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The Ball Hawk, part 3 | Emmanuel Forbes erased doubts about his size at Mississippi State


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 3: "The kid is special"

It's funny how some issues consistently come up. Forbes has been given plenty of reminders about that throughout his career. 

Clearly, Mississippi State was interested in having Forbes, a four-star, three-sport high school athlete, join the program. Their coaches visited him about four times each week because of what he could offer to the roster. He had speed, versatility, intelligence and a sense of conviction that matched his high levels of confidence. 

There was, however, a question about his size. According to his high school recruiting page, Forbes was 165 pounds during his senior year, although Mississippi State cornerbacks coach Darcel McBath attests that he was "a buck 50." Playing at that size in high school isn't much of a problem, but doing so in the SEC, considered by most to be just a step down from the NFL, was another matter. 

So, Mississippi State faced a decision: either they could move on to other prospects that had a more typical build and miss out on the chance to have a dynamic skill set on their roster, or they could take a chance on Forbes. The Bulldogs chose the latter, and not long after that Forbes committed to play for them over other interested SEC schools Tennessee and Ole Miss. 

For the next three seasons, Forbes proved time and time again that his size was not going to limit his ability to wreck games. 

"He truly worked as hard as anybody on the team, if not harder," McBath said. "He took pride in his craft, and he wanted to be great."

McBath still had some reservations about Forbes' size, particularly at the start of his college career. Forbes looked great during fall camp, and McBath was eager to get him in a game to see what he could do. The problem, McBath said, was that Forbes was about 150 pounds.

"I was scared to death," McBath said with a laugh.

McBath decided to give Forbes a few snaps in the season opener against LSU, but then starter Martin Emerson suffered an injury that knocked him out of the game, leaving McBath no choice but to test Forbes against last year's national champion.

McBath was pleased to see that Forbes was holding his own. He was physical, executing every task that McBath gave him and willing to tackle. He even grabbed his first interception, helping the Bulldogs come away with a 44-34 win.

McBath had one thought after the game: "There's something about this kid."

"You see it in practice, but until you see it in a game, you just don't quite understand," McBath said. "He never backed down from there. He kept all the doubt we had about his weight or how big he was and kept showing us that it didn't matter."

The secret to how Forbes overcame his size is what McBath called "above the neck football." Forbes knew he was going to be tested against bigger, more physical receivers, so he studied to figure out the best way to attack opposing wideout and determine how they intended to attack him.

It helped that Forbes didn't need to be told something twice. He only needed to see a concept once to dissect it and figure out the best way to counter it.

"I don't think people understand how hard that is to take something we've talked about in the meeting room, and then you get out there in a game and it just shows up and you see it and you make a play," McBath said. "He's one of the few I've ever been around that can do that."

That still didn't stop offenses from testing him. It became a common occurrence for teams to run the ball in his direction. Last year's game against Kentucky was one of the more recent examples. The Wildcats lined up in an unbalanced formation five times to take advantage of what they thought was a mismatch. Other times, offenses attacked Forbes through the screen game by putting him against a bigger target.

And yet Forbes always found a way around it. Those five running plays that Kentucky ran against him? He stopped it every time. On screen plays, he managed to slip underneath blocks to make a tackle for a loss. Eventually, each team learned that going for Forbes was not as easy as they thought.

"He counteracts it with his quickness and his smarts and how he plays the game," McBath said. "So, he's always a step ahead. They haven't gotten him yet."

He also knew how to bring players down.

"It's kind of mind boggling," McBath said. "He just understands the angle and how to...attack people. He's tough. He's never going to back down from anything."

That preparation was perhaps most helpful in the passing game. Of all Forbes' pick sixes, the one he made against Kentucky last year is the one that people are the most impressed with. It was one of the many reasons why general manager Martin Mayhew was so enamored with adding him to the roster.

The play was one that Kentucky ran almost exclusively near the goal line or as a two-point play. McBath showed it to Forbes one time before the game as an extra precaution.

Forbes recognized the play because of the motion. McBath thought he would stop the play for a loss, but he didn't anticipate Forbes jumping the route and running it all the way back for a touchdown.

McBath couldn't say a word as he watched Forbes head for the end zone.

"The confidence you gotta have to do that is not something everyone possesses," McBath said. "It's just another stamp on what he is who he is."

As a coach, McBath is looking forward to seeing growth from Forbes as he goes through his rookie season with the Commanders. The way he sees it, Forbes still has plenty of that ahead of him. But if he is who he has been up to this point in his career, he has an exciting future ahead of him.

"[Washington is] gonna be very, very happy with him, because he attracts the ball," McBath said. "He has natural instincts, plays football above the neck, and he's always a step ahead. That leads to turnovers, and turnovers lead to W's. I'm telling you, the kid is special."

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