The on-field similarities between father and son are striking.
Asante Samuel Jr. doesn’t mention his father very often. Not because they don’t have a good relationship. They do.
But A.J., as he is known to his family, friends, and teammates, is determined to make his own mark in life. He grew up hearing people suggest that his father’s name unfairly opened doors for him.
“They’d say, ‘Your dad this and your dad that,’ ” A.J. said in a 2017 interview after he signed with Florida State. “They’d say, “You only got your [college] offers because of your dad.’ "
That’s why A.J., a cornerback expected to be an early-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft, says he wants to “take my own journey.” That’s why he says he wants to “do my own thing with how I learn.”
Asante understands, but sometimes wishes his only son — he also has five daughters ranging in age from 17 to 2 — would give him a shout out every now and then.
“For some reason, he doesn’t like to open up and talk about me,” Samuel said last month. “I know there’s some confusion about the way he handles questions about me.”
If you watch a tape of A.J. play last season for Florida State, there’s no confusion about who he looks like. The footwork, the technique, the instincts, the anticipation, they all remind you of his old man during his ball-hawking NFL days with the Patriots, Eagles, and Falcons.
Asante, who turned 40 in January and has been retired for seven years, was a fourth-round pick by the Patriots in 2004 out of the University of Central Florida. He played 11 years in the NFL, including four (2008-11) with the Eagles. He was a four-time Pro Bowler. Won two Super Bowls with the Patriots and led the league in interceptions twice, including with the Eagles in 2009.
His 51 career interceptions are tied for 32nd all-time. Much to his consternation, he’s not in the Hall of Fame yet, even though 22 of the 31 players ahead of him on the all-time interception list are.
A.J. was a four-star recruit at football powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, and was a three-year starter at Florida State. He was a team captain for the Seminoles last year and led them in interceptions even though he opted out after eight games to prepare for the draft.
A top 5 corner
He’ll be entering the NFL with a slightly higher profile than his pop. Asante was the 120th player taken in the ’04 draft. A.J. is rated as one of the top five corners this year and is expected to be taken in the second round, or even possibly late in the first if things break right.
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah has Samuel rated as the 39th best player and fifth best cornerback on his board, behind Alabama’s Patrick Surtain (10th), South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn (16th), Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley (17th), and Northwestern’s Greg Newsome (28th).
“There’s a little bit of a question about his deep speed and just his overall explosiveness,” Jeremiah said. “But there’s no question about his toughness whatsoever.
“To me, it’s a little bit like last year with Antoine Winfield, where you could kind of try and ding him for his lack of size” — Samuel is 5-10 and 180 pounds — ”or this or that. But this kid, like Winfield, grew up around the game. His dad was a great player just like Winfield’s was.
“And we saw the impact Winfield made with the Bucs last year. I think it’s the same type of situation with Samuel, where you can try and nitpick him and ding him. He’s not the biggest guy and probably won’t be the fastest. But he’s just a really, really good football player.”
Teaching his son
It’s not just a bloodlines thing. A.J. has worked hard to become the player he is. And his father has worked hard to help him realize his potential. Asante hasn’t been a helicopter parent, but he has spent a lot of time teaching his son the game.
“I started him in football and have been teaching him about the game his whole life,” Samuel said. “There have been times where he’ll veer off and work with other people and stuff like that. But in order to learn to play the position, you have to be taught.
“We started off with the ‘T’ breaks and how to put your foot in the ground and plant and then went through recognition and all that stuff. So it’s been a process. It started way back when he was 10-11 years old. Training him. Getting his footwork right. Making him explosive.”
While A.J’s playing style may be similar to his dad’s, he has a night-and-day-different personality. Samuel liked to talk. A lot. A.J. prefers to keep verbalization to a minimum.
“He’s definitely quieter than me,” Samuel said. “I go in and I’m like, What’s goin’ on? A.J.’s not like that.”
That quietness extended to the field. Last year, A.J.’s coaches at Florida State challenged him to become more of a vocal leader.
“I had led by example the two years before,” he said in an interview with reporters after Florida State’s Pro Day a few weeks ago. “But I feel like it helped me with my own game last season showing guys what they were doing wrong and seeing how I could help them.”
Asante helped A.J. improve his communication skills. They spent a lot of quality time together last spring and early summer when everything was shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The whole quarantine time was the greatest time ever for us,” Asante said. “There wasn’t any school or practice or any of that. So he was calling me every morning at 8 o’clock. We’d find a field, get kicked off some of them, and work out.
“I think it helped him out a lot with his whole game, but especially communicating. When I played, my biggest thing was communication. As soon as I lined up, I’d be talking to the safety. I’d be talking to whomever I had to deal with. We were going to communicate and make sure we were on the same page.
“I talked to him about that. [I said] make sure, don’t just assume, that this guy who is supposed to be giving you some help is going to be there. Talk to him before the play.”
A.J. came in and played as a true freshman at Florida State. Started three games and played in 12. Had his struggles that first year, allowing six touchdown passes.
But over the last two years, he gave up just two touchdowns in 20 games and had a team-high three interceptions in eight games last year.
Samuel had A.J. young. He was a senior in high school when his then-girlfriend told him she was pregnant, and was two months into his freshman year at the University of Central Florida when A.J. was born.
“I actually had a game the day he was born,” he said. “I wasn’t redshirted, so I was playing.
“My girlfriend was back home in South Florida. She called and told me and my mom, who happened to be at my game, that she was going into labor.
“Long story short, we got in the car right after the game and made the 3-hour drive from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale to see him delivered.
“Right after that, A.J. and his mom moved up to Orlando and we lived up there while I went to college. When I got drafted by the Patriots, they moved back down to South Florida. But my mom would bring him up a lot to see me.”
A.J., who is 21, is Samuel’s only son. His five other children all are girls — Ashante (17), Amaiya (14), Aleesa (13), Alanee (9), and Aleeya (2).
Asante played multiple sports in high school. He played basketball and baseball and ran track in addition to playing football.
“There isn’t much I didn’t do,” he said. “I even played with the soccer team once. Did gymnastics. Played table tennis.
“I tried to get A.J. to play other sports, but he wanted to focus on football. Both of us were quarterbacks who switched to cornerback. He switched when he went to high school. I played quarterback in high school, then switched to defensive back my senior year.”
He and A.J. both started playing football when they were only 4 years old. Yes, 4.
“You had to be 6 or something to play,” Asante said. “But my mom wanted me to play. She was the queen of changing birth certificates. She knew how to whiteout the date like a pro.
“It was the scariest thing in my life. I went out there with pads on. I didn’t even know how to put them on. She didn’t know how to put them on. These guys from the neighborhood looked like vicious pit bulls that were about to attack me. It was the scariest thing ever. I was crying every day.
“Me and my mom did the same thing with A.J. Changed his birth certificate. He played on the same team in little league that I played for when I started. Every day that first year, A.J. would run off the field and be crying. I’d have to push him back out there and help him fight through it. But the rest is history. The next year, he was developed and ready to play.”
Asante said his mom — Christine Samuel — “was the course of everything” in her family’s life. Both he and A.J. were devastated when she died too young in January of 2013, just four days before Asante’s 32nd birthday.
She meant so much to A.J. that, five years later, he delayed signing his letter of intent with Florida State until two days after National Signing Day so that he could honor her by signing on the anniversary of his grandmother’s death.
Size doesn’t matter
A.J. started receiving college offers when he was in the eighth grade. He was the ninth-rated cornerback in the country and the 12th-best player in the state of Florida coming out of South Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas.
He played in 12 games and started three as a true freshman at Florida State. After giving up six touchdown passes as a freshman, he allowed just two more in 20 games as a sophomore and junior.
At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, A.J., who ran a 4.38-second 40 at Florida State’s Pro Day a few weeks ago, is pretty much the same size that his father was when he played. But some have questioned whether he is big enough to be a boundary corner in the NFL and might be better suited to play inside.
Neither A.J. nor his father are buying that thinking.
“I feel that I’m an outside guy,” A.J. said. “I’ve been playing outside all my life. I played some nickel my freshman year. But at the end of the day, I make plays on the outside. I feel I’m a dominant corner on the outside.
“They try to look at my height and things of that nature. But I’m the same size as (Green Bay’s) Jaire Alexander, and he’s a dominant NFL cornerback right now; one of the best in the league. I feel like size doesn’t matter. It’s about the heart, and the dog mentality you have on the field.”
His father completely agrees.
“He’s the same size as me and I didn’t have any problems. The game has changed, but there were 6-4, 6-5 receivers when I played. So I don’t see much difference. There always have been big corners. But big corners don’t play the best all the time.”
One of the few knocks on Samuel when he played was that he wasn’t a particularly willing tackler. A.J. has not heard the same criticism. Despite his size, he was a solid tackler at Florida State.
“If you expect to thrive in college or the NFL, you have to be a tackling cornerback,” A.J. said. “I pride myself on being able to do that. I can make plays wherever I’m at on the field.”
Asante said it’s been far more nerve-racking for him as the parent of an NFL draft prospect than it was 17 years ago when he was going through the process himself.
“You want the best for them,” he said. “The best part about it is I’ve been through it and I can help him out and tell him what to expect and just give him some pointers here and there.”
Samuel has been giving A.J. pointers most of his life.
“I started him in football and have been teaching him about the game his whole life,” Asante said. “In order to learn how to play the [cornerback] position, you have to be taught.”
And now A.J. is about to follow in his old man’s footsteps and enter the NFL.
“I’m so proud of him,” Samuel said. “So proud.”