When D.J. Dean was a teenager, an unlikely guest showed up at a family reunion.
It was Michael Strahan, the eventual Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end for the New York Giants. As it turned out, Strahan and Dean were distant cousins with a passion for football.
“I didn’t know he was going to be there,” Dean said. “I said, ‘That’s Michael Strahan. That’s a Super Bowl champion right there.’
“He’s just a normal guy in the family.”
Dean isn’t sure of the relation to Strahan, but one thing he does know is that football runs deep in the family. He describes his hometown of Newton, population 2,500 in southeast Texas as the kind you see on “Friday Night Lights” where, “Football is everything.”
His uncle, Kevin Dean, was a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s. His cousin, Bryan Smith, had a brief stint in the NFL six years ago.
“I’ve seen how it can change your family’s life,” Dean said. “(My uncle) developed his own business and is taking care of his family. I want to take care of my family the same way.”
Entering his junior season at Arkansas, Dean hopes to make an impact that will put him on the same route as his kin. As a projected starting cornerback in college football’s best conference, he has the platform to do just that.
“In high school your junior year is your recruiting year, and in college your junior year is your recruiting year,” Dean said. “I’m just trying to get my name out there this year.
“I want to go to the league. That’s what it takes to get there.”
Dean emerged during spring practice as a better player. He broke up a pass in the spring game and was one of the secondary’s best pass defenders in scrimmages.
He credits the off-season success to a change in attention to detail and a change in attitude.
“I just really bought into the program and bought into what the coaches were saying,” Dean said. “Last year I was really just playing, to me, but this year i’ve really focused on my technique in the spring time.
“I knew what to do last year, but I wasn’t really honed in and focused on it. I’m really focused now.”
Dean said he’s more cognizant of his technique, but also the technique of the opposing receiver. He said he better understands routes based on the position of the receiver’s hips and feet.
“He’s a fun player to be around,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “He works hard and tries to do all the little things. He’s tough and physical. He disrupts what the receivers are trying to do.
“Both D.J. and Jared Collins play with a lot of confidence. They got better during the season, week-in and week-out. They understand what we want them to do at cornerback. I think they both matured and that helped their focus.”
Dean said playing football became fun again as a sophomore. A winless 2013 season was unchartered territory for the cornerback and he said the season took a toll psychologically.
“That first season was bad,” Dean said. “People just knew we were going to lose. Now we feel like we’ve got a chance every time we come out. “I had never lost that many games my whole life. I came here wanting to win and thinking I was going to win. Not everyone had that same mindset. Now we have a bunch of people that want to win and it’s going to be a great turnaround year this year.”
Any Arkansas turnaround in 2015 can be attributed to what happened within the defense late in 2014. The Razorbacks transformed from a team that gave up too many big plays early in the year to one that recorded back-to-back shutouts over ranked SEC teams for the first time.
The secondary was exposed during a game against Texas A&M. The Aggies had touchdown passes of 59, 86 and 25 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime, rallying from a 14-point deficit.
“That was supposed to be the game where we started our turnaround but things went south in the fourth quarter,” Dean said. “We gave up too many big plays. They say if you give up more than one, you most likely lose. We gave up three or four that game.”
After a bye week, the turnaround began against Alabama. Arkansas held eventual Heisman finalist Amari Cooper to two receptions for 22 yards, his worst performance of the season.
There were still some lumps to be taken. Mississippi State hit a 69-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of a 17-10 win, and Missouri wore down the secondary in the fourth quarter of a comeback to end the regular season.
But overall, Arkansas’ numbers dropped considerably in pass defense last season - the first for Smith and secondary coach Clay Jennings. The Razorbacks’ new defensive coaches focused on simplifying play calls, making it easier for players to react instead of overthink.
“One plus one equals two,” Dean said. “Now we don’t have all these equations. There was too much stuff to know. Now they make it simple to understand and to know what to do.”
Dean said he thinks the second year with those coaches will feature more improvement. Smith didn’t call much press coverage last season, but Dean said to expect it more this year.
“That’s what I love to do,” Dean said. “All of us love being physical and disrupting receivers, and that’s the best way to do it.
“We got to press a lot more in the spring. That’s what we want to do.”
And it’s an ability NFL teams want to see from rising cornerbacks. If Dean can master the art, he just might realize his familial dream.
“We’re not giving up any big plays,” Dean said. “That’s the goal. It seems like everybody knows what to do and everybody is just flying to the ball.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that other people respect you on the team and know you’re going to get the job done; you’re one of the guys they can count on to come through in the clutch.”
Dean Wants to Follow Kin
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