By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
On the day before he was to make his NFL debut, rookie safety Chris Horton called his college defensive coordinator. Horton wanted to congratulate his mentor, DeWayne Walker, for UCLA's victory over Tennessee earlier that week, but also hoped to pick up some pointers from a man uniquely qualified to offer them.
Not only had Walker coached Horton in college, but he is also a former member of the Redskins' coaching staff. Walker was among the group brought in by Joe Gibbs in 2004 to implement a new defensive system that remains largely in place. Walker left as the Redskins' cornerbacks coach after the 2005 season to take the job with UCLA and brought much of Washington's defense with him, so for three years Horton was immersed in the language and film clips of the Redskins' scheme.
Thus, Walker's advice was simple: Trust your instincts. Play the way you always have. Don't get lost in the hysteria of the NFL's season-opening game, the national television audience, the crazy Giants Stadium crowd. Horton, 23, fared well enough, climbing from the depths of the roster to participate in all special teams units in the 16-7 loss to New York and also taking seven snaps with the defense.
"I just wanted to make sure I was out there doing my job," said Horton, Washington's final pick in the 2008 draft. "Obviously, I'm going to have some ups and I'm going to have some downs. But I think I put some good stuff on film."
For Horton to have come this far is an accomplishment. While the Redskins kept all 10 of their draft picks on the 53-man roster, most were inactive or did little against the Giants. Horton and punter Durant Brooks were on the field the most. Horton, taken 249th overall, was the fourth-to-last selection of the entire draft, a compensatory pick awarded to the Redskins at the end of the seventh round for losing free agents.
The Redskins needed reserves at safety after the slaying of star Sean Taylor and with veterans Vernon Fox and Stuart Schweigert cut during camp. The New Orleans native made it easy to keep him, making big plays from the preseason opener and rising quickly to become the No. 2 strong safety on the depth chart behind starter Reed Doughty.
"He's been a pleasant surprise," said Scott Campbell, the director of player personnel who oversees draft scouting. "He's gone higher than our expectations probably with the way he's flown around and been around the ball since the first week."
At his best, Horton, at 6 feet 1, 211 pounds, plays more like an undersize linebacker than a safety, Walker said. His defining qualities are aggression, physicality and an instinct for the football the Redskins' defensive staff prizes in its defensive backs. Horton has much to learn about the coverage aspects of the game but needs no provocation to attack a ballcarrier or go after the quarterback as an eighth defender stationed around the line of scrimmage.
Safeties coach Steve Jackson watched him from the first practices of camp and saw flashes of Ryan Clark and Matt Bowen, smart but not incredibly gifted strong safeties who previously made big plays in this system.
"He reminds me of the typical safety we've had here that's excelled," Jackson said. "Guys you've got to kick out of the film room, kick off the practice field. They're tough as nails mentally and physically. So you've got to find a space for guys like that."
Horton, an all-Pacific-10 performer as a senior, impressed the scouts and coaches during a pre-draft visit to Redskins Park, and conversations between team officials and Walker intensified the belief that, in this system, Horton could be a diamond in the rough. Walker praised his football intellect, his work habits, his special teams skills. The usual rookie learning curve would be shorter as well, given how much familiarity Horton had with the concepts, language and responsibilities of his position within this framework.
"We ran a very similar defense," Horton said. "We definitely ran an NFL scheme and some of the stuff Coach Walker called was the exact same defense as we have here. So I was kind of prepared mentally. When I learned I was going to the Washington Redskins I knew that fits what I do."
Horton picked up two sacks in the first preseason game, against Indianapolis, and continued to show up wherever the football was, often abusing a receiver.
"I always knew he had a chance to play" in the NFL, Walker said. "He's very physical, he studies the game, and he's very comfortable in this scheme. It's a carry-over for him; he's seen it, he's played it, he understands it."
Horton never appeared overwhelmed by his surroundings, talking early on about his comfort in this system. He trusted his ability to make plays. Becoming a special teams standout will aid his long-term job security, and finding ways to improve in pass coverage would help, too. The coaches hope he could be a reserve free safety, and meantime Horton could continue to spell Doughty and earn more chances in the dime package (two extra defensive backs).
Should things ever get hazy or complicated, Walker remains a phone call away, as good a resource as there is outside of Redskins Park, and a man still well respected within the building.
"When you have a coach you know and you've worked with," Campbell said, "and he tells you what the kid is, it really means a lot. In scouting it's connections at all the schools, and definitely with his input it helped us really get sold on Horton a lot."