It's early in the evening on Oct. 26, and College of San Mateo nickel back Sam Atoe has just dropped City College of San Francisco running back Daivon Ballard for a loss of two yards on first-and-10 in the first quarter. It's Atoe's second tackle for loss in two series, and the night's just begun.
Atoe comes to the sideline to talk with his defensive coordinator Tim Tulloch. His hand hurts a little bit, he says. Tulloch asks if he wants one of the team medical staff to look at it. Atoe tells him he wants to keep playing.
What neither of the two know is that Atoe has suffered a compound fracture in one of the middle metacarpal bones in his hand. Atoe finished the game, though he only tallied two more assisted tackles. Following the game, Atoe took his glove off, and looked down to see bone sticking out.
"He finally took the gloves off, and you could see it, and we said ‘Maybe we should get this taken care of,'" Tulloch laughs. "He's a beast."
That's just the kind of player Atoe was for Tulloch for these past two years. It's the exact type of player Tulloch knew he was getting when his former player – Phil Jordan – called him on the eve of classes in 2011 and told him that his younger brother – Atoe – could use a landing spot.
"I've got a great rapport with Phil. I always keep in touch with Phil, and Phil called and told me about Sam's situation and said, ‘Would you be interested in talking to him?' I said, ‘Absolutely.' It just kind of worked out," Tulloch says. "I took a look at him, I watched him on tape, and we talked. I said we wanted him to play defense, and he was working out with Santa Rosa, and they wanted him to play offense, and I guess he wanted to play on the defensive side of the ball. He had to make a quick decision, because we were starting classes.
"We were starting school the next day, and Sam had to kind of take a leap of faith, but he knew our program, kind of grew up around our program, with Phil playing here. He wanted to play on defense, and it just ended up being a great fit."
That leap of faith paid off for both player and coach, as Atoe became one of the emotional leaders for the Bulldogs, a role cemented by the fact that, despite missing the final two games with the broken hand (Atoe refused to sit out the next game against rival and eventual CCCAA state champion Butte CC, against whom he returned a kickoff for 15 yards and tallied three tackle, one tackle for loss, one sack and one fumble recovery), he won the team's Most Inspirational award on Monday night.
"He's an amazing young man," says Tulloch. "Forget Sam as a football player; he's just a great person. He's a leader. I try to bring my little kids around him as much as possible, and I hope they can grow up to be like him. He carries himself like a professional. He works his tail off. He has great energy all the time. He does everything right."
Atoe returned nine kickoffs for 267 yards and four punts for 27 yards as a sophomore for the Bulldogs, and on defense, racked up 41 tackles, 3.5 sacks, a team-leading 11.5 tackles for loss and one pass breakup.
"Sam, flat-out, he's a ballplayer. You can put Sam anywhere. You can put him at running back, you can put him at receiver, you can put him at DB, he's returned kicks, he's returned punts, he's covered punts, he's covered kicks, he drove the bus to away games – I think he did it all," Tulloch says. "Sam, seriously, he can play anywhere on our team and make us better."
Atoe has been around the field quite a bit since his days at Santa Rosa (Calif.) Maria Carrillo. He's played in the defensive backfield, tailback, inside linebacker and outside linebacker. He's found a home, though, at a position that takes advantage of all of his attributes.
"He played our Pit safety, he played free safety, he played nickel, he played dime. He played a little bit of everything for us," says Tulloch. "He played mostly down in the box or on the edge of the box for us this year, so he's comfortable doing it, and I think, at the next level, that's where he's going to excel. You see NFL teams going with less linebackers and more hybrid guys – guys that are athletic enough to play DB, but physical enough to play in the box. Sam's like that. If there's a guy that I would compare him to, he's got a little bit of Rodney Harrison in him. He's about that same size, he's got the same build."
Because of his unique skill set, Atoe was used regularly in the slot, where he was matched up against shiftier receivers.
"He can cover," Tulloch says. "He covered in the slot, then he'd go bang in the box with the linemen. He's confortable everywhere. When he gets to Cal, he's going to just ride in, and his work ethic is going to get him on the field, right off the bat. He's going to be a guy that, you're going to find a way to get a young man like that on the field – a guy who flies around, who, every play, is all out to the ball.
"You're going to find a place to get him on the field. They're going to play him as the field nickel, so underneath coverage, walling the No. 2 receiver vertical, blitzing off the edge, a lot of the underneath adjustments. He's going to do a lot of things for them."
BTC: Scouting Sam Atoe
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