In offseason workouts, in training camp and in daily walk-throughs, cornerback Josh Norman was plenty familiar with that voice. Quinton Dunbar, perpetually situated a rung or two down the depth chart, always was eager for reps, always was ready to jump on the field.
“Even in practice, he been asking me, ‘You need somebody? You need somebody?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, man, go out there,’ ” Norman said.
Now Norman is sidelined with a rib injury and it’s Dunbar’s turn. The third-year player, who has lined up on the defensive side of the ball for all of 26 months, faces the tall task of replacing one of the top cornerbacks in the league. Norman won’t play Sunday and could miss four weeks. Until Norman is healthy enough to play, though, Dunbar will try to make the most of his chance.
“Dunbar’s been biting at the bit for the last year,” Norman said. “I’m excited to see it. I know there’s no trouble once he get in there, and when he plays, you’ll see: He lives for those moments. He lives for this moment, the time he has right now.”
Until the Redskins’ Week 4 loss at Kansas City, most of Dunbar’s action this season came on special teams. He totaled 10 defensive snaps in the first three games combined, according to Football Outsiders. But after Norman went down late in the first half against the Chiefs, the 25-year old Dunbar answered the call and played 37 defensive snaps. The University of Florida product was targeted five times and allowed three catches for only 14 yards, according to Pro Football Focus, which said his coverage grade of 81.9 was the highest of anyone in the game.
Redskins Coach Jay Gruden is hoping for a similar performance Sunday against San Francisco. Gruden called Dunbar a “unique person” earlier this week before cracking a smile.
“I don’t think he’s really smart enough to know the magnitude of the situation he’s in,” Gruden joked. “He just goes out and plays. He just loves playing football. He loves to compete. Man, he thinks he can cover anybody, anytime, anywhere. And that’s a great mentality to have as a corner and that’s the way he feels.”
Getting elevated to the first team is not exactly foreign to Dunbar. In Week 3 a year ago, four Redskins starters suffered injuries against the Giants, including cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Dashaun Phillips. Dunbar got the start the next two weeks, and Gruden said he liked what he saw, even if Dunbar got off to a rocky start.
Early against New York, Dunbar mistakenly touched a live ball on a punt, which the Giants then recovered and turned into seven points. But he later caught a 31-yard pass from punter Tress Way, which set up a Redskins field goal. And then on the Giants’ ensuing drive, Dunbar made a one-handed interception that kept the highlight reels spinning. The Redskins won, 29-27.
This time around Dunbar is looking to show he can be more than just a fill-in off the bench. He is still new to the position. He was a wide receiver in high school and college. He signed with Washington as an undrafted free agent in 2015 and coaches moved him to cornerback during his first training camp.
By now, there’s no identity crisis. He feels comfortable at corner, comfortable in the position meetings and is eager to carve out his own niche. He won’t play just like Norman on Sunday — he will press more and rely on his strength and speed.
“I feel like I’m a DB,” he said, “like I’m a solid DB. And if I go out there and do what I’m supposed to do, trust my technique and trust my teammates, everything will work out.”
He again spent the offseason training with a defensive backs coach near his Miami home, and at Redskins Park he has been working diligently with Washington’s new secondary coaches, Torrian Gray and assistant James Rowe.
“Each year I feel like I get better,” Dunbar said, “better at learning the defense, different things to be a great DB.”
The difference this season, coaches agree, is that Dunbar is no longer relying solely on athleticism, but he’s picking up the nuances of the position.
“I’ve seen him grow leaps and bounds from a mental standpoint,” Gray said. “… He’s got the athletic ability, all those things. But once you understand your position and you understand what the offense is doing, the game really starts to slow down for you.”
The Redskins’ coaches like Dunbar’s length — he’s listed as 6-foot-2, 197 pounds — as well as his speed and athleticism. Gruden is hopeful a few more game reps will show what the young defensive back is really capable of as the season wears on.
“I’m excited to see him play on a longer basis, see what he can do because he can bump and run,” Gruden said. “He’s got long arms and he can run, see how he does out in space. But we’re excited to see him.”
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