Eagles top pick Nelson Agholor driven to keep improving
Wideout receives praise from his position coach at USC, Tee Martin: 'The moment is never too big for him.'
TEE MARTIN, USC's wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator, summed up the Trojans' Nelson Agholor, now the Eagles' first-round rookie:
"The moment is never too big for him."
That was easy to believe yesterday afternoon at NovaCare, when Agholor met with reporters after his first rookie-camp practice, in which he wore Harold Carmichael's No. 17 jersey.
Asked whether he thinks he can come in and contribute in Week 1, Agholor smoothly redirected the focus: "That's not the conversation right now. The conversation is about me getting better. Today was a great day. I got out there, kind of understood a little bit more the NFL speed. Put some things on film to learn from.
"When Week 1 comes, I think that'll be an easier conversation for us to have, but right now, it's all about me trying to find myself."
His questioner persisted - his mentality, though, has to be to be ready to contribute immediately, right?
"My mentality is to progress," Agholor said. "I want to be a better player today. I want to be a better player tomorrow. Not worried about saying that 'I'm the guy.' I'm about getting better every day, and let the chips fall where they may from there."
Speaking of chips, if Agholor's new head coach had crafted an answer for him to recite in response to those questions, it would have been pretty much exactly what Agholor said. To an uncanny degree.
As Paul Domowitch noted in yesterday's Daily News, Eagles coach Chip Kelly is all about "growth mindset vs. fixed mindset." That's a phrase from a book by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck. Maybe Kelly loaned the book to Agholor?
Martin, who once was an Eagles practice-squad quarterback, recalled yesterday that Agholor, 6-feet, 198, came to the Trojans from Berkeley Prep High in Tampa, Fla., as a running back.
"We didn't know if he was going to be a receiver or not. But his work ethic, his intelligence, his motivation, everything about him just forecast that he would be a pro," Martin said.
Martin remembered when USC's then-No. 1 wideout, Marqise Lee, suffered a knee injury during the 2013 season. Lee, who would go on to be drafted in the second round by Jacksonville in 2014, had been handling the Trojans' return duties.
"I had a meeting with Nelson, and I said, 'If the game was on the line, who would you want to get the ball?' Nelson said, 'Me.' And I go, 'Well, you're going to be the starting punt returner.' "
The way Martin tells the story, Agholor protested that he had never returned punts before. Agholor said yesterday he'd done it in high school, just not in college.
"I thought there were other guys [who were getting less playing time] who could have played the position . . . the conversation was kind of jokey, back and forth, but I knew that if it was something we needed for me to do to win the game, I was going to do it," he said.
Martin hadn't seen Agholor return punts, but he knew this was his guy, he said.
"We trusted him. He was a sure-hand catcher, caught the ball well. He had great hand-eye coordination. And ultimately, he's a great decision-maker."
A few weeks later, with only eight USC punt returns under his belt, Agholor took the field against Cal. He fielded two punts, taking both back for touchdowns. His 19.1-yard punt return average that season set a school record.
This past season, with Lee and Robert Woods both in the pros - the chance to learn under them had a lot to do with his decision to come to USC, Agholor said - Agholor got to be the Trojans' prime passing-game target for the first time. Working in a new offense, under first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian, Agholor caught 56 passes for 818 yards and seven touchdowns in his final six regular-season games, another seven for 90 yards and a TD in the Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska.
"We were moving him around, trying to find the best place to use him," Martin said. "We ended up finding out you could use him anywhere . . . We figured out that Nelson can handle it. Inside, outside, motions. He had a few touchdowns [lined up] in the backfield. We moved him everywhere. That's one thing that's great about him being drafted by Philadelphia - Chip does a lot of things [like that] . . . With the game on the line, Nelson would get it done."
Martin said Agholor "grew up around pros" in Tampa, had worked with NFL players before he even got to college.
Asked about that yesterday, Agholor said: "We all just want to thank the  NFL lockout. We had a couple guys looking for fields to move around and make plays. Josh Freeman was a quarterback, a couple [other] guys with the Tampa Bay Bucs, I could train with them . . . I just saw a bunch of players getting better and I wanted to join."
He said he got introduced "through training facilities, or [seeing] guys just throwing the ball around."
"Those guys were professionals . . . I was a [rising senior] in high school," Agholor said. "I watched how they carried themselves."
Martin, who once won a national championship as Peyton Manning's quarterbacking successor at Tennessee, said he thought Alabama's Amari Cooper and Agholor were the two best receivers in the draft. Cooper was drafted fourth overall, by Oakland.
"I just felt like in the NFL, with all the concepts of offense and things you can do with guys, you want a guy who can play everywhere," Martin said. "And who has a very high football IQ. I felt those two, I knew a little bit more than the other ones. [Ex-USC coach Lane Kiffin runs the Alabama offense.] But I just felt like they had extremely high value, because of all the things they could do."
Yesterday, Agholor and second-round corner Eric Rowe were matched up a lot, they both said, something we're likely to see more as the Eagles' top two picks develop.
"He just helped me to get better today," Agholor said.