If you’re the type who would care to look, if you fancy yourself an amateur football scout and are curious about one of the two defensive tackles the Eagles signed this week to shore up that position, you can find snippets of Albert Huggins’ college game film online.
Google will get you there quickly enough, and in those snippets, you’ll have to admit that Huggins looks like another elite player on a Clemson roster chock full of elite players. There he is in the national semifinal game against Notre Dame, 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, taking a parabolic route around the left tackle to pressure quarterback Ian Book. There he is in the national championship game against Alabama, using his right arm like a club to swat Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher out of the way. There he is during the two biggest games of the Tigers’ unbeaten season, finally on the field for a good, long while.
At Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School, Huggins was the top football recruit in South Carolina. At Clemson, though, he was a backup, playing behind two tackles, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, so talented and accomplished that both were picked in the first round of this year’s NFL draft. Huggins had thought he was The Guy, but once he arrived at Clemson, he had to earn his reps. The experience humbled him, made him appreciate football more. But it didn’t make him think he was a lesser player than his friends who started ahead of him, and when Lawrence tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance and was suspended for the BCS semifinal and final, Huggins had a shot in the spotlight to show what he always believed he could do. He made six tackles over the two games, five of them in Clemson’s 44-16 victory over the Crimson Tide.
“Of course, it was tough,” he was saying Thursday. “I was kind of a co-starter. It was OK. I just knew whenever I got a chance to go out there, put it on film. Put it on film for my mom and my dad. Dominate. That was my mentality. I was making sure I left no doubt on the field that I could have been starting. And I feel like I did that.”
He did not do enough to persuade an NFL team to draft him. On the draft’s first night, he watched from his parents’ home as three Clemson defensive linemen were selected within the first 17 picks: end Clelin Ferrell at No. 4 by the Raiders, Wilkins at No. 13 by the Dolphins, Lawrence at No. 17 by the Giants.
“Oh, man, I was so happy for them,” Huggins, 22, said. “Almost brought me to tears, seeing my boys who I played with for years. See them make their mamas proud. See them crying. I don’t know about Dexter, but I know Clelin and Christian were crying like big ol’ babies. I just realized that my time is next.”
His time, such as it was, came a few minutes after the draft ended, when the Houston Texans signed him to a free-agent contract. He suited up for their four preseason games before they waived him. The Eagles plucked him from Houston’s practice squad on Tuesday. They needed another body or two alongside Fletcher Cox, and in an odd, karmic way, signing Huggins – a player who was part of a particularly deep position group on a particular college team – gives them a chance to make up for what is shaping up to be a mistake born of similar circumstances. Entering the 2017 draft, the University of Washington had three members of its secondary drafted in the second round: Kevin King by the Packers, then Budda Baker by the Cardinals, then … Sidney Jones by the Eagles.
If Huggins is to contribute more to the Eagles than Jones has lately, he’ll have to learn a new defensive scheme and technique – and master as much of it as he can before the Eagles’ game Sunday in Buffalo against the Bills. Throughout his career, Huggins has played a read-and-react style. “Here,” he said, “it’s more destructive: get vertical, get upfield, make plays, be a dog.” Adjusting sounds simple. It isn’t.
“Totally different here. Totally different here for him,” Cox said. “I told him, ‘This weekend, just go out and play.’ Playing our defense, you can’t learn it in a week. It takes time, and I just told him, ‘Make sure you can get lined up and get the call. Make sure you’re in the right spot.’ It’s kind of hard. For him, he’s coming from college, high school, Houston. They’re not attacking. It’s going to be difficult for him.”
Cox planned to deliver an informal tutorial to Huggins on Thursday night. All the Eagles’ defensive linemen were going to dinner at a local steakhouse, a getting-to-know-you session before Huggins’ first official NFL game. “I’m not nervous at all, man, and I’m not trying to be cocky,” Huggins said. “I realized I can play in this league. It’s not hard. Well, it’s hard, but it comes to me naturally. In that case, let’s go.”