No second-round pick expects to play only three snaps in 16 games. The 2014 season was one prolonged source of frustration and embarrassment for Cyrus Kouandjio.
“It’s tough,” Kouandjio said last weekend. “This is my profession. This is my job. I love football and I’ve been doing this forever. And I don’t know the last time I sat on the sideline.”
Kouandjio paused. His rookie season was “humbling.” Actually, no, it was worse than that.
“It was probably one of the lowest times in my life personally,” Kouandjio said. “But you have to be a fighter.”
So Kouandjio plans to fight. After training at LeCharles Bentley O-Line Performance in Chandler, Ariz., for “90 percent” of the offseason, this 6-foot-7, 322-pound human boulder has a chance to start. Seventh-rounder Seantrel Henderson was the right tackle playing 1,132 snaps last season – even leading the NFL in performance-based pay – but this is a new coaching staff. A fresh start.
In June, Rex Ryan admitted Kouandjio is “ahead” of Henderson. How does someone make the leap from one coach’s doghouse to another coach’s starting lineup? Kouandjio made a simple decision. Rather than sulk in self-pity, he’d fight.
On a typical day at Bentley’s complex, he’d work 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Many times, twice a day. Other times, three times a day. He dissected preseason film, practice film, “everything,” he said, to identify what went wrong and rep it out on the field. Bentley works with several linemen, including Kouandjio’s former teammate at Alabama, guard Chance Warmack, and his brother Arie Kouandjio.
“Eating, sleeping, breathing football,” Kouandjio said.
Whereas he spent last off-season training specifically for NFL scouting combine events, real football movements took precedent in Arizona. Technique, not raw strength, was the focus.
He didn’t camp out on the bench press. Kouandjio focused on his core – that was lacking last summer.
“It’s doing things that are abnormal,” Kouandjio said. “You’re going against someone who’s 250 pounds of solid muscle, who’s faster than you and runs a 4-whatever. And he’s running forward as you’re going backward. A lot of irregular body movements, a lot of mechanics. But the strength that I needed, that I lacked last year was my core strength. It made it hard for me to stay balanced, stay strong.”
No, nothing is set in stone on Buffalo’s line. Henderson found himself working with the third team after missing a minicamp practice, yet could still get looks at left tackle. The nimble, athletic former Miami (Fla.) tackle is more battle-tested. And Cordy Glenn, who has started 45 of 45 games his three seasons, could play either side.
The last time Ryan addressed this group, he cited Kouandjio’s offseason work as the reason he was working ahead of Henderson.
“But again, the race isn’t over by a long shot,” Ryan said, “so we’ll see. Seantrel has got to show that he can handle it mentally, physically all of it and then get out here. Obviously he’s a guy that started 16 games last year so I think competition is going to be good, and Kouandjio has got to show that when the pads come on that he can handle the physical aspect of the game.”
When that time comes, the pressure will be on Kouandjio. He’s the former 44th overall pick; Henderson the 237th pick.
Kouandjio speaks very matter-of-factly. Direct. He gets this pressure.
“Every man, woman, every person in this world goes through things in their life where they’re going to be tested,” he said. “They’re going to get pushed to a certain level they didn’t expect. Or they’ll face some type of adversity that seems impossible to overcome but you have to keep pushing, keep fighting. That’s what we’re all taught to do as a child.”
Kouandjio can draw inspiration from his family, which moved from Cameroon to Maryland when he was 4 years old.
Dad’s stories of civil war in his African village still resonate. Dad was in life-or-death situations regularly.
“Definitely,” Kouandjio said. “Everybody deals with things in their life that are tough. The fighters usually make it out. The quitters don’t. So I’m still fighting. Nothing’s promised.”
In theory, Kouandjio’s greatest strength blends with the run-first, no-bull attitude Ryan wants to instill. After all, Ryan did say he’d run the ball 50 times a game if he could. And at Alabama, Kouandjio was more snow-plowing run blocker than finesse pass blocker.
On the edge, he helped open up four-lane highways for Eddie Lacy.
“I love a power scheme,” Kouandjio said. “I love run blocking – I love it. … It worked really well down in Alabama.”
This month, a wrench was thrown into everything, of course. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer is on indefinite leave for allegedly punching a teen, meaning assistant Kurt Anderson takes over in short term and, possibly, the long term. This will undoubtedly be a major adjustment for all, including the right tackle who was winning this staff over. Kouandjio enjoyed working with Kromer.
“I got used to Coach Kromer and his coaching style,” Kouandjio said. “He brings a lot to the table as an offensive line coach. He’s probably one of the best in the league — he is one of the best in the league. So I don’t know. Who knows? Whatever happens, I wish the best for him.”