It’s not as if Kansas City Chiefs fans weren’t expecting (or hoping) the team would select a player from the University of South Carolina in the 2019 NFL Draft; many fans thought wide receiver Deebo Samuel might be available to the team late in the first round.
But just days before the draft, the Chiefs traded their first-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks in a package to acquire veteran defensive end Frank Clark.
So instead, Samuel went to the San Francisco 49ers with the 36th pick early in the second round, and the next South Carolina Gamecock to come off the board went to the Chiefs: cornerback Rashad Fenton.
While Fenton wasn’t a player many Chiefs fans thought the team would take, the Chiefs liked what they saw in the three-year starter: a tough player with solid athletic ability, special teams skills and a nose for the ball.
In addition, coming from the South Carolina program, the Chiefs viewed Fenton as a player likely to be more ready to play in new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme — as Chiefs scout David Hinson explained after the draft.
“What’s great about Fenton is if you watch South Carolina, they play a few different styles,” said Hinson. “They do a little more shuffle and bail technique, but you will see him in the off-man and zone-type stuff where Steve Spagnuolo likes to do a little bit of everything. And that’s what Steve is great for: he mixes things up, so you don’t really know what you are getting, and Fenton is a smart football player that has played all the different techniques.”
Hinson said that the South Carolina program under head coach Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson produces cornerbacks who are more NFL-ready than many other schools.
“When you see a team in college that plays Quarters and Cover 2 and Cover 3 and works on some different things, usually those corners are a little bit more prepared for the next level and you can work with them to do some zone stuff. Because that is really the tougher thing for them at the next level. Everybody is playing some version of man, but how many coverages of zone did you play?”
Fenton himself recognizes the distinction. Speaking to the media during Chiefs rookie minicamp on Sunday, he said that only the speed of an NFL game would be a difficult adjustment for him.
”I would have said ‘playbook,’ but I feel like the defenses we used to run at South Carolina were kind of [like what the Chiefs run], so I feel that it won’t be an easy transition, but it won’t be as difficult because the playbook and the plays are kind of similar.”
Fenton agreed with Hinson’s characterization of the Gamecocks program.
“It’s evident that the techniques that they implement in us — and they have been teaching me for three years there at Carolina — is very useful not only here in Kansas City, but among NFL teams period. They use techniques and different schemes that are run by NFL teams, which only benefits the players because the transition will be easier.”
But Fenton also recognizes that even with that advantage, he is still going to have to work hard to make the team. He told the press he doesn’t even consider himself to be an NFL player just yet.
”That’s going to be later,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been working my tail off, making sure that for this moment I would be totally prepared, if you know what I mean. I’m a sixth-round draft pick — the 201st pick. I’m not guaranteed to be on the team. [I’ve] still got to earn my spot.”
On Sunday, Fenton said he liked what he had seen from the Chiefs coaching staff.
”Definitely great guys that are very knowledgeable.” he said. “You know Sam Madison played in the league multiple years, and coach Spagnuolo has been in the league for multiple years as well, so just being able to hear what they have to say from watching me run around can only benefit me, so it’s definitely good to be up under their wing.”
Fenton especially liked seeing Spagnuolo’s energy on the field.
”Yeah, he’s definitely pretty cool, if you know what I mean. I always felt like players thrive off the energy of the coaches. Just being able to receive that energy — even if you’re kind of tired, you know the coach is always energized, so you’ve got to kind of match that energy because it’s a player-coach relationship.”
If Fenton can earn a spot on the Chiefs roster, he may have to get much of his energy from special teams coach Dave Toub; a roster spot will likely come with plenty of snaps in Toub’s units.
Hinson said that even though Fenton averaged 24.8 yards per kickoff return during his first three seasons with the Gamecocks, he will be more likely to be used as a gunner on punts. But he also said that if Fenton is in the mix to be a returner, he’ll be in competition with second-round pick Mecole Hardman.
That’s all right with Fenton, who is used to competing with the speedy wide receiver.
”I was at South Carolina and he was at Georgia, so that was definitely a scheme that we watched out for. He was a nickel and I was an outside corner, so we had to game plan to move me inside sometimes to work the one-on-one matchup because we had a freshman nickel back. It was definitely interesting to gameplan against him, because he was always quick and explosive, so you kind of had to respect his speed at all times to make sure he didn’t make any big plays.”
After the draft, Fenton said he was well aware of the Chiefs’ interest in him as a special-teams player.
“Special teams is always being discussed whether it was on the punt team, whether it is on the kickoff team. I am not really too sure if they knew about my kick return ability or my punt return ability. I’m not sure if they knew because I did that at the beginning of my college career. Special teams is always implemented. We always discuss that because that is vital for someone like me in the sixth round to make sure I make the team. That was always brought up.”
But Fenton is already on record saying that he wants to contribute in any way he can.
“I just felt like I had a lot more to prove with everything,” he said after the draft. “Just more so not as a complete cornerback, but as a complete athlete. Being able to bring more to the table than being a lockdown corner. I feel like I was able to prove that in my three years at South Carolina starting there. I just also wanted to be able to prove that I can bring more to the table. That’s more so what I wanted to do just being selected: I wanted to just bring more to the table than was obviously shown.”