He may not have a prototype NFL linebacker body and his 40 time might be far from blazing, but Bills rookie linebacker Keith Pough is about as big an undrafted playmaker as you're going to find on the defensive side of the ball. That's why the Howard University product has lofty goals as he prepares for Buffalo's rookie minicamp this weekend.
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"My expectations are to impress the coaches enough to be an instant contributor to the team," Pough told Buffalobills.com. "I know there are a lot of challenges in terms of learning the system and get used to the speed of the game, but that will come with time. My goal is nothing short of being a first-year starter and contributing right off the bat."
Pough (6'2" 239) was the 2012 MEAC Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his career with an astounding 71 tackles for loss, 28.5 of which came in his sophomore season when he led the nation in tackles behind the line.
While he admits his defensive coaches put him in good position to make plays, he also made sure he did his homework for upcoming opponents.
"I pride myself on film study and preparing for the game," said Pough. "So if you can kind of anticipate and know what the offensive coordinators like to do on certain downs or in certain situations, you can kind of scheme the defense or your play to dictate what the offense does and doesn't do."
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Pough said he was given ample opportunity to rush the passer for the Bison and had 10.5 sacks his sophomore season when he also logged 100 tackles. He upped his tackle total to 120 as a junior with 21 coming behind the line of scrimmage.
"I pride myself on being a pass rusher and great blitzer and if I'm one-on-one with a back I can never lose that situation," he said. "That's got to be an automatic win."
There are a few things that have helped to make Pough such a reliable tackler. While his film study puts him in the right place at the right time it's his unusually long arms (33 ½") and powerful hands that let few ball carriers slip from his grasp.
"I've been on a very strong regimen with the rice bucket every day," said Pough of the oil drum-size bucket that baseball players plunge their arms into to grip and twist their forearms 180 degrees. "Baseball players use it to strengthen their forearms and their hands so they can grip the bat. My father coached me throughout my life and he was big on me squeezing tennis balls and getting my hands in the rice bucket. Now all I have to do is grab your jersey and it's a tackle. That's what has allowed me to play at the level I have the past few years."
Pough's play at Howard earned him an invite to pay in the East-West Shrine game where he had a productive week and to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, but he ran a disappointing 40-time of 4.87. But Bills scout Tom Roth wasn't dissuaded.
"It did send me back to the game tape," said Roth of Pough's 40 time. "But he plays faster than that. His playing speed is closer to 4.75 because he anticipates so well."
"The 40-yard dash is not an accurate indicator of a football player and the speed you play with in games," said Pough. "The film speaks for itself and the eye in the sky doesn't lie at all. My motto has always been stopwatches don't make tackles."
When the draft came and went without hearing his name called, Pough was suddenly fielding undrafted free agent signing offers from several NFL teams, but in the end he chose Buffalo.
"I formed a good relationship with coach (Jim) O'Neil, the Bills linebackers coach," said Pough. "We had a great conversation at the Combine and we kind of clicked. It was something different in our conversation at the Combine. He reached out to me after the draft via text and then he got on the phone and we'd talk about five or 10 minutes and said he would love to have me. The Bills have a new coaching staff and they're running a scheme similar to the one I was running in college. I felt like it was a good fit for me."
Expected to line up at strong side linebacker for Buffalo, Pough believes his insatiable appetite to study film and know an opponent inside and out will serve him well in rookie minicamp this weekend. He understands how much it has allowed him to elevate his game. Now Pough aims to beat the odds and elevate his game once again with the Bills.
"My immediate goal right now is to be a first-year starter and I believe I have the opportunity to do that," he said. "That's predicated on how well I articulate our defense and learn it and be able to be a leader and not act as if I'm a rookie on the field. I've known this defense for a couple of years and I'll be seeing it again."