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Nate Hobbs has been one of the steals of the draft

From the moment Nate Hobbs showed up on the Raiders scene last spring, there was an aura surrounding the rookie cornerback from Illinois.

It was reflected in the manner in which he carried himself — a demeanor that toed the line separating arrogance and confidence. His belief in himself, coupled with professionalism that defied his rookie status, immediately won favor with his coaches and teammates.

Many of whom made it a point to mention Hobbs when discussing young players that had caught their eye.

Eleven games into his rookie season, the first impression he made in OTA’s and minicamp were spot on. Hobbs hasn’t just secured the starting slot cornerback job — one of the more difficult assignments at any level of football — he’s done it in a way rarely seen for a player so new to the NFL.

And certainly not in a way anyone has covered it for the Raiders in years.

Hobbs has allowed 284 yards in receiving yards, and none above the 44-yard reception he gave up against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week Two. He has yet to give up a touchdown and his 70.8 PFF run-defense grade (out of 100) shows he has been a huge asset in against the ground game.

“He always tells me, ‘Something great is about to happen.’” said Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. “So, he is that guy. He’s very dynamic. He’s a guy that can make things happen.”

All of which seems to fit a young player that carried himself and played like he belonged from the start. Even Hobbs is a bit taken aback by how quickly it’s come together.

“I wouldn’t say surprised but it’s definitely been a quick transition,” Hobbs said.

Of course, it helps that he pretty much guaranteed on draft night that the Raiders were “getting the best underdog they ever drafted.” By throwing that prediction into the universe, Hobbs immediately established a goal for himself and has been chasing those intentions ever since.

“I feel like anything you put your mind to, like if you just mentally transition, along with the physical transition, it should go smooth,” Hobbs said. “You’re gonna have some hiccups here and there, but I’m just grateful I’ve been able to produce for the team.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Hobbs is the seventh highest-graded cornerback in the NFL and the highest-ranked slot cornerback.

Only Chiefs center Creed Humphrey (ranked first in his position group), Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons (1st), Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (7th), Dolphins safety Javon Holland (7th) and Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (6th) are ranked as high or higher than Hobbs among his fellow NFL rookies.

Not bad for someone taken with the 167th pick overall last April and was projected to be drafted somewhere between the sixth and seventh rounds.

Hobbs was a lightly regarded recruit out of Male High School in Louisville, Kentucky before Illinois coach Lovie Smith swopped in with a late offer during the 2017 recruiting cycle. Much like Hobbs is doing as a rookie, he immediately earned a starting role and earned All-Big 10 freshman honors.

The four years he spent with Smith, a noted defensive guru specializing in developing defensive backs, helped put Hobbs on the NFL radar. His game tape, coupled with an Illinois pro day during which he ran a sub-4.38 40 a 40.5-inch vertical jump and a 6.68 three-cone vertical drill, caught the Raiders eye.

More than halfway through his rookie season, though, it’s hard to tell what is more impressive: How well Hobbs has played or how poised he’s carried himself. He has yet to hit a rookie wall that many first-year players face after a dozen games.

Thank God, I didn’t really hit a wall,” Hobbs said. “But I just think it’s all mental. Like, I knew what I was coming into before I got here.

”I knew I was going to have to play 17 games, so I just tried to do a good job of mentally preparing every week and taking it week-by-week. That’s kind of how I do it.”

It has worked out better than anyone could have imagined.

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter.

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