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Malcolm Koonce's breakout season has been the culmination of persistence over three years

Malcolm Koonce remembers all of his NFL sacks.

He joked that considering that he doesn't have many, he has to take them all in when he can.

Any time you can get after an NFL quarterback is an accomplishment in its own right. But savoring the moment isn't just about personal gratification for Koonce. He learns from it and promptly moves to the next play.

That next play mentality has become easier over time for the edge rusher who was drafted out of Buffalo in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft with lofty expectations. His speed and bend jumped out on tape, totaling 17 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss in his collegiate career.

The potential didn't immediately translate over into the league, quietly working on his craft in his first two seasons. He played in five games as a rookie and recorded a sack in back-to-back games. In 2022, he appeared in all 17 games, primarily on special teams.

"There have been certain players that you watch from afar and you say, 'Man, if this happened and that happened, this may happen'. And I think Malcolm is a prime example," said interim head coach Antonio Pierce, who worked indirectly with Koonce as the linebackers coach. "I think there were times since I've been here that Malcolm, he did walk around with his head down a little like, 'Man, what's my role? Who am I?' And yeah, special teams is great. We've all got to start somewhere, right? Obviously, he's done a good job there."

This offseason, Koonce put in the work to earn a role in the defensive line rotation. He said playing opposite of Maxx Crosby has helped his development, with the goal of matching the star's energy on a daily basis even if he "doesn't think that's even possible." 

As the opportunities keeping coming to Koonce, he's maximized on them for a true breakout season. Through 14 games, he's reached season-season career highs in sacks (four), tackles for loss (three), quarterback hits (12) and forced fumbles (three).

The edge rusher is coming off his best NFL performance to date in Allegiant Stadium against the Los Angeles Chargers where he totaled two sacks and two forced fumbles while earning a 91.6 defensive grade from Pro Football Focus.

"I'm just making the best out of my opportunities," Koonce said. "When you know you have a certain play that [defensive coordinator] Pat [Graham] draws up, don't mess it up. Or simple things, things that don't take any talent ... like lining up, knowing what the call is, rush angles, little stuff like that could help you tremendously and you don't realize that until you do it consistently."

Consistency is the biggest area of improvement Graham has noticed in Koonce's game. The defensive coordinator believes the strides Koonce has taken of bringing a sense of urgency to the facility and practice throughout the week has translated over to gamedays.

"Skilled player in terms of speed, quickness, the ability to bend, plays with his hands, and just the consistency of his showing up. Where did it start? Started in practice," Graham said.

"You can ask everybody on defense. Me, myself, Robbie [Rob Leonard], Matt [Edwards], AP [Antonio Pierce], we've pointed out how he's been practicing this whole year. I will say, especially over the last six weeks, it's been impressive. ... It's him making the decision to practice the right way, get better, to improve, put in the necessary work, that's just what it comes down to in professional football. Guys making the decision to improve and then me trying to stay out of the way and not mess them up. I couldn't be more proud of that guy."

In the midst of his a standout campaign, Koonce's six career sacks still hold a special place. But he made it clear that his most recent sack doesn't matter, because it's all about the next one for him.

"It raises my confidence tremendously. There's still more to be done so it's not like I'm settling just on that [Chargers] game," said Koonce. "I've kind of flushed that game, so I'm ready to get on to Kansas City."

Head inside Intermountain Health Performance Center as the Silver and Black prepare for their Week 16 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs.

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