By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007
Based on talent and athleticism, Anthony Montgomery should be the Washington Redskins' top defensive lineman. Most inside the team's locker room would not debate that statement.
On a defense loaded with overachievers -- self-made linemen who rely on heart and determination to trump physical limitations -- Montgomery has been an anomaly. Preparing for his second NFL training camp at 23, Montgomery is strong, stands 6 feet 5 and has been able to coast through his football life on his gifts alone. He was always the most dominant player on his team through his college years at Minnesota, but suddenly finds himself at a career crossroads.
Montgomery, a fifth-round pick, rarely got on the field in 2006, a victim of his erratic work habits, wavering focus and inconsistency. To some scouts, he lived up to his pre-draft billing as a classic underachiever. Montgomery became a magnet for verbal lashings by Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, and defensive line coach Greg Blache, players said. Now, that tough love may be about to pay off.
While no one is proclaiming that Montgomery completely changed or calling him a finished product, he has shown improvement and maturity during the offseason. He was one of the 39 players to participate in every aspect of the offseason training at Redskins Park, dropping weight and adding muscle. His approach to the game has been more focused and there are signs that Montgomery might finally realize what it takes to achieve success in the NFL, though even he admits that it is too early to proclaim victory over his fitness and inconsistency issues.
"I won't say I've caught up completely, but I've improved a lot and I just plan on keep getting better and hopefully I'll have a good year," Montgomery said. "Definitely, honesty, to be honest with myself, in the past I always could just kind of get by. Especially in college, I knew I was going to be a starter every year, and I would relax and knew I didn't have to work as hard as everybody else. But since I've been here, it wasn't like college anymore, and they were able to see right through that real quick. They got on my back a lot last year, but it's only for the better."
Montgomery's candor and pleasant nature have earned him points with veterans, though his struggles last season frustrated everyone on the defense.
"God gives some people more attributes and talent than others, and when you see guys who don't utilize and maximize their talent, it's tough," defensive end Reynaldo Wynn said. "And you know they can probably just dominate if they did, and that's the type of ability he has. I think he gets it now. He gets it this year with the type of work he's put in this offseason. It's good to see at an early age that he does get it, and we're looking forward to seeing some great things out of him this year."
Wynn believes Montgomery could become a player like Jacksonville defensive tackle Marcus Stroud; Wynn was his teammate with the Jaguars early in Stroud's time there and sees lots of similarities in build, mobility and speed. It will take a huge progression to reach that point, however, and nothing is assured at a position as demanding as tackle.
"Anthony is one of the guys we're counting on to step up," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "He's had a great offseason. . . . He's done everything you can do, and now I think he's reshaped himself some and continued to grow up."
Montgomery, a Cleveland native, says he now takes year-round conditioning and nutrition more seriously. He is beginning to comprehend the impact of the decisions he makes off the field.
"I cut back on a lot of fried food and things like that," he said. "I dropped about 15 pounds this offseason and I got a lot stronger in the weight room and took my conditioning real serious, and it's paid off so far."
The Redskins are gambling that their unheralded group of defensive linemen will be able to rebound from last year, when the defense ranked next to last in the league. The line was an area of concern, but save for some undrafted free agents, no personnel were added. Improvement will have to come from within, and Montgomery and fellow second-year pro Kedric Golston, who lacks Montgomery's ability but makes up for it with grit, are a big part of that plan.
"We believe in our guys," Williams said in response to inquires about the lack of new faces on the defensive line.
The Redskins had no pass rush to speak of and must apply pressure from the line this fall, particularly with coaches planning to call more fire-zone blitzes, using more man-to-man defense and playing with safety Sean Taylor hanging back as a center fielder. Montgomery took offseason snaps as Cornelius Griffin's understudy, players said, stationed as a "three-technique," a designation pertaining to a tackle who lines up opposite the guard's outside shoulder.
Like Griffin, Montgomery will be charged with getting across the line and pressing the passer from the interior of the defense, collapsing the pocket if possible. It is a lot to ask of a young tackle -- even if in a reserve role -- and speaks to Montgomery's overall skill. He has been rewarded with a few more accolades from coaches, his teammates say.
His attention to detail in the classroom is improving as well. The Redskins figure that if anyone can convert Montgomery's raw power, it is Blache, and the overall defensive scheme has been simplified this year. Players are asked to read and react much less often and linemen in particular are being freed of other responsibilities in order to attack the passer. They want Montgomery to perform at a high tempo on every snap, and he believes his mind and attitude are finally catching up to his body.
"With the scheme and everything last year," Montgomery said, "some plays were called that I had to play it over and over in my head to make sure I was doing the right thing, whereas this year every play I know what I'm doing. I can just play the snap full speed now and go."