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Graney: A draft-day steal, Nate Hobbs chases greatness

They still talk and text almost weekly. Still remind each other about the central theme to “The Last Dance,” a documentary about Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls.

“Jordan took anything he could find to use as motivation,” said Keynodo Hudson. “Anything to fuel his fire, even if it wasn’t directly about him. He used it for his benefit.

“That’s Nate Hobbs.”

You can’t see it but it’s still there. The chip sitting directly on the shoulder of Hobbs, a second-year cornerback with the Raiders who has quickly established himself among the NFL’s best at his position.

Which is the weird part, considering how many spots he fills in the secondary.

Hudson is a secondary coach at Western Kentucky, a position similar to one he held when tutoring Hobbs at Illinois.

It was the lone Power Five offer that Hobbs — who didn’t make the high school varsity team until his junior season — received out of Male High School in Louisville, Kentucky. Had to search for believers back then, too.

Give credit where it’s due: As often as they failed with high picks gone terribly wrong, former Raiders coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock struck proverbial gold when selecting Hobbs in the fifth round of the 2021 draft. He was the 167th choice overall.

Passing on him

“I won’t forget the guys who were taken before me,” Hobbs said in an introductory call with the media. “I’m just so thankful for the Raiders for taking a chance. They won’t regret it. They’re getting the best underdog they’ve ever drafted.”

I can’t imagine how many teams still kick themselves for passing on him. He was limited to five games as a senior at Illinois due to a shoulder injury. Maybe that’s why he slipped.

But his entire college resumé as a three-year starter in the Big Ten (166 tackles, three interceptions) suggested those grading him missed. Perhaps badly.

“I try to prove myself every day because this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world and definitely a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league,” Hobbs said this week. “The older I get, the more I realize I can’t let what others think control me. Whether it’s bad or all the good things they’re saying about me now.

“It’s good to have your work acknowledged. But I want to be one of the best. I have that drive. I just have to stay grounded. Humble. That will carry me through.”

He’ll also carry much of the load defensively.

Hobbs as a rookie played in the slot, accounting for 74 tackles, a sack and an interception. But he will be all over the field this year, much as he was in a 24-19 season-opening loss to the Chargers.

Inside. Outside. In the box. Even at the line of scrimmage. He was outstanding, particularly in coverage. Had nine tackles. He’s 23.

He’ll likely see even more work on the outside now that Anthony Averett, who went down with a broken thumb against the Chargers, was placed on injured reserve.

“You really just have to change your mindset whether you’re playing (inside or outside),” said the 6-foot-1, 196-pound Hobbs. “Change your rules. It takes more athleticism to play outside. But it’s football. Any time you step on an NFL field, there has to be a certain amount of focus.”

He was under-recruited out of high school because he was a bit undersized, not physically mature enough to draw the interest of major college programs. But no one ever questioned his athleticism. No one dare do that.

Lovie Smith was head coach at Illinois then who preferred that cornerbacks were willing to tackle and yet owned dynamic wide receiver skills — lots of size and speed.

All of which fit Hobbs, a 7-foot high jumper.

“That cat could jump out of the gym and run like a deer,” Hudson said. “We knew his best football was ahead of him once he filled out.”

Chasing the jacket

Hudson is convinced that playing for Smith — now coach of the Houston Texans who previously coached the Bears and Buccaneers — accelerated Hobbs’ growth. Being taught in college by those with NFL experience. On how things are done at the highest level.

Patrick Graham also saw it. While with the Giants, the defensive coordinator for the Raiders evaluated Hobbs as a draft-eligible player, but wasn’t sure he could step in and start as a rookie. Got that one wrong.

Now, Graham spends his time telling Hobbs how proud he is of his development.

The Raiders are like most teams — desiring versatile secondary players who can move around to different spots and force the offense to react. They just happen to have a special one in Hobbs.

“I’m not surprised at anything he has done,” Hudson said. “A shark eats and that’s how Nate was raised — that’s his mindset. He’s extremely hungry, extremely competitive. He’s going to carry that chip on his shoulder.

“It’s not just a job for Nate. He is there to chase a yellow jacket,” Hudson said referring to Hobbs’ Pro Football Hall of Fame ambitions. “He wants to be great.”

Anything to fuel his fire.

That’s Nate Hobbs.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.