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The Ball Hawk, part 2 | Inside Emmanuel Forbes' 'elite' ball skills in high school

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The term "ball hawk" is thrown around a lot these days. 

That was the sentiment general manager Martin Mayhew began his and head coach Ron Rivera’s joint press conference with on the first night of the 2023 NFL Draft. There are certainly some players who deserve the title, and almost any NFL fan could probably come up with a list of defensive backs who they think fit the description because of a pass breakup, an interception or even a pick-six. 

For the Commanders, however, the search for a ball hawk -- someone who can help turn an already above average defense into the gold standard of the league -- was about more than finding a player who occasionally creates a game-changing moment. For them, it was about taking a player who could consistently be relied upon to change the tides for his unit and have a reverberating effect on the entire time. 

The Commanders think they have one in Emmanuel Forbes. 

"The guy is an impact player," Mayhew said. "He's one of my favorite guys in this draft. From studying all these guys, he really was a guy that it was really fun to watch, because the guy gets the ball." 

Most Commanders fans are familiar with Forbes' reputation for being one of the best cornerbacks in all of college football. The highlights include 14 career interceptions, six of which were returned for touchdowns -- an FBS record; an 89.6 cover grade among cornerbacks last year, which was the best among all SEC cornerbacks; 150 career tackles; and 20 career pass breakups.  

Say what you want about Forbes reporting to the combine at 166 pounds. He still put up some of the best numbers for his position, and he did so in college football's best conference. 

"I'm not going to stress about it," Forbes said after he was drafted. "They [Washington] didn't have a problem with it." 

Like every other NFL player, Forbes went on a journey to get to this point. What started out as an opportunity to bond with his brothers turned into a passion, and from there, he turned into one of the best high school athletes in Mississippi and eventually one of the best student athletes in Mississippi State's illustrious history. 

Now, Forbes is getting ready to take the first step in what he hopes will be a long NFL career. Who knows how it will turn out, but if his past is any indication, he is set up to have a bright future. 

"I'm going to bring a guy that's going to have a great attitude, come in and work every day, just helping the team win games and hopefully my game is turning the ball over and create a lot of turnovers for the Washington Commanders."

Part 2: "He's going to score"

As the longtime head coach of Grenada High School, Ashley Kuhn liked to keep an eye on his future players by staying in touch with the local junior high program. 

Kuhn, who ran the high school football program for 12 seasons, did his best to see the potential talent he would soon have to work with in person. He would attend practice every now and then and occasionally catch some games, but most of his intel came from the coaches who would tell him to pay a little more attention to a group of players who could be special. 

One of them was a skinny seventh grader named Emmanuel Forbes, and Kuhn could see the appeal. 

"You have kids at that age that are better than other kids," Kuhn said. "And you could tell that about him at that age that he was just a little bit more athletic."

Kuhn coached his share of talented players prior to his retirement last December, even a handful who made it all the way to the NFL. As he watched Forbes grow from an undersized middle schooler to one of the best prospects in Mississippi, he realized that Forbes is one of the few players who has a skill that's almost unteachable.

Forbes simply knew how to get the ball in his hands, and when that happened, it unlocked another dimension of his ability.

"His ball skills are elite, and the ball finds him," Kuhn said. "Interceptions, returning a kick, returning a punt, blocking an extra point, a field goal, it's just amazing how his ball skills translate."

Here's some information about Grenada High School before we go any further. The Chargers play in the 6A classification, which is the highest, most talented level of high school sports in Mississippi. They were a relatively solid program with Kuhn at the helm with division championships in 2015 and 2020, and during Forbes' four seasons playing for him, three of them ended in the postseason.

So, it should be even more impressive that it didn't take long for Forbes to stand out among the best high school players that Mississippi had to offer. He was inserted into the starting lineup as a sophomore against Christian Brothers, one of the better private schools in Tennessee that went on to have an undefeated regular season that year.

Grenada ended up losing, 17-7, but Forbes looked impressive in debut.

"He was the best player on the field," Kuhn said.

Kuhn and the Chargers used Forbes in just about every way they could, giving him snaps at receiver, cornerback and as their return specialist. Most of his time, however, was spent on defense, and his highlights were similar to what he eventually ended up putting on display at Mississippi State. He wasn't afraid to be physical with ball carriers, regardless of how much bigger they were than him.

But where Forbes shined the most was in coverage. A good chunk of his Hudl highlights are focused on his interceptions, and almost all of them show his knack for tracking the ball in midair and jumping routes. One of the best examples came in the 2019 season opener against Neshoba Central, when Forbes backpedaled three steps before recognizing the route, sprinting to the ball and snatching the pass before the receiver could even get his hands on it. Forbes returned the pick 41 yards for the touchdown.

There are countless other examples of Forbes being a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. In that same game against Neshoba, Forbes grabbed an overthrown pass between two receivers and scored another pick six. On another play during his junior year, he intercepted a misplaced pass and returned it 78 yards for the score. In 2018, this time against Lewisburg High School, he made up ground after a receiver had gained a step on him and grabbed a pass at the opponent's 42-yard line.

At times, Kuhn said, it's almost as if Forbes knew the plays were coming his way.

"It's not like he's guessing. It's like he almost...reads it [the play] at an ability that most people can't."

Those skills came in handy at other positions on the field, too. He was one of Grenada's top targets as a receiver with 499 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior, and he use his speed to defensive backs trailing in his wake. He caught a sideline pass against Neshoba Central, and after managing to keep himself upright, he sprinted into the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown.

Forbes almost replicated that feat against West Point a couple months later by managing to haul in a pass over the cornerback covering him. He didn't score, but he did set up the Chargers inside the 5-yard line. Nobody's perfect.

Still, Kuhn learned to expect that Forbes would somehow wind up in the end zone almost every time he touched the ball.

"He's going to score," Kuhn said. "And he thinks he can. I've never seen him catch a pick -- and I could be wrong -- and run out of bounds. The dude's trying to find the end zone."

The best part about Forbes was that he always managed to make plays whenever Grenada needed them. In addition to his multiple offensive and defensive scores, Forbes also had a few special teams scores as a junior, weaving through players on a 59-yard punt return for a touchdown and picking up a blocked field goal kick (which he caused) and running it back 70 yards for the score.

"There's gotta be something said for dudes that change games and you can't explain how they do it," Kuhn said.

Kuhn is going to get a good look at how Forbes' career is going to unfold. He's been a Washington fan for most of his life, and seeing his former player's name get drafted by his favorite team was a surreal experience.

Kuhn has no idea what's in store for Forbes' NFL career. He wonders how Forbes' size is going to translate to the professional game, which is a question most people have, and he doesn't know how much Forbes will play as a rookie.

With that said, nothing would surprise him.

"There's nothing he would do where I would say, 'I didn't see that coming,'" Kuhn said. "I would not be shocked, because at this point, I just quit thinking that way."

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