By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; 11:18 PM
His path has been untraditional, if not unlikely, but when Washington Redskins safety Kareem Moore takes the field Friday night, fans will get a chance to see something players and coaches have been noticing in practice for a couple of years now.
"We've been seeing it. We're used to it," fellow safety LaRon Landry said. "For everyone that's hasn't, though, now's the time."
Moore, who has been a breakout performer in the early days of training camp, is slated to start at free safety when the Redskins open their preseason schedule against Buffalo on Friday. It has been a long climb for a player who was lost on the depth chart since joining the Redskins, hopped around between colleges before that, and almost bypassed football altogether in high school.
Moore was a basketball player at Okolona (Miss.) High and didn't put on a pair of pads until the football coach begged him prior to his senior year.
"I always loved football," Moore said. "I used to always watch it. But I never really wanted to play it seriously. But when I finally did, I just fell in love. It felt like second nature to me."
Said Bobby Ford, Moore's high school coach and Okolona's athletic director: "He's a fast learner. It just never took him long to pick up on things."
And it didn't take long for others to notice either. Playing just one year of high school football, Moore accepted a scholarship to the University of Mississippi. But after two seasons, Ole Miss overhauled its coaching staff, and Moore saw his playing time shrink. He transferred to Itawamba (Miss.) Community College, which is where Steve Ellis, the former defensive coordinator at Nicholls State, spotted him. But Ellis noticed him on the basketball court, not a football field.
"I was probably there for like five minutes, and he must've had 20 dunks," says Ellis, now the cornerbacks coach at Middle Tennessee State. "This guy was above the rim the whole time. He was physical and just incredibly athletic and competitive."
Ellis saw tape of Moore playing safety and tried to persuade Moore that Nicholls State was his best option. Other area programs were also making their pitches, including bigger schools such as Mississippi State. Moore had NFL aspirations, though, and wasn't sure a bigger school wouldn't be the better option. So he called his cousin, Tim Bowens, who also started at Itawamba and eventually enjoyed a 11-year career with the Miami Dolphins that included two Pro Bowls.
"I just told him, it's all about what you do on the field. It doesn't matter what school you're in; it matters what you do on that field," said the former defensive tackle, who retired from the NFL in 2004.
While Moore enjoyed an impressive two years at Nicholls State - in one 2007 game, he and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb each returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a half - NFL scouts weren't quite drooling. Moore didn't receive an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine and had to beg his way into the Texas vs. the Nation annual all-star game. But in the days leading up to the game, he tore a knee ligament and over the course of further pre-draft workouts, the pain grew until he finally opted for surgery.
In the 2008 NFL draft, Moore, who had been told he had late second- or early third-round talent, didn't hear his name called until the sixth round. Then-Washington defensive coordinator Greg Blache called to share the good news.
"And then 10 minutes later," Moore said, "they called back and said, 'You're gonna be on a plane to Alabama to have surgery in the morning.' "
James Andrews performed a second arthroscopic knee surgery, and Moore began his Redskins' career on crutches. When he was finally getting steady repetitions midway through his first training camp, he was stuck playing behind Landry, who had a firm grip on the starting job.
With Landry playing free safety, Moore had little opportunity to showcase his skills. Last season, for example, he averaged fewer than 10 plays per game, not earning a start until the inconsequential season finale at San Diego.
"I was just trying to be patient, working on my craft," Moore said. "You know, if you're not getting better, you're getting worse. So I just kept trying to get better."
When the new coaching staff took over this year, they were immediately taken with the third-year safety. When they moved Landry to strong safety, it created a big opportunity for Moore.
Moore's the only true free safety on the roster, and he made his mark quickly in the team's offseason organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamps.
"The guy's got great body control," said Steve Atwater, the former free safety who played in eight Pro Bowls as a Denver Bronco and is currently serving as a coaching intern on Mike Shanahan's staff. "He has great ball skills in terms of accelerating to the ball. He's made some great plays here in camp."
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett wants a unit that will wreak more havoc and cause more turnovers. Moore fits right into that plan. Haslett calls him a "ball magnet" and compares him with O.J. Atogwe, a safety Haslett coached in St. Louis. With the Rams, Atogwe's career also was slow to start, but he has had 18 interceptions in the past four years.
"[Moore's] always around the ball," Haslett said. "That's the kind of guy you like around the back end: guys who make interceptions."
Moore has shown that during practice - last week, he intercepted quarterback Donovan McNabb twice in three plays - but starting Friday night, coaches want to see it translate to games.
"I do love the ball," said Moore, who turns 26 years old Friday. "I like to catch it, and I want to score with it every time."