Having followed the NFL Draft for a few years now, I can say that one of the most disheartening aspects of the entire process is that so much of one’s “draft stock” depends on his connections and exposure. So when defensive back Malik Duncan from little St. Francis University approached me and the Breaking Football staff simply asking for us to take a look at his film, I couldn’t help but take him up on the offer.
On the surface, his resumé looked impressive. He was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the best defensive player in the Division 1 FCS and had previously been won by All-Pro caliber players like defensive end Jared Allen. On top of that, Duncan was a captain for the Red Flash as well as an All-American by multiple publications, and had an impressive track record throughout his senior season.
According to his bio on the SFU website, he had given up just three receptions against Northeast Conference opponents, and went his final 28 games without allowing a touchdown in coverage. So, sensing that Duncan may have an intriguing future, I decided to get to know him, both as a player and as a person.
DL: Can you start by telling me a little about yourself? What was it like growing up in Cleveland, and what brought you to the game?
MD: My name is Malik Duncan, and yes, I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. Growing up in Cleveland taught me so much–just how to be tougher and how to take things on the chin, and it also taught me how to never give up on things that you want in life. What brought me to the game was my grandmother, who passed away back in 2007. She would always say, “When are you going to start playing football like your brothers?”, so with her saying that, it made me want to play and to make her proud the best way I can.
DL: That’s a really good attitude to have. Would you say your grandmother was your role model growing up?
MD: I would say my whole family really are my role models. I love all of them to death and I just do everything in my power to keep them happy, and to take piece-by-piece different things that they do so I can apply it into my life by combining them.
DL: Now, can you talk about St. Francis a little bit? What made you choose to play and study there as opposed to anywhere else?
MD: SFU was one of the schools that I liked, and they were one of the schools that took a shot on me after I didn’t qualify at first, but they stuck around until I qualified, so it felt like family to me. And I love family so much, so that was the reason why I chose to study at and attend SFU. I was highly overlooked in high school because I only really played one season (my senior year). I used to be talked about so bad in high school — people used to call me “Rudy” because I dreamed about playing D1, but wasn’t really getting any playing time at all, so it motivated me. I remember going to a banquet with my father and not even receiving a participation award, so it was so many things that went on in my life that just made me always continue to fight and to never give up and to always believe and speak into existence.
DL: Were there any coaches that you had along the way that you found especially motivational or inspiring?
MD: Yes, sir! Of course my coaches at SFU currently — Coach Pecora, Coach Bishop Neal, Coach V — and previous coaches, like Coach White, Coach Twaun, Coach P.J., Coach Foot, Coach Lundy, Coach Craig… I could go on and on, but they all just taught me so many different things about being a better person, and being a better football player throughout my whole life, so I thank them for all the blessings that have come my way.
DL: Now, on your SFU profile, it says you were majoring in Criminal Justice. Is that what you’re going to get your degree in, and if so, is there a particular reason behind that?
MD: That was my plan coming in as a freshman, but I’m getting my degree in Marketing. I know how to talk to people and work with people, so I felt like marketing was a good major to go into.
DL: Yeah, that definitely makes sense. So, if it wasn’t for football, what do you think you’d pursue a career in?
MD: Coaching. I love to help people, and I just want to see a lot of people successful.
DL: What do you think about your college experience as a whole? Was it difficult balancing the workload of school with everything that comes with being an athlete?
MD: It wasn’t hard with the workload of school and everything. I’m pretty good with time management, and my college experience was amazing. I met some amazing people and just learned how to be a better person.
DL: Makes sense. Now, just a couple of strictly football questions, and that’ll wrap it up. Who in the NFL would you compare yourself to, and what do you think your 40 time will be when you run?
MD: I’ll say comparison of Charles Woodson and Richard Sherman without the length, and 4.5. But I also would say that I’m my own self because I have a unique strength that can be provided for teams.
DL: That’s really interesting, I noticed you mentioned Woodson, who was a safety at the end of his career. Would you also be OK with moving to safety if your coach thought that gave you and the team the best chance to succeed?
MD: I’ll play any position the team needs me to play. The coaches know the right thing to do, so I just listen to whatever they say.
DL: OK, last one. If there’s anything you want to say to the scouts and GMs out there, or any part of your story you want to get out, what would it be?
MD: They should draft me or take a chance on me because I’m a winner. I’m going to help them win, and the part of my story I want to get out is I never gave up through all the things I been through, especially not even playing really in high school — and I’m still proving people wrong.
DL: Ok, thanks again for taking the time out of your night to do this.
MD: Thank you so much!
All in all, regardless of what happens to Duncan come April, his story is still one to be appreciated. Growing up in urban Ohio, having to “take everything on the chin” had to be difficult enough, but to lose his grandmother — one of Duncan’s closest, most influential companions — must have been unimaginably devastating.
On top of that, Duncan has had to wrestle with adversity on the field his whole career. From failing to get substantial playing time early in his high school career, to being denied scholarship offers by countless top programs, to getting flak from doubters over his lofty aspirations, Duncan had to scale several obstacles just to get to where he is now.
In fact, it seemed as though Duncan continued to be overlooked at times when he was due to be praised. Although he was named one of 25 finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award, he finished dead last in the voting, and was the only nominee that failed to get a single first- or second-place vote, putting yet another chip on his shoulder.
Throughout my conversation with Duncan, I couldn’t help but get the sense that there were times throughout his life and career that he was his own greatest source of motivation. In the words of Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing… maybe the best of things,” and Duncan never seemed to lose sense of that sentiment, even while facing his greatest setbacks.
Moreover, Duncan came across as extremely eager and devoted to the game of football. He, after all, had been the one who sought us out, and has diligently maintained two YouTube channels worth of highlight videos from throughout his college career — his only sources of game film available to the public. While I can’t speak on Duncan’s coachability, he seemed sincerely willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of his team, and came off as a leader and hard worker.
The Film Study
As a prospect, Duncan has his fair share of both strengths and weaknesses. To start with the negatives; at just 5’10, 205 pounds, Duncan lacks the prototypical length that teams look for in top corners — something that he himself was willing to admit. On top of that, Duncan is a little rusty in his changes of direction, unlike Jalen Ramsey for instance, whose hip turns are so smooth that they seem to flow with his natural running motion. Duncan’s hips are slower, often come over the course of two short steps, and can sometimes cause him to lose ground on his man.
Duncan also has an occasional tendency to become overzealous, either by opening his hips too wide while trying to win inside leverage, or by over-committing to his man’s first move. In his videos, there were a number of cases when Duncan bit on the first part of a double move and ended up doing a full 360 before recovering.
With that said, though, there is also a great deal to like. Firstly, it is in Duncan’s tenacity. Just from talking to him, you get the sense that Duncan is a “football guy” through and through. On his film, you can clearly see it unfold. Duncan is a sound tackler that attacks runners head-on, wraps up around the waist, fights off blockers, and consistently beats runners to the edge. He is also physical at the tops of routes and fully willing to press.
Duncan’s most impressive trait, however, is his football I.Q. As a freshman against Robert Morris, his subtle smarts in zone coverage were already on display. Defending against a “smash” concept out of the slot, Duncan drifted right to cut off the quarterback’s first read — the curl route — then slid back over the middle, as the the quarterback tried to force a touch pass to the deeper corner route, to come down with a leaping interception.
Later in his college career, Duncan began to thrive in off-man coverage, occasionally breaking on passes underneath before the quarterback would even begin his throwing motion. Additionally, Duncan showed tremendous closing speed to undercut routes, making him even more disruptive.
With such a unique combination of traits, Duncan may not be draftable as a pure, man-up corner, but could find a legitimate niche in the NFL as either a zone corner or a high safety. Simply put, Duncan is excellent at playing with his eyes to the quarterback.
He breaks on the ball with both explosion and efficiency, has enough flexibility to come around receivers to get his hand in and break up passes, and can even lay a big hit from time to time. While there are areas that he must improve on — for instance, he has to become more consistent at winning inside position against receivers on deeper routes — Duncan’s instincts are highly promising.
Having been doubted his whole career, it seems almost inevitable that little-known, scarcely watched Malik Duncan will only be overlooked again as the draft cycle rolls around. Admittedly, he is far from a perfect prospect. However, for all his flaws, Duncan is still a team captain, an FCS All-American, and an intelligent, high-character player and person, and deserves, at the very least, a chance to compete for a roster spot in preseason.