Buffalo native Jimmy Gaines has had to prove himself his entire football life. An unheralded two-star recruit coming out of Canisius High School, Gaines wound up at the University of Miami only after then-Hurricanes head coach Randy Shannon gave him a scholarship offer late in the recruiting process. He only went to Miami after Turner Gill left Buffalo for the Kansas head-coaching job, which prompted him to de-commit from the hometown Bulls.
But Gaines couldn't catch a break with head coach continuity once in college either, as the gruff Al Golden replaced the more amicable Shannon after his freshman season. Gaines took it as a learning opportunity.
"It was different. They have different coaching styles," Gaines said of his two college coaches. "But I learned a whole lot from both. I was able to take gems from each coach. So I feel like I was privileged to have two coaches."
Gaines was the starting middle linebacker for the Hurricanes for his final 18 games, racking up 120 tackles, two interceptions, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in that span. But that production was not enough to get much attention from NFL scouts, as the 6-3, 240 pound linebacker was not even invited to the NFL combine in February. He did, however, perform well during the UM pro day with a 4.70 40-yard dash, 9-8 broad jump, and 33-inch vertical.
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And despite winning the 2013 Strength Training Athlete of the Year award at Miami Gaines says it his brains, not brawn, that sets him apart as a linebacker.
"Just being a student of the game really helps me out by understanding situations, by thinking through the game. I'm a very cerebral type of player so I like to think through the game and know what is to be expected when the offense comes out. I watch a lot of film, so I'm able to diagnose things a lot faster," Gaines said.
Although he was not drafted, multiple teams interested in signing him contacted Gaines immediately after the draft. The former Hurricane thought the Bills provided exactly what he was looking for out of a future employer.
"It just all happened to feel right, and that has nothing to do with me being from Buffalo either," Gaines said. "With the linebacker situation and the defensive scheme and what they are trying to do here, I was really interested."
Now with the Bills, he will once again have to play his way on to the field. He has been lining up at both outside linebacker spots during rookie minicamps, but knows that the most likely opportunity for immediate playing time will come on special teams units.
"At Miami I had to learn all three [linebacker] positions. Just doing that back at Miami really helped me out coming in here," Gaines said. "And I've played all the special teams in college. It's not foreign to me, so I'm able to do it all."
Now that he is back home, one would think Gaines has made a point to visit old friends and celebrate being in the NFL with his hometown team. However, he believes that there will always be time for that, but learning the intricacies of Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's defense is a priority.
"I've been studying my playbook," Gaines said. "And then I'll watch a little TV, but I'm just trying to focus, trying to learn. So I'm ready for whatever opportunity I have. I just want to learn so I can play fast."