Juwan Foggie fully understood the gamble he was taking with his college football career.
After three years as a receiver at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte – two as a backup on the field and one as a redshirt – he was strongly considering asking to move to defense.
Even though he had only two years of eligibility left. And even though he never had played a down on defense his entire high school career.
“I was sweating,” Foggie said. “That whole winter break I was thinking do I really want to do this? I was going back and forth with it.”
The move turned out better than he dreamed. Just two years later, Foggie finds himself on an NFL roster as an undrafted free-agent signee of the Buffalo Bills.
Not many wide receivers switch to linebacker midway through their college careers. Yet the 6-foot, 235-pound Foggie made the transition in one offseason. He converted to defense in January 2017 and was starting at linebacker for the season opener on Sept. 1.
“The transition was so smooth, you’d have thought he’d played there a long time,” said Matt Wallerstedt, Charlotte’s defensive coordinator at the time.
He started 23 games at linebacker the last two seasons and showed off the ball skills one would expect from a former receiver.
Foggie ranked second in the NCAA in 2018 with six interceptions, including an NCAA-best two returned for touchdowns. His six pickoffs were the most in the nation by a linebacker.
His coverage skills are what earned him an offer with the Bills.
“Coverability – that’s what they said they wanted, and that was my expertise,” he said.
Foggie is the slightly less heralded of the two undrafted rookie linebackers on the Bills’ roster. Texas A&M’s Tyrel Dodson likely was a tad higher on NFL draft boards because he played in a power conference and posted an above-average 4.60 time in the 40-yard dash.
Foggie’s pro-day testing numbers were below average - 4.77 in the 40 and a 31.5-inch vertical jump. But maybe Foggie’s ball skills and coverage instincts can help him beat the roster odds.
“I think he’s faster on the field than that 40 time shows,” Wallerstedt said. “He has good instincts.”
Backup linebacker is one of the least settled positions on the Bills roster. The Bills drafted an outside linebacker, Vosean Joseph, in the fifth round. The only incumbents on the outside are Deon Lacey, who has seen only five linebacker snaps in his two NFL seasons, and Corey Thompson, who has played 10 linebacker snaps in one NFL season.
Charlotte didn’t join the Football Bowl Subdivision level until 2015. But like any college program, the competition for playing time at receiver is intense.
“It was a crowded room,” Foggie said.
He only made six receptions in his first two seasons on the field. But he did make a mark on special teams.
“I made some big hits, and I had two blocked punts,” Foggie said. “I thought this is all defensive stuff, so I might as well go all in with it.”
Aaron Curry, a former first-round NFL draft pick, was an assistant on the Charlotte staff, and encouraged Foggie to make the switch.
“We just thought if he was going to make some money some day, he’d have that opportunity to do it if he came over to our side,” Wallerstedt said. “We had a need at that hybrid outside backer, nickel, do-it-all position. He’s a student of the game. He always wanted extra coaching, extra film work. It was clear cut when we came out of that spring that he was everything we thought he’d be on defense.”
“I put in a lot of film time in the spring and summer and learned everything from inside out,” Foggie said of the 2017 offseason.
His receiver experience helped him in coverage.
“The route combinations on offense, I knew all the routes,” Foggie said. “I knew where the receivers had to be. The smash concept. I knew all that, and that really helped my game out as a linebacker.”
(A smash concept is a two-man route combination on one side of the field, typically with a slot receiver running a corner route to the sideline and the outside receiver running a slant or hitch.)
Foggie anticipated a short slant on the biggest play of his Charlotte career, a 79-yard interception return for a touchdown against Southern Mississippi.
“I’m pretty confident in my hands,” Foggie said.
Foggie played at 225 pounds at Charlotte, and he was used on the wide side of the field at linebacker and on the back end at safety, as well.
If he can prove he’s fast enough, he might fit into a big nickel defender in the NFL.
“It’s been a journey of its own,” Foggie said. “I learned the game every year and I’ve just tried to keep on learning.”