WESTFIELD – Cato June’s reputation preceded him.
“Yeah, I knew about him,’’ E.J. Speed said. “I knew he played linebacker, went deep to the Super Bowl and played well.
“I watched his film.’’
It was late February and the Indianapolis Colts were taking a wrecking ball to their defensive coaching staff. One of the shiny new parts was a blast from the past. June was brought in to oversee the linebackers room.
“I knew him before he was named,’’ said Speed, one of those attentive faces in the room Junes was inheriting. “Then I really dove into it afterwards.
“He had a helluva career. He was a good turnover (guy).’’
Shaquille Leonard led the Colts with five interceptions in 2019, a contributing factor to securing a second-team All-Pro nod. It was the most interceptions by a Colts’ linebacker since . . . Cato June in 2005. That season, he snatched five, returned two for touchdowns, and became the first Colt at his position named to the Pro Bowl since Duane Bickett in 1987.
Not only did Speed notice June’s instincts – 10 interceptions, 20 passes defenses, 13 tackles for loss in 45 games from 2004-06 – but he recognized what made him a quality linebacker.
“Just his mentality, his mindset for the game,’’ he said. “The mentality of football isn’t going to change for generations to come.’’
When June addresses his group, they pay attention.
“Just having somebody who’s been having played this game and at a high level for a long time,’’ Speed said. “You can always get bits and pieces from them from time to time and add to your game.
“You can trust what he says because he’s done it. He’s been out there.’’
However, one teaching tool has been missing. June hasn’t slid in a video of highlight clips from his seven-year NFL career.
“He’s quiet on that,’’ Speed said with a smile. “But we’ve pulled up the film. We vouch for him.’’
That’s been a core belief for June, whether he was taking the first step on his coaching journey – head coach at his alma mater, Anacostia H.S. in Washington D.C. – or Charles Herbert Flowers (Md.) H.S., Howard University, UMass or Bowling Green.
Don’t dwell on the past. Live for the future. And always make it about the team.
“When I left football and went straight into high school coaching in D.C., I didn’t want to make it about me,’’ June said. “You know, ‘Oh, I’m an NFL player.’
“I wanted it to be about the kids. I didn’t expect them to know who I was.’’
He paused and smiled. He recalled a chance meeting with one of his Anacostia players so many years ago. June was getting into his car, which was parked in the alley behind the school.
Player: Hey, coach, somebody said you won the Super Bowl.
June: Yeah, I won the Super Bowl.
Player: No you didn’t. Let me see your ring.
June: What, you think I walk around with my ring?
“That’s how kids are,’’ June said, laughing. “But I didn’t want it to be about me and I don’t want it to be about me and what I might have done. The more I can remove myself from that, the better coach I’ll be.
“My job is to help make them the best player they can be.’’
So, no highlight videos.
“That’s the worst thing you can think about,’’ June said. “If I just go in there and I’m always talking about me and what I used to do, no one wants to see that. I was fun, it was a blast and we won a lot of games. They can’t take that away from me.’’
From 2003-06 – June was a 6th-round draft pick in ’03 and rode free agency to Tampa Bay in ’07 – the Colts were 50-14, reached the playoffs each season, advanced to two AFC Championship games and won Super Bowl XLI.
“But I don’t want to live in the past,’’ he said. “I want to see what’s next in life. If those are my best days, shoot, I want my best days to be in front of me.’’
And that brings us back to E.J. Speed.
His best days should be ahead of him. The 2019 5th-round pick has made his mark to this point on special teams – with a smidgen of defense – and is in line for an expanded role at linebacker.
When June began getting up to speed with his linebacker corps – no pun intended – he initially relied on internal dialogue when assessing Speed.
“I was going off of other people’s evaluations: a guy that loves ball, a guy that’s aggressive, is very athletic, very high ceiling. Everyone was just looking for him to reach his potential,’’ June said.
And now? After getting hands-on experience with Speed during OTAs, minicamp and the first three-plus weeks of training camp at Grand Park Sports Campus?
“What I’m seeing is a guy who has talent and now he’s trying to put it together,’’ June said. “When he puts it together, you’ll see a lot of splash plays out there like we saw in the game.’’
Late in the second quarter in the preseason opener at Buffalo, the Bills faced a second-and-7. Case Keenum targeted running back Duke Johnson for what would have been a short gain and a manageable third-and-short.
Speed broke on the pass and delivered a jarring hit to Johnson, forcing an incompletion.
“He puts his foot in the ground and – wham! – he hits the guy and the ball pops out,’’ June said. “You’re looking for those splash plays and that’s what he is. He’s starting to come into his own and I’m excited to watch him grow.’’
One of the few negatives of camp thus far as been Leonard’s unavailability. He’s still in rehab mode after undergoing back surgery in June, and no timetable has been given for his return. It’s possible he won’t be cleared in time for the Sept. 11 opener at Houston.
Leonard’s absence has resulted in increased first-team reps for Speed. Bobby Okereke and Zaire Franklin are the top two ‘backers, but when coordinator Gus Bradley uses his base defense, Speed has been on the field as Leonard’s replacement.
“I had this same situation last year where I played behind D when he had his injuries going on,’’ Speed said. “Like I’ve proven many a time, when my number’s called, I’ll be ready to play . . . as a starter, as a backup.
“I’m more of a team guy, but selfishly, I want to play and I want to dominate.’’
When Leonard missed the Colts’ week 16 game at Arizona last season with COVID-19, Speed made his only career start. In what at the time was a huge 22-16 win, he contributed nine tackles, including eight solos and one pass defensed.
It marked Speed’s heaviest defensive workload of his career. By far. He was on the field for all 65 snaps. His previous high: 28 snaps against the Raiders as a rookie.
In 44 career games, Speed has been on the field for 180 defensive snaps and 637 special teams snaps.
That’s not to infer Speed hasn’t made a difference. The 6-4, 232-pounder has been a core special teams player. Twice he’s been named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
Last season, Speed had a pair of touchdowns on blocked punts: the first a 12-yard return against Jacksonville on Zaire Franklin’s block and the second a recovery in the end zone against New England following Matthew Adams’ block. In 2020, he smothered a punt at Tennessee that T.J. Carrie returned for a TD.
“Special teams is a big thing here,’’ Speed said. “The mentality of our special teams has always been to change the game.’’
He recalled a conversation with former safety/special teams standout Clayton Geathers early in his rookie season.
“That was a guy who helped me put things together,’’ Speed said. “He told us from day 1, ‘You’re going to play fast and physical and you’re going to play disciplined. Special teams is a big thing.’
“And I took it to heart.’’
It was reminiscent of Junes’ indoctrination with the Colts. Before he was an ’05 Pro Bowler and an ’06 Super Bowl champion, he made a difference on special teams. June had eight tackles on defense in 11 games as a rookie, but his nine total special teams tackles ranked second on the team.
He emerged in ’04 and started 45 games over the next three seasons.
“You find a way to help your team,’’ June said. “Everybody has a role to play and everybody shares in the victory.’’
Speed possesses a similar mindset.
“I’ve got goals for myself,’’ he said. “Any opportunity that’s given to me, whether it’s at linebacker or special teams, I’m going to make the most of it.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.