The burst that carried Chiefs rookie linebacker Dorian O’Daniel past two would-be blockers, the vicious shoulder blow delivered with bad intentions to Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon and O’Daniel’s emphatic flex of muscles and exuberant pounding of his fist against his own chest — they were all months in the making.
That simple third-quarter screen pass that went for a 4-yard loss signified the arrival of O’Daniel as a presence on the Chiefs’ defense. He’d previously gotten small tastes of playing time, but the Chiefs finally leaned on him this past Sunday against the Bengals.
“I’ve been in situations where I haven’t played when I wanted to, per say. I’ve been through a situation like this at Clemson,” O’Daniel told The Star this week. “One thing I learned from that is you’ve just got to be patient. I’ve got to control what I can control, that’s my attitude, my work ethic, what I was doing when I wasn’t on the field and just trusting the process. Sure enough, I did that, and I’m starting to see the results.”
The third-round pick (100th overall) of the Chiefs, O’Daniel played more defensive plays (25) in the 45-10 win over the Bengals at Arrowhead Stadium, than he had in the previous six games combined.
The Chiefs’ coaching staff insists the plan had always been to progressively increase O’Daniel’s playing time, but that plan got accelerated when linebacker Terrance Smith suffered a torn ACL that landed him on injured reserve this week.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound O’Daniel will now become a primary option in passing downs .
While O’Daniel would liked to have gotten on the field more regularly earlier in the season, it also shouldn’t be overlooked what sort of transition he has made. Not only has he gone through the normal rookie growing pains of having to learn a new defense and adjust to the higher level of play, but he also had to learn the ins and outs of inside linebacker.
Believe it or not, at Clemson, O’Daniel basically played the equivalent of the position cornerback Kendall Fuller, O’Daniel’s high school teammate, now plays for the Chiefs: nickelback. O’Daniel spent much of his college career defending slot receivers — often times in space without much of a security blanket.
“He played almost like a nickel in college and did a really good job,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He was out there against some top-notch receivers. Calvin Ridley, those guys. He went out there and did a nice job and that.
“When you move in that paint area there, that is a little different. Things happen fast, and you don’t always have as much time to interpret what is going on. Just learning that and learning this system, which is new for him, too. He’s blessed with some really good talent. He’s a good football player, good instincts. He is going to get better and better the more he plays.”
O’Daniel’s experience matching up with wide receivers at Clemson makes him a unique piece in the Chiefs’ linebacker unit. Unlike most linebackers, he has the ability to thrive in coverage where most linebackers would be viewed as the mismatch opposing offenses would want to attack.
“Sometimes you’re on an island,” O’Daniel said of his experience playing the nickel. “Sometimes you have help. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’re in zero coverage and your man has a two-way go. That put a lot of pressure on myself back then because you know when you’re isolated that all eyes are on you. I think that — from a confidence level — definitely helped my game just because I believed in myself. Week in and week out I was tried by some of the best receivers in college football.”
A former high school running back and outside linebacker at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md., he earned high school All-American honors. He’d primarily been a running back until his senior year. When he became a two-way starter at linebacker, he played defense more on instinct and athleticism than technique.
Until he got to college, his defensive approach amounted to “see ball, get ball.” The athleticism has always been intriguing though.
As O’Daniel’s focus shifted to defense, that skill set hasn’t always translated perfectly into one position. However, it has translated into being a valuable contributor on the football field.
“(He is) one of them linebackers that can cover,” Fuller said. “You know, you can put him out there in space on running backs, tight ends and stuff like that, somebody that just fly around, make plays, get to the ball. That’s the guys you want on the field.”
An All-American at Clemson and a finalist for the Butkus Award given to the top linebacker in college football, O’Daniel learned the value of paying attention to the details, recognizing tendencies and understanding what offenses were doing. He made remarkable progress from high school, when he basically functioned as a the human version of a heat-seeking missile.
He’s gone through a similar learning period in the NFL, except he’s had to do almost all of his acclimation in limited practice time since the end of training camp and the start of the regular season.
When asked about the transition O’Daniel has had to make, Chiefs inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone pointed to Clemson’s game against Louisville last season as an example where O’Daniel played nickel the entire game without ever lining up as a linebacker. Then in others like that against Syracuse, O’Daniel played from inside the tackle box in a traditional linebacker role the whole time.
“There was enough evidence for me when I was watching it where I thought he could play linebacker, and he’s done a really good job,” DeLeone said. “I would say with everybody we bring in as rookies there is a learning curve, and there’s how I want them to see it. … How these guys see the keys to the game, what’s your run-pass keys, what’s your vision. He’s done a really good job getting better with that and seeing it. I’m really proud of him.”