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By Levi Edwards | Digital Team Reporter

Shortly after Nate Hobbs was drafted by the Las Vegas Raiders, he got a call from Gill Byrd. Byrd, a Pro Bowl defensive back who played for the San Diego Chargers for 10 seasons, was one of Hobbs' defensive back coaches at the University of Illinois.

While congratulating Hobbs on his selection in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, Byrd heard a bit of disappointment in his mentee's voice.

As if something was bothering him despite his NFL dreams coming true just hours prior.

"I'll never forget, I said, 'You're mad, huh?'" Byrd recalls now of his draft-day call with Hobbs.

"He said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'I know. You're going to carry it with a chip on your shoulder because you're better than a lot of the guys that were drafted before you. It's now up to you to show the NFL.'"

That proverbial chip on Hobbs' shoulder was evident from the jump. Minutes after getting the call from General Manager Mike Mayock and Head Coach Jon Gruden, he let it be known to the world what was on his mind.

"I won't forget the guys who were taken before me," Hobbs said in his introductory conference call. "The guys who I feel like didn't do as much as me but were still picked up. I'm just so thankful for the Raiders for taking a chance. They won't regret it.

"They're getting the best underdog they've ever drafted."

Months later, I sat down with Nate Hobbs the day before the preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams in SoFi Stadium. I asked Hobbs about those comments he made referring to himself as "the best underdog." He lightly chuckled while reminiscing about the statement he proclaimed.

"That's funny because I was filled with so much emotion when I was saying that," said Hobbs. "I said that, but I noticed – I didn't say that just talking, but I was filled with emotion. But I noticed people didn't forget that, and if I said that, I got to stand on it.

"That's how I live. I don't like to say things just talking. I said it, and I got to stand on it. So I try to bring my A-game every day, I try to come to get better every day."

The journey Hobbs has taken to the Raiders hasn't always been a pretty one. It's been gritty, like his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, – the same city that produced one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time, Muhammad Ali. Hobbs grew up in the West End of Louisville, one of the higher crime populated areas of the city. The problems have unfortunately gotten worse in Louisville over time. The city's violent crime rate is reportedly 81 percent higher than the national average, with a record 100 homicides within a six-month span this year, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. Hobbs took to sports from an early age as an outlet from what was going on around him.

"Growing up there, a lot of times a lot of kids play sports. Louisville can be a nice place, a nice area. It's not a huge city. It's not a Chicago or New York, but it does have almost a million people so it's a big city. You can get into whatever you want to. So a lot of kids, they would play sports, and that was something that kept you out of whatever.

"Not to say it was a horrible place, but it is a top place for crime," Hobbs said. "That comes with if you live in the bad part in West End or wherever things tend to happen."

Hobbs' solid foundation comes from his family. His single mother, Denise, raised him and his two brothers since she was 16 years old. His father passed away when he was 12. Hobbs said she "dedicated her life to us" for them to make it to this point. He was also guided by his grandparents and uncle, whom he lived with for a duration of time in West Louisville. They were some of his biggest supporters, taking the village approach to raising him and his siblings.

Hobbs told me having a mother with wisdom "way ahead of her years" helped him immensely through the journey of getting to the NFL. He said that the selfless woman barely ever asks him for anything, even after signing with the team. He said he's "almost got to press her" to see if she needs something, as one of his biggest concerns is making sure the woman who raised him is taken care of.

"My mom means everything to me. She sacrificed her whole life, honestly, for her children, for her kids. She made a real commitment to raise us the right way. Everywhere I'm at, what I'm doing right now, the man I've become – I attribute that to her. Whatever I can help her with now, that's what I try to do. I just try to be there for her. We're there for each other. Be there for her like she was for me."

Nate Hobbs was not heavily recruited coming out of Louisville Male High School. The cornerback had a few MAC and NAIA scholarship offers and was originally committed to Western Kentucky until Lovie Smith at the University of Illinois started heavily recruiting him late in his senior year. Illinois was the only Power Five conference offer he received.

"I think I was really a two-star [prospect] but I didn't get those stars until I committed," Hobbs said. "If you looked up my name it didn't say any stars beside my name until I committed to Illinois — then I had two stars.

"I just say that the stars don't matter."

Smith, the Houston Texans current associate head coach and defensive coordinator, also cared less about the stars and hype. When the former Illinois head coach put on Hobbs' film, what he saw a pure athlete.

"High jump — seven feet. Six-foot corner who tackles. He was a punt returner, he was a skilled guy, he could run," said Smith. "We trusted our evaluation, and our evaluation said this guy could really turn into a pretty good football player.

"Then if you get a chance to meet him too, you see exactly who raised him. His mom, Denise, is just a special lady. He was taught the right way, and I just knew he would have a positive impact on the culture of the program and that's exactly what happened."

Hobbs' impact on his team wasn't immediate, however. Hobbs dealt with a few maturity issues as an underclassman at Illinois and claimed that some off-the-field issues caused him to be suspended for three games in his sophomore season and almost got him kicked out of school.

"He knew I wasn't a man, but he was treating me like I was a man, because I felt like he knew where I could go," Hobbs said about Coach Smith. "I was 18, 19 doing things 18, 19 year olds do. Making those mistakes, getting in trouble — probably more than the average person. He said that was unacceptable and I just figured out, 'Maybe this is how I should carry myself,' and certain things aren't acceptable.

"He never stopped believing in me."

Gill Byrd became the safeties coach at Illinois in the midst of Hobbs almost being dismissed from the team. Byrd described it as a touch-and-go situation.

"It was serious enough where we had to talk to him," said Byrd. "A lot of these guys had gone through a lot of things with Coach Smith already, so I was just trying to understand the landscape and what was going on.

"Nate, he took the coaching, he took the teaching, he took the off-the-field advice to the heart. He was close, as far as not being there. The consequences were getting more severe, but he learned. It's part of growing up."

Under Byrd's guidance, Hobbs blossomed into a premier cornerback in the Big 10. In his junior and senior season, he compiled 100 total tackles, nine pass deflections and two interceptions. The biggest impact Byrd made on Hobbs can't be measured with statistics though.

"The biggest way he tried to connect with me was off the field," Hobbs said. "Seeing if I was cool off the field, personally. And just try to teach me about life and developing as a man, and I appreciate him for that. Always just trying to be deeper than football. Football is the sport we play and that's the main focus, but it's deeper than football. It's deeper than just the game, it's life, and I felt like he taught me some things about life."

Coming out of Illinois, Hobbs was back at essentially the same place he was coming out of high school as an under the radar player. Fortunately for Hobbs and the Las Vegas Raiders, his skill and athleticism didn't go unnoticed by General Manager Mike Mayock — the same way it didn't go unnoticed by Lovie Smith nearly five years prior.

"I got a call from one of our cross-check scouts after the Illinois Pro Day, and he said, 'Mike, do me a favor and put your eyes on Nate Hobbs," said the Raiders GM. "'He just ran a 4.45, he jumped 41 inches. He tested better than we thought he was going to test, and I'm not sure if we got the right grade on him. Don't get me wrong, we had a pretty solid grade on him, but I want to make sure he's not getting lost in the cornerback shuffle.'"

"So, I got off the phone and literally put his tape on right there, and I was like, 'Man, he competes.' He tackles. He's tough. He's a three-year starter in the Big 10. He was an outside corner almost predominantly, and he played special teams. This was a hard-nosed, tough guy. And he just ran 4.45 and jumped 41 inches. I spent about two hours watching him, get out of my chair, sprinted downstairs to the second floor, [and] grabbed Ron Milus, the defensive back coach.

"We got him on a Zoom call, and he knocked it out the park. What our coaches do is they challenge him pretty hard mentally. They give him some of our Raider verbiage, and they push it out and challenge it back. He got all the concepts immediately. I was on the Zoom call, I saw. It wasn't like I heard about it; I was on the call. He got all the concepts. The coaches drilled him. He got an A+ on that drill, and we're sitting back there going; OK, what's wrong with this picture? A three-year starter in the Big Ten. Tough, competitive. Every one of our scouting grades on him with competes and toughness was at a high end.

"So, I think the cool part for me is seeing it come together. It started with a trigger from the cross-checker to tell me to get my eye on him. It went from there down to Milo, then it went to the Zoom call, and then it was the whole group getting together to say, 'We got to get this guy. Where is he probably going to go league value? And at what point do we have to pull the trigger?'"

The Raiders pulled that trigger with the 167th overall pick in the draft, a pick they acquired from a trade with the Seattle Seahawks for longtime guard Gabe Jackson. He has throughly impressed his teammates and coaches through Training Camp and in the preseason. He's also caught many people by surprise with the tenacity and instinct he's shown he can play with. Additionally, he's shown he can adequately play both outside and nickel cornerback.

Hobbs introduced himself to Raider Nation in Allegiant Stadium in the first quarter of the first preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks with a sack heard around Las Vegas on Geno Smith.

"I was locked in listening for the call. They said the call, they said the blitz, and I said, 'OK, that's me, I'm going.' … I was looking inside, I'm timing it up. I didn't want to go early because they would've known I was coming," Hobbs said. "I'm not going to move until I know, I'm going to time this up for when he's about to snap it. I was waiting on his cadence, he started going through his cadence and none of the linemen saw me. None of the lineman pointed me out and I was like, 'Oh, s--t.'

"The ball snapped. As soon as it snapped, I just took off. I just saw my target, he was a target. He was just a thing, and I had to go get that thing. I was trying to get the ball out though."

The play from Hobbs took the fans at Allegiant Stadium, and even some of his new teammates, by surprise. One person that wasn't surprised was his former head coach. He saw Hobbs make plays like that on a regular basis.

"He's going to have a lot of plays like that," said Lovie Smith. "When you're a corner who can cover and you like to tackle and you get a chance to blitz ... that's what we expect him to do. I know it's easy in hindsight, but I'm going to say that's not a surprise and mean it. I have a whole lot of confidence in Nate's ability. He's going to be a good football player in this league."

Hobbs finished the preseason with six tackles, two pass deflections, a sack and an interception in the two games he played. He also earned a spot on PFF’s All-Rookie preseason team with an overall grade of 90.7 — the highest graded rookie corner in the preseason.

"I'm really proud of him. I'm really excited to see what he does in his future," Gruden said after the Rams victory. "He rarely makes the same mistake twice. He loves football, eats it up and he's one of the energizers of our defense. He's walked in here and given us a lot of skills that we can utilize certainly."

Those skills will hopefully come into effect Monday night in his first-ever NFL regular season game against the Baltimore Ravens. Hobbs is in place to see a lot of action in the showdown, especially with cornerback Nevin Lawson ruled out the first two games of the season.

Coach Gruden stated a few days before the season opener that he feels "the stage isn't too big" for the rookie. Hobbs echoed his head coach's belief.

"I'm ready for the job," said Hobbs. "I just want my teammates to know — and my coaches who have trust in me with that spot — if they trust me to go out there, they ain't got nothing to worry about. I'm going to be well prepared and I'm going to bring it.

"Here's my opportunity. Things that I've prayed for. It's my opportunity, and I got to make the most out of it."

It's an opportunity he's prayed for since he was in West Louisville, and so far, Nate Hobbs has been the the type to say a prayer — and then go get just what he prayed for.

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