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Gordon: Young ‘vet’ Raiders corner ready to build on rookie season

Updated June 5, 2022 - 4:39 pm

Nate Hobbs offered a pensive pause Thursday while he thought about the highlight of his rookie season with the Raiders.

It wasn’t one of his 74 tackles, he concluded.

Nor was it his first career sack or interception.

“There’s a lot,” the second-year standout said. But “really, practice. Practice every day and grinding as a rookie. The season was never that long. It’s a grind. Just a grind. Getting that bond with your teammates and the players that you played with.

“Smiling every day. Coming to work. Going hard.”

If that workmanlike approach helped Hobbs excel during his first foray into professional football, then what can he accomplish this season with a similar mentality? He already garnered the top grade among slot cornerbacks, per Pro Football Focus. That as a fifth-round draft pick from Illinois with little fanfare.

But can he be even better 2022? Will he thrive again on the inside?

“Right now, I play where the coaches want me to play, honestly. I can be that flex guy. I can do whatever they ask me to,” Hobbs said.

“That’s where my mind is.”

What about the outside?

“I see myself playing wherever the coaches want me to play,” he said behind a shy smile.

New coaches? No problem

The coaches wanted primarily him to play in the slot last year and that he did as well as anybody else in the NFL — logging action on 76 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, per Pro Football Reference. But those coaches are in Indianapolis now and the new ones might ask different things of the Louisville, Kentucky, native.

Not that he’d be bothered by that.

He played four years under Lovie Smith with the Illini, absorbing a plethora of professional concepts from the 64-year-old defensive maestro, now in his first year coaching the Houston Texans — whom the Raiders play Oct. 23 at Allegiant Stadium.

“All the terminology, all the coverages I’ve learned in depth,” says Hobbs, 22. “Just picking his brain, I’ve got a lot of wisdom from that. So it definitely makes it easier at this level because I’ve seen a lot of it before.”

Some of new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s coverage preferences seem to align with the zone coverages Gus Bradley tended to employ during his year in Las Vegas. And nickel cornerbacks remain critical for Graham, who explained earlier this spring that football is predicated now on “sub-defense.”

“You’re really dealing in a world of five (defensive backs) on the field at once. And four bigger bodies with two linebackers,” Graham said.

That bodes well for Hobbs, regardless of where he plays.

A young veteran

Seven of the 10 cornerbacks on the 90-man roster are new, making Hobbs a pseudo veteran alongside fellow returners Trayvon Mullen and Amik Robertson.

Gone are the play and leadership of former Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Hayward Jr., now of the Atlanta Falcons. Meaning “we don’t have a true star in the DB room,” Hobbs said. “Everyone can play. It’s going to be a battle.”

Take Hobbs at his word, and understand that competition is particularly valuable at this point in the offseason when concepts are introductory and rosters remain in flux. May the best two or three cornerbacks contribute the most this fall.

That surely will sort itself out by the end of the summer, and Hobbs doesn’t plan to change his approach.

He unveiled Thursday what he believes is the most important lesson learned during a season that included an arrest and subsequent guilty plea to misdemeanor careless driving: “Your life is never going to stay good. And it’s never going to stay bad. It’s always a test and you’ve got to stay level headed.

“Stay level-headed amidst everything.” he added. “Stay disciplined. Keep your spirit up and everything will work itself out.”

In the slot. Or on the outside.

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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