For most of yesterday’s press conference, and for probably the rest of the week, the focus around UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin was central to a lone topic. For his entire football life, Griffin has played the game without a left hand. Don’t get me wrong; it’s an important part of his story, certainly a unique one, and in many ways, absolutely inspiring. But it isn’t the only chapter in his book. First and foremost, any team who takes the chance on Griffin is going to get one heck of a football player. One with the right attitude and approach for the NFL.
That’s what Griffin is out to prove. To make people forget about his hand, the questions, the concerns. Shift the focus on his game, his ability to help a defense improve, and a team win.
“The only thing I can do here is do what I already have been doing,” Griffin said at Monday’s opening Senior Bowl press conference. “Play hard. Play fast. Stay true to who I am. Have faith. And everything is going to play out just fine.”
What he’s been doing has been awfully impressive. He’s racked up 166 tackles, ten pass deflections, four forced fumbles, and two interceptions in two years as a starter. Griffin saved the best for last with 12 tackles, 3.5 for a loss, and 1.5 sacks in UCF’s statement bowl victory over Auburn, earning defensive MVP honors.
“As long as I’m going fast and making plays, they’re going to forget how many hands I have.”
Though he’s said he’s versatile to play anywhere on defense, or in any scheme, he’d be a strong candidate to play the Mack inside linebacker in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 3-4. It wouldn’t be a surprise for the team to have interest, and Griffin is can hold his own in coverage.
“Being all over the field. I’m able to grasp things really fast when it comes to coverage,” he said, pointing out the fact he’s played everywhere from defensive back to defensive end. “Throughout my years of college, I’ve been able to move back to safety, and be in hot man coverage, where I’m covering man-on-man against slot receivers. Speed was never a thing I’ve lacked. I’m very good with running with different receivers, running with running backs and feeling comfortable with what I’m doing. No matter what level I’m on, for you to outrun me on a deep route, you better come with it.”
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said similar back in November.
“A lot of times, we put him in man coverage and he’s eliminated a receiver and those stats don’t show up in a game, but it certainly helps our team,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in November.
He’s capable of rushing the passer with 18.5 sacks over his final two years. That blend of coverage, tackling, and blitzing checks all the boxes of an inside linebacker under Keith Butler.
At yesterday’s press conference, Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage personally vouched for Griffin and what he can offer the NFL.
“Shaquem is one of the most amazing stories of the whole college football season so it was quite an honor to be able to invite him to the game. It’s a highly unusual circumstance when you’re talking about someone trying to make the jump from college football to the NFL with one hand. To me, the floor with him is that he’s a special teams demon and some sort of backup defensive player, maybe as a linebacker. The upside to him is that he can come off the edge. He’s very effective as a pass rusher at different times in his career. He can walk out and play in space. He actually has quite a bit of versatility.”
The draft process is difficult for any prospect. Media hype, media criticism, the buzz, the false reports and info common with draft season. For Griffin, that’s probably magnified tenfold. But he has something most prospects don’t – a twin brother, Shaquill Griffin, who just finished up a successful rookie year with the Seattle Seahawks. Shaquill has offered advice throughout the draft process but in high school, offered an ultimatum with colleges who came calling, a true sign of bond between brothers: sign me and you have to sign my brother too. That decision came with consequences, some big schools backed out, but in the end, it’s worked out for both.
When practices begin Tuesday afternoon, the focus won’t be on what Griffin can’t do. Or what he’s perceived as being limited by. It’ll solely be on what he’s capable of. That begins with non-stop effort, setting the foundation for everything else about his game.
“I want to be known as the guy who is going to give everything he’s got, no matter what he is. I want to be known as a guy who has a motor. And just run all over the field. And not only not just have a motor on the field but enjoying it while he’s doing it. I don’t want to be looked as a guy with a disability or having a handicap.”
That’s what this week is about. To be a football player, not just a feature piece, and begin the path to his NFL career. Near the end of the Q&A, Griffin bluntly put it in those terms.
“After this week, everybody will know who I really am and what I’m really fighting for.”