Ukeme Eligwe is learning to trust his eyes, which is rarely a quick process for a rookie NFL linebacker.
In Monday’s Chiefs training camp practice, the second in pads, Eligwe read and broke up a short pass over the middle from quarterback Alex Smith intended for running back Spencer Ware.
“I was actually was mad I didn’t catch it,” Eligwe said. “(Spencer) came in and kind of broke it up from me, because I had inside position. I would have caught it.”
But that brief moment of disappointment didn’t keep Eligwe — who was running with the first-string defense — from celebrating the play with the “incomplete” arm gesture.
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“No sir, don’t come my way,” Eligwe said with a laugh.
Eligwe, the Chiefs’ 6-foot-2, 239-pound fifth-round pick from Georgia Southern, is one of seven inside linebackers who have earned first-string reps throughout training camp. Derrick Johnson is a lock to start, barring injury, while Ramik Wilson, Josh Mauga, Justin March-Lillard have all earned significant starting reps with the team. Terrence Smith has also logged meaningful defensive snaps in the regular season, as has Kevin Pierre-Louis, who the team recently acquired from Seattle for special teams ace D.J. Alexander.
If that sure sounds like a lot of capable, experienced bodies for four or only five roster spots … you’d be correct. And that’s why the Chiefs keep rotating so many guys through the first string.
“The thing you want to do is get guys up at different groups to see how they are going to play against really good competition (and) also how they respond to the other guys around them,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “We obviously have a long way to go in camp, so we are going to get a lot of guys reps in here. I think that it will be good for us.”
Eligwe, who was credited with a team-high 104 tackles, including 9 1/2 for loss, last season at Georgia Southern, has made an impression.
“I think he is going to be a really good player,” Sutton said. “Since he has been in here, he’s worked really hard at it, diligently. He studies hard. He loves to play.
“I think he has a physical presence in there, he knows the game. He is just going to get better and better. I think he has a bright future.”
Another thing Eligwe has going for him is his special-teams ability, which is always a boon when it comes to a young player’s chances to make the roster. Special teams coach Dave Toub is widely regarded as one of the best in the business — his opinion will carry some weight at the 53-man deadline a month from now.
“Eligwe is a linebacker, no question,” Toub said. “I have already got him started on (the) punt (team), so that says a lot about him. I really see a bright future for him.
“He may not be with me for a long time because he may be on defense because he is that good.”
Eligwe is remaining humble, however. He knows he still has much to learn, and much to prove. But he has enjoyed his time with the first string, and feels it has helped the game slow down for him against the run, which is his biggest area of focus, other than mastering the scheme.
“I need to get off those blockers real fast,” Eligwe said. “I have long arms, so I tend to shoot with the blocker and stay on a little too long. I need to get rid of blockers real quick so I can make the play. Other than that, I’m diagnosing it.
“I definitely feel like I’ve gotten way better. Day by day, I’m getting faster and more comfortable.”
Another thing Eligwe has going for him is a brief history a 3-4 defense, which the Chiefs run. It’s the same scheme he learned during his short tenure at Florida State, where he attended before he landed at Georgia Southern because of a violation of team rules.
“It’s just different verbiage, of course, but the same defense — so I understand it,” Eligwe said.
Eligwe is looking forward to the chance to prove it in the actually preseason games, the first of which — at home against San Francisco on Friday, Aug. 11 — is only days away.
“You know, you want that respect from your teammates, first and foremost,” Eligwe said. “Your teammates are the ones who look at you and go ‘OK, this guy’s a baller.’ So I want to prove myself in those preseason games.”