ASHBURN, Va. - Walking off the field at Redskins Park after the team's last practice before their preseason finale against the Buccaneers, Redskins rookie safety DeJon Gomes is aware that he has just one final chance to impress the coaching staff. The former Nebraska Cornhusker had just come back from putting in extra work after practice, running sprints and doing ball drills with his teammates.
Perhaps it was another sign of how important making the team's 53-man roster is to the rookie, a goal he believes is attainable after this weekend's round of cuts.
"I think everyone has a shot," he says. "If you're still with the team right now [after the first round of cuts], then you have a shot at making [a] roster spot."
Like all rookies, it's been a bit of an adjustment period for Gomes, going from productive senior in college to being a novice in the NFL. But adjustment isn't something new to the teams' fifth-round draft selection. The Hayward, California native has been learning on-the-fly ever since his high school playing days.
A versatile player at Logan High School in Union City, California, Gomes turned heads on offense primarily as a running back, rushing for nearly 1,000 yards and 24 touchdowns during his senior season. But roster limitations forced Gomes to become a two-way player, something that gave him his first opportunity to play in the defensive backfield.
"In high school, we didn't have enough talent to just play on just one side of the ball," he recalls. "So I was playing corner and safety also."
With that limited high school experience playing defensive back, the 6-foot, 200-pound Gomes went on to play cornerback for City College of San Francisco. He then transferred to Nebraska after two seasons, where he would play primarily as the team's nickel and dime back during his junior year.
The Cornhuskers had great depth at corner, featuring future first round draft pick Prince Amukamara and current senior Alfonzo Dennard, a 2011 preseason All-American. That forced Gomes to play inside, covering mostly slot receivers as the team's third or fourth corner. Despite that, he finished that season with four interceptions and still managed to crack the starting lineup in six of the team's final nine games.
His unique combination of aggressiveness, good instincts and ball-hawking mentality caused a bit of a conundrum for the Cornhusker coaching staff. They already had two playmakers at corner in Amukamara and Dennard, but they wanted Gomes to see the field more. So going into his senior year, they decided to put Gomes closer to the ball in more of a safety-linebacker hybrid role.
"My senior year I played more safety," Gomes explains. "It wasn't as rough as most transitions just because I took progressions from corner to dime to safety, so that wasn't too bad."
That transition was not only an easy one for Gomes, but it proved to be a good decision by his coaching staff. He finished his senior season second on the team in tackles with 99, in addition to three interceptions and a sack. It was a solid season, and one that clearly caught the eye of the Redskins coaching staff, as they selected him with the 146th overall pick in this past April's draft to play safety.
Over the last month, the rookie has had to learn defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's defense, which has proven to be the most difficult transition for him thus far. As if learning an NFL defensive scheme for the first time wasn't enough, Gomes had to deal with the lack of team-run offseason activity due to the lockout.
"The biggest thing on DeJon is him not having an offseason, which kind of set him back" Haslett says of Gomes' transition to his scheme.
"Yeah, that's probably the biggest [transition]." Gomes adds. "At Nebraska I played safety, but I didn't play it all that much because of the conference [The Big 12] we were in, [opposing offenses] were spread, so I was closer to the ball."
While Gomes could rely on his athletic ability at Nebraska, he's learning that at the NFL level, each aspect of the position must be mastered.
"It's a lot different," he explains. "From alignment, to technique, to putting your eyes on the right spot, it's just a lot of things [that are different]."
Indeed, the coaching staff tasked Gomes with having to learn a great deal in a short amount of time, but when it was time to go out and play against live competition in the preseason, he responded. It started with a solid showing against the Pittsburgh Steelers, where Gomes recorded a sack on quarterback Dennis Dixon and multiple tackles for losses on Steelers running backs.
"[In the Steelers game], we kinda scaled back and just let him play safety," Haslett said earlier in training camp. "And he goes out, has a sack, three tackles for losses and does a great job."
It was a good start for a player whose head was swimming when he first arrived in camp. He followed his strong debut with two solid efforts against the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens, showing his versatility as a cover man, tackler and blitzer. It's been a crash course for Gomes at his new position, but one he says he's beginning to understand.
"Since the start of camp, [it's been] night and day," he said of his learning curve. "But at the same time, I still have so much to learn."
"He does a lot of good things," Haslett adds. "He's a good player, and, in time, he will be OK."
The next few days will show Gomes just how far he's come. Thursday's game against the Buccaneers will give the coaches one last chance to evaluate him before the team's final roster cuts on Saturday. On more opportunity is welcome news for Gomes, who doesn't believe he's locked up a roster spot.
"Personally, I don't think I've done enough [to make the team]," he says. "Luckily we have one more game so I can show the coaches [my ability]."
The fourth preseason game is the final audition for players like Gomes, fringe players who's fate the coaches have yet to decide on. Gomes knows this, but will still head into his biggest game of his early career with the same aggressiveness he does when he engages ball carriers, freeing himself of any and all concern.
"When you put too much emphasis in your head on ‘Am I going to make the team, Am I not?' you're not going to be focused on your responsibilities," he says of Thursday night's game. "So I'm just going to out there and play football, and let the chips fall where they may."