The playmaker inside never left. Kenny Ladler is sure of it.
At Vanderbilt, the safety known as “Swiper” was a turnover waiting to happen with five interceptions and five forced fumbles his senior year. He faced the likes of Randall Cobb, A.J. Green and Mike Evans. He was a force in the nation’s best conference.
So even after going undrafted, after seeing his rookie season with the Buffalo Bills end on injured reserve, Ladler sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I have to display what I did in college onto the next level,” Ladler said, “and show that I can be a playmaker on the field with the best talent in the world. I want to show people that I’m a playmaker.”
Aaron Williams has matured into the leader of the secondary. And Duke Williams — after finishing with 52 tackles and one interception last year — will compete with Corey Graham and others at the other spot. But Ladler sees an opportunity; he sees that knack for the big play still translating to the pro game. A broken forearm ended his 2014 season in late October.
Into camp this week, he’s hoping his right-place, right-time instincts kick in.
Back in college, he often studied Charles Tillman in the film room. The longtime Chicago Bears cornerback has made a living off of jarring the ball loose with 42 forced fumbles in his career.
Ladler loved how Tillman attacked the ball carrier. Even when he’s not the primary tackler, he was punching at the ball.
“That’s just my mentality,” Ladler said. “I’m running to the ball — always. You never know when that ball could come out. You never know when somebody might be holding that ball loose. So I always run to the ball and never take a play off. It’s just hustling. That’s 90 percent of it. Effort.
“Running to the ball. Punching the ball. A lot of guys have instincts and I think I’m one of those guys who has great instincts to be a playmaker.” Of the five forced fumbles his last year at Vandy, three were punches and three were strips.
He also undercut a deep route against UAB for a pick. Against Florida, he timed up a corner-post route for an interception. Against rival Tennessee, he blanketed a receiver from the slot on a crossing route and picked the ball off.
How does he return to those days? He says it’s all about opportunity.
Said Ladler, “That chance to show what I can do.”
This wasn’t a smooth offseason for Ladler. One of his friends from college — Dai-John Parker, a guard on the Vanderbilt basketball team — drowned in a tragic tubing accident. It was “definitely a sad moment,” he said, that put life into perspective.
And on his own, he tried to sharpen his footwork and study up. Cleared in February, he’s been 100 percent healthy.
When Rex Ryan first arrived, Ladler said the coach’s message was that the best players will play, and the coach repeated that line again in the spring.
So Ladler looks around the NFL and sees the receivers he faced in the SEC. That gives him hope. Ladler wasn’t one of the 18 safeties drafted in 2014 — possibly due to his sluggish 4.70 in the 40 and his 207-pound frame — but sees his nose for the ball still being a skill that separates him from the pack.
“I played against guys on this level and I’ve seen their games translate over,” Ladler said. “I know I have the ability to do the same. I just need the opportunity. That’s what I need to be ready for.
“If I do my part and make plays, there should be no argument or excuse on why I wouldn’t be playing. That’s my biggest thing. As long as I’m making plays, the rest will take care of itself when it comes to my role.”