Cliff Harris flipped on the tape and nearly flipped out.
The Cowboys legend and Pro Football Hall of Fame safety was doing research for the award named in his honor, when he started watching the highlight reel of Sam Roberts, a defensive end from Northwest Missouri State.
“When I saw his game film, I was like, ‘Oh man, he’s a winner,’ " Harris said Tuesday from his home outside Dallas. “If I had been an offensive tackle, I would not have wanted to have Sam nose-to-nose with me for a whole game. He was beating those guys pretty easily … I kept thinking, ‘Oh, those poor offensive tackles.’ "
The Cliff Harris Award goes to the nation’s top defensive player from Division 2, 3, and NAIA colleges. Harris, along with his committee, which includes such luminaries as Roger Staubach, Drew Pearson, and Gene Stallings, sift through up to 150 candidates before naming a winner.
Roberts, who finished his Bearcat career with 18½ sacks and 47 tackles for loss, was an easy choice for the honor, and for the Patriots, who selected him in the sixth round of the draft.
At 6 feet 5 inches and nearly 300 pounds, Roberts has classic defensive end size but also the quickness and athleticism that could eventually allow him to develop into an inside threat, as well.
This kind of technique versatility up and down the line is something the Patriots covet, with such stalwarts as Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Trey Flowers deployed in this manner over the years.
Coming from a small school, it will take time and coaching for Roberts to develop, though he could make an immediate impact as a special teams contributor (he blocked five kicks during his college career).
Harris, who knows what it was like to come from a small school (he was undrafted out of Ouachita Baptist), said the attitude he took when he arrived in Dallas still holds true and that was the big piece of advice he gave Roberts after he was drafted.
“Don’t be taken back or threatened. Go 100 percent and you can beat those pros just like you did to those guys that you beat in college,” Harris said. “That’s the mentality you to have to go into the game with. It’s a level up and you’ve got to step up to the fight and win it.”
Harris, who earned the nickname “Captain Crash” during his 10-year career, said he also passed on Tom Landry’s motto to Roberts.
“Anticipation beats reaction in anything that you do,” Harris said. “When you go into something anticipating what to expect instead of just reacting to it, you can win much easier.”
Here’s a look at some other rookies, who have been in Foxborough all week, who could surprise and contribute this season.
The competition for cornerback jobs and snaps will be among the most hotly contested this summer and Jones should be in the thick of it.
The fourth-rounder is a lanky 5-11, 175 with excellent quickness and aggressiveness. Jones excels at checking his man at the line and will stay on the receiver’s hip throughout the route because of his ability to turn and go fluidly. The Patriots have an excellent track record in developing corners and Jones could be next in line.
Similar in stature to Roberts, Ray (6-5, 285) is due for a lucky streak after being bitten by the injury bug multiple times (foot, ankle, elbow, and groin) during his five seasons at Alabama, where he was limited to 44 games.
Ray’s biggest strength is his strength, and he will be asked to anchor and set the edge as a rotational player.
It’s hard not to get excited about this dynamo back when watching his highlights. He runs with excellent balance and speed, and he possesses the patience and discipline to follow his blockers, allowing him to get to the second level and churn out the yards.
Strong (5-11, 207) also has soft hands and could be the next in New England’s long line of talented third-down backs.
Could blow the top off defenses in college with his track star speed. Big question is if his comparative lack of bulk (6-2, 181) will allow the second-round receiver to get off the line against NFL defenders.
Thornton laughed off questions about the now famous “skinny wrists” description in his scouting report and said this spring he’s getting stronger in the weight room. Thornton’s speed must be respected, and at the very least he should create space for his fellow receivers.