Q&A with DE Rob Ninkovich

Purdue defensive end Rob Ninkovich is being viewed as a prospect for both defensive end and outside linebacker (and even tight end by one team). His versatility and special teams ability make him an intriguing second-day draft prospect for the Redskins. He talked with Scout.com's Ed Thompson in this exclusive Q&A.

Q: With five games remaining in your senior year, you replaced Ray Edwards as the starter. That had to fill you with some mixed emotions, because you had to be thrilled for yourself, but obviously for another teammate to go to the bench at that point in the season was tough.

A: Yeah, but the thing is -- from my perspective -- if you were in my shoes for my two years at Purdue I wasn't really a second-string guy who only went in for somebody who was tired or hurt. Throughout my whole career there I was in a three-man rotation, even though I got the starting spot we were still rotating. So instead of rotating me and Ray I was basically the guy who stayed in the whole game and Ray and (Anthony) Spencer rotated. It was a little bit different because they wanted to consistently put pressure on the quarterback and I was able to do that. It was just one of those things where if you're performing you get the benefits of starting and playing more.

Q: Let me take you back to October 23rd. You get your first start, five tackles, including a sack on Wisconsin QB John Stocco, a pass breakup and you pick off a pass that was tipped by a teammate. That's not a bad debut.

A: That's something I could have done for two years straight. It was just, with the amount of plays I had before, I was still having the same average of tackles and sacks as someone would have for playing the whole game. When I got the opportunity to start it gave me more opportunity have more tackles, sacks, batted balls, interceptions and all that. My whole perspective on playing football is to bring it all during every play and I try to wear out the offensive tackle. I'm pretty durable out there so I just keep going and going and going.

Q: A month later you put your name in the record books against Indiana with seven tackles for loss and four sacks. By the time you got to that point do you think the coaches were asking themselves why it took them so long to get you in there as a starter?

A: Like I said before I'm not one to say anything to the coaches, but after the season they came up to me and said "you did a great job and we probably should have started you five games before we did", but you know, that's just the way it went. In a way it helped me. I was making plays before I started, but when they finally put me in the starting spot it was just an explosion in me to go out and kill every team that was going against me. 
It was a nice little farewell to my career there, especially because Indiana is our big rivalry and I was just able to beat up everybody out there. It felt good.

Q: Then you're voted the MVP. Was that the final icing on the cake and that final affirmation that you finally did make it?

A: Yeah because as you talk to somebody and they find out you only started the final five games and they kinda say "really?" but it's not just about the starting, it's about the type of person I am on the field and off the field. I love to work out and get better for the next season. I worked really hard and it was a great feeling of accomplishment for me to get that MVP trophy for the season.

Q: Tell us why you were so successful at rushing the passer. 

RN: Some guys have the ability to get around the corner – it's all about balance for me, and I've been able to do that ever since I was a kid, playing in the backyard with my friends. I've always been able to move my body very well. I've always been very flexible. Every level I've played at – high school, junior college, Big Ten, I was the best pass rusher on the team. I was the quickest off the ball, and the best with my hands. It's just something that I don't think you can really teach – just a natural ability to get around the corner. Some guys just can't bend the way I can – I try to grab grass, get my shoulders as low as I can, and get underneath the tackle. 

The thing about pass rushing is – everything comes off of speed. Once you've got the offensive tackle thinking, "He's going to beat me with speed around the corner," that's when you can work everything else. That's when you can do your counter-moves, come underneath him, that's where you can bull rush…everything. Once a guy can scare the offensive tackle with their speed, and getting around the corner, beating them as fast as they can – three yards behind him – that's when everything else falls into place. 

Q: The Colts' Dwight Freeney gets knocked from time to time that his technique for rushing the passer makes him a little bit less effective against the run. I saw one article in which a similar inference was made about you. What's you assessment of your skill against the run, compared to the pass?

RN: It depends on the type of defense you're running, really. If you're going to run a defense where the defensive ends are always pass rushing every time, you should have the linebackers help you a little bit. What I do is, every down, I get off the ball and pass rush. Based on the tackle, I'm reading him on the fly. If he's going to come out at me like he's blocking me, I can use my hands and sit on the line of scrimmage – use my hands to my advantage and help myself against the run. If it's a pass, and I'm getting off the ball as fast as I am, if he steps back, I go right into my pass rush. There are times where if you get off in your pass rush, and they're running a draw or something, that's where it can hurt you. 

But with me, I'm always running to the ball and I'm relentless. A lot of my tackles have come from re-directing myself, and coming back and making plays five or ten yards down the field. That's something that a lot of players don't utilize – always running to the ball. I don't care if the ball is twenty yards down the field, I'm getting to the ball. That's just the way I've been. 

Q: Purdue uses a similar defensive philosophy to the one used by the Colts – using quick, athletic players on defense and letting them fly to the ball. How much interest have you drawn from teams like Indianapolis, Tampa or Chicago, that use more of that Cover Two (defense) with athletic players?

RN: I've gotten a lot of interest from a lot of teams, actually. I visited with Miami on Wednesday. I've had four workouts with 3-4 (defense) teams, because some teams see me as an outside linebacker or inside linebacker that can go out on third down and pass rush. Then, also, the Detroit Lions and a few other teams see me as a defensive end. It's going to be interesting to see what teams want to utilize me – what they want to do with me – because I'm very versatile. The Denver Broncos said something about me playing tight end, and I've done that in the past, as well. I'm not sure what role I'll be used in, but whatever I do, I'm going to be the best at it. I'm very comfortable playing linebacker, because I'm very good at moving and changing directions. That's probably my best asset as a player; my quickness in changing direction. 

Q: Just listening to you talk about the game of football – I've interviewed a lot of college players this off-season – I can really see and hear your mind working, breaking things down and thinking things through. You seem much more a student of the game than the typical college player I've interviewed; somebody who really understands his role out there on he field, and someone who understands how to get the best out of his skills. Is that a fair assessment? 

RN: Yeah, most definitely, I'm a student of the game, as well. You have to know everything that's going on You've got to know everyone else's assignments, because the biggest thing about football is that everyone has their own assignment, and when everyone can work together and do their assignment, that's what makes a great defense. 

All the great defenses do that. They all run to the ball, and they all know each other's assignments. The week before a game, I'll get a study tape and try to see what the (opposing) team is doing…what their favorite plays are. If a team has a favorite play…you know, every team has about five plays that they like to run. Some coaches, if they have success with one play, they'll run the same play and just do different formations of it. 

So, a lot of the time before the game even starts, I'm watching a lot of tape and studying what the other team's going to do. Through the week, when I'm practicing, I'm flying around like it's a game. Every week, it's a new challenge to learn another team - what they're doing – and having another great game.

Q: It's tough to break into the NFL these days as a rookie and grab a starting job right away. Do you see yourself, in your first year in the NFL, as being a Robert Mathis-type player – a dominant pass-rush specialist who's rotated in, and is also a big contributor on special teams?

RN: I could see that, but the type of player I am, I really feel that it's going to take me - I'll probably give myself a week, and I'll have learned a lot of the stuff we're going to do (on) the team. I'll study, study, study, right when camp starts. I really don't know, because I see myself as a starter. When I went to Purdue, I was a starter, and everything I did prior to that…even at Purdue, I didn't see myself as a second-string guy. I was always playing and making plays. 

So, at the next level, I want to contribute and make an impact on special teams, number one, because as a rookie, that's going to be your biggest challenge – to make an impact on special teams. With that special teams play, I want to get on the field, and get my feet wet, and get up there and make some plays. Get out there on the pass rush and, you know, even play on first and second down. 

Q: What level of experience do you have on special teams?

A: On special teams I long-snapped for two years at my junior college and I was also the backup long-snapper for Purdue so I've been doing it for four straight years. I also did kickoff, kickoff return and punts.

Q: Any unit out of all of them that you really enjoyed more than others?

A: I really liked kickoff returns. I was the left end so I got to go back and set the wedge and get back there and look for someone to blow up … I loved it.

Q: Usually guys pick kickoff coverage because they like to get down there and track guys down, so that's a pretty interesting perspective.

A: I like the guys coming down full speed so I can take them out and they don't even see me coming. I like to catch them right under the chin. It makes you feel real good about helping the guy behind you and your team out with better field position so I just really like kickoff return.

Q: Who did you have formal interviews with at the Combine?

RN: Seattle, Cleveland, St. Louis, Tennessee, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Washington, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Dallas.

Q: Who have you had a personal workout with, or have some scheduled with?

RN: Philadelphia, Dallas, Cleveland, and New England.

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