Gabe Ward: When the Redskins selected Holcomb in the 5th round it was a bit of a head-scratcher because, frankly, very few people knew anything about him. After a closer look, we fans saw that he had a very productive career at UNC and Head Coach Jay Gruden raved about him. Can you tell us anything particularly interesting about Holcomb as a player or person? (Background story, his journey to being a starter, why he was overlooked, personality traits/habits, etc)
Chad Floyd: I can understand why the Holcomb pick may have left a few people confused, but by the fifth round do you really know very much about a player? You’re absolutely right about his productivity-- while the defense was admittedly atrocious, Holcomb led the Heels in tackles in each of his final three seasons on campus.
Despite his many flaws, one of the strengths of departed Carolina coach Larry Fedora was developing some walk-ons into major contributors for the Tar Heels. Eagles WR Mack Hollins is one, and Holcomb’s predecessor, Jeff Schoettmer, is another. Holcomb was recruited by some FCS programs, but decided to walk on at UNC, and pretty quickly grew from 190 lbs to 225 (now closer to 235) while maintaining surprisingly good straight-line speed. Carolina was hilariously inept at recruiting LB’s under Fedora, so Holcomb stepped in for Schoettmer as a redshirt sophomore in 2016, and was the steadiest player on the UNC defense from day one.
Gabe Ward: The Redskins have been trying to overhaul their ILB corps for a couple of years now, in the sense of getting more athleticism and speed on the field, and are willing to take some chances. They signed Zach Brown a couple of seasons ago before the relationship soured (he’s now with the Eagles); they drafted Shaun Dion Hamilton in the 6th round last year, though he had injury history, and, perhaps more famously, they claimed the rights to Reuben Foster. who was released by the 49ers after an alleged domestic abuse fiasco which has since been cleared up. Cole Holcomb obviously is athletic and has speed to work sideline to sideline, but what are some other great qualities and abilities of his as a player? What are some areas you wish he was better in that you saw at UNC?
Chad Floyd: You said it best-- Holcomb’s strength is his sideline-to-sideline speed. Insert white linebacker cliches here, but he absolutely does find himself around the football on most plays, and is excellent at shedding second-level blocks in the running game, and getting hands on the ball carrier. He’s not a huge hitter, but plays tend to end when he makes initial contact.
Carolina was pretty heavily Tampa-2 in his three years as a starter, and he was left on an island with running backs and tight ends a pretty fair amount. Despite his speed, he’s not amazing in pass coverage, but Carolina was hampered by a nonexistent pass rush and pretty poor play on slot receivers, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in a competent defense.
Sidenote: that’s some rough luck with ILBs! London Fletcher isn’t walking through that door, huh?
Gabe Ward: We just touched on strengths and weaknesses a little bit. When you step back and consider the player that Holcomb is as a whole, would you say he has the physical abilities to start in the league? If so, could you envision him being average or above average starter? Additionally, could you tell us a little about his mental make up as it relates effort, leadership, football I.Q., and passion?
Chad Floyd: Holcomb can absolutely be a starter in the league, but I wouldn’t count on him to be a star — just a steadying presence who will make the plays in front of him, but not create as much havoc as an ‘impact’ ILB would. There’s definitely room in the NFL for guys like that. He’s also a monster on special teams, which will probably be his meal ticket as he learns the intricacies of the pro game.
Like I said earlier, he is a former walk-on. The fact that he led a Power 5 team in tackles for three years should tell you all you need to know about his passion. He wasn’t the type of guy you’d see being too terribly vocal on the sidelines, but he leads by example and plays extremely hard. Given the names you mentioned as failed ILB experiments, Holcomb represents a massive upgrade in intangible qualities.
Gabe Ward: The NFC East has an array of athletic pass catching TE’s and RB’s. If you can, tell us a little bit about how Holcomb’s skillset translates in coverage. Could you envision him actually keeping up with a Zack Ertz or Saquon Barkley?
Chad Floyd: Oh boy. Like I said, Holcomb got left isolated more often than you’d like to see happening to your middle linebacker. I’m not going to say he was bad in coverage -- but with a nonexistent run defense and a poor pass rush, he got washed pretty heavily in the play action and screen game, though one could say that was due more to having to overcompensate for his teammates’ shortcomings than to poor play. I don’t love the idea of him going one-on-one versus Barkley in space, but like I said earlier: he’s not the type of guy who will be made to look foolish. In a decent defense, his speed should prove to be a major asset in the flat game -- but he does have a tendency to get lost on seam routes, so someone like Ertz may be licking his chops.
With that said, his instincts make him a huge asset in defending the screen game.
Gabe Ward: Is there a standout moment from Holcomb’s career that you really enjoyed?
Chad Floyd: The thing that is Holcomb’s greatest strength may also be his greatest weakness -- despite being around the ball constantly, he doesn’t really have many plays on his resume that will wow you. His career is highlighted by his consistency, as evidenced by a steady three-year average of 100ish tackles per year. He did seem to come up big getting stops in close games. He had 22 tackles against Georgia Tech’s triple option this past season, two HUGE third-down stops in a tightly-contested rivalry game against N.C. State in his final collegiate game, and the game-clinching sack in a (rare) Carolina win against Pittsburgh this year.
Gabe Ward: Could you summarize, in a few words, the player the Redskins are getting in Holcomb?
Chad Floyd: In Holcomb, the Redskins are getting a guy who is absolutely a tremendous fit on a 53-man roster. He doesn’t have any weaknesses that will kill you, he’ll rarely be caught out of position, and he’ll make the plays you expect him to make. His greatest strength is shooting the gaps and making stops on 3rd-and-short in the running game, but his biggest weakness is...shooting the gaps, getting caught in play action, and allowing a team to convert.
Given the coaching he received in Chapel Hill, he has some untapped upside; the best-case scenario is as a steady starter in the middle of a 3-4 defense. At a minimum, Holcomb is a guy who will provide excellent depth, a great attitude, and a lights-out player on special teams.
I want to thank Chad again for his time spent answering my questions about Holcomb. I think he provided awesome insights into a player I was aware of, but had never got the chance to study. As a formatting note I would have liked to include Chad in the main byline as I have done with other authors from other blogs in years past, but the new editor restricts permissions to do that in a new way. This is at minimum a 50/50 endeavor with the bulk of the thinking and writing coming from the people gracious enough to answer me, and I want to make sure they get their credit. I’ll likely be including this note for the rest of the series.