’s why several different NFL teams called the legendary football coach at St. Joseph’s Regional High in Montvale, N.J., before the draft to ask about cornerback Devin McCourty. What kind of kid is he? Who were his friends? What kind of grades did he get?
Karcich told them all the same story: Last fall, the morning after a Thursday night victory for Rutgers, Devin McCourty got in his car and drove almost two hours from Rutgers to Bergen County to the funeral of a former teacher, limping up to the church at 9:30 in the morning to pay his respects before hustling back to campus.
“I’ll say this — I’ve been doing this for 25 years here at St. Joe’s and for nine years before that at another school,” Karcich said. “And I would put Devin — and, for that matter, his brother Jason — in my top five all-time in terms of people with character. Just outstanding individuals. Both of them. More mature than their age.”
Most of the time, first-round picks in the NFL are ticketed for stardom as early as grade school. Not Devin McCourty. McCourty and his twin brother Jason — also a former star at Rutgers who is now a defensive back with the Titans — certainly didn’t look like they had pro football in the future when they were high school freshmen.
“From the moment I met them, when they were 5-foot-6, 114 pounds as freshman — you would have never thought they’d be in the NFL,” Karcich said.
That was before Karcich knew about the support system the twins had in place at home. They weren’t the biggest guys on the team, but you could say the McCourty twins were made of sterner stuff.
“Their Mom is amazing,” Karcich said. “They lost their father at an early age, and they just always came to school looking so well-groomed. They always had a clean pastel button-down shirt with the tie knotted all the way to the top. Just great, great, great kids. And I attribute that primarily to their mother.
“She was on her own to raise them. She had an older son, too. She raised three boys, and she did a wonderful job. To me, they just stand for everything that is good in a student-athlete. They are role models. I can’t use enough superlatives to describe them.
“I really attribute that to his Mom. I wish I could take some credit for this, but I can’t. They were then what they are now. They were better people than athletes, if that’s possible, but then you start watching them play, and you’re just blown away.”
As a high schooler, the twins were paired together on the football field. Devin was the one who made an early impact.
“Devin was the first to make his mark on varsity as a sophomore. He got in his first game, and he started making defensive adjustments, and they were working,” Karcich recalled. “That’s the other thing — these kids are classroom smart, but they’re also football smart. They really understand the game. As a sophomore, he’s barking out defensive adjustments!”
But as their high school careers went on, Jason put a little distance between himself and his brother, thanks in large part to a hip injury Devin suffered as a senior, which limited his playing time. As a result, Jason had a bunch of scholarship offers, but Devin was looking at possibly facing a collegiate career at the 1-AA level.
“[Jason] had a chance to excel, while Devin got the short end of the stick not playing offense. A few schools, including Rutgers, BC and Maryland offered him scholarships, while Devin had nothing,” Karcich wondered. “I started to think, ‘Oh, no. The twins are going to be split up for the first time in their lives.’ Because of the injury, Devin didn’t have an opportunity to show that much.”
But it’s a good thing Greg Schiano has twins. Back in 2004, the Rutgers coach offered a scholarship to Jason. However, Karcich had to talk him into giving a scholarship to Devin as well. Karcich appealed to Schiano’s fatherly instincts.
“I talked to coach Schiano at Rutgers, and told him that everyone is missing the boat on Devin,” said Karcich. “As great as Jason is, Devin can do everything Jason can do. He knew I was telling the truth because he had twins as well. He loved Jason, and that meant he could at least like Devin. So he took a shot.”
That shot allowed McCourty to shine with the Scarlet Knights. After redshirting his freshman year, he quickly gained a rep as one of the best defensive backs in the Big East, eventually building to a senior season that saw him finish with 80 tackles and 10 pass breakups. He also averaged 25.4 yards on kickoff returns and had a 98-yard kickoff return, third longest in school history.
And then, of course, there’s “The Game,” a contest that has burnished McCourty’s legend: He played 110 snaps in game last year against UConn, working on defense and special teams and leading the Scarlet Knights to a win.
“I can tell you this — I’ve coached the secondary my whole career before I was a head coach. I really, really enjoyed coaching Devin. He gets it,” Schiano told WEEI the day after McCourty was selected by the Patriots in the first round.
“It’s not only playing corner and all the things he does there: he can cover, he can play press, he can tackle. It’s all the things he does as a special teams player too. He’s an unselfish guy who loves the game of football.”
Some notable draft experts believe the Patriots got terrific value with McCourty at the end of the first round, both as a corner and as a special teams presence.
“He’s the most explosive cornerback in the draft,” said former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah, who is currently the editor of Movethesticks.com. “He will be a stud on fourth down — special teams — as a rookie. To the media, he was a late riser, but NFL scouts were always very high on him. He’s a great kid.”
“He might be the best special teams value in the draft, in addition to being a potential starting corner,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.
Those who know him best believe he has what it takes to survive and thrive at the next level.
“I think he is going to a franchise that has a lot of similar core values that we have here. I can promise you that once he learns that system and gets ingrained into what they are doing, he’s going to have great career in the NFL,” Schiano said.
Karcich was asked if Patriots’ fans should be upset they didn’t go after a pass rusher in the first round.
“I’ve seen a lot of good players come and go, and the corner position, that is a special breed, and Devin is right there,” Karcich said. “He has the flexibility to move from corner to safety — he’s got the tenacity, the toughness to play safety. To get a defensive back with that kind of ability … the Jets have some great cover guys that dictate the offense, what they can and cannot do. And those defensive backs allow you that extra pass rusher.
“Even though the Patriots didn’t get the pass rusher, they may get a better rush on the quarterback because they can rush an extra guy.”
“I know that if the Patriots didn’t take him, he was going to get taken in the first round,” added Schiano. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Karcich, who vouched for him with Schiano, does the same thing now with Patriots fans.
“You want a person that you know is doing the right thing, in the locker room and away from the field,” Karcich said. “A lot of guys aren’t making great choices. I would stake my career that those two guys won’t ever make a mistake. They have a great understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong.
“I know his name is not a national name, and I know Rutgers — as much as they’ve done … I’m sure the average fan is like, ‘Devin who? From where?’” he added. “But when they get to know him as a person, you find he’s a great young man. Watch him play. Watch him improve. That’s what I’ve seen. And that’s what you’ll see.”