TAMPA — Even after snagging two interceptions in a five-minute fourth-quarter span, Bucs cornerback Jamel Dean still got torched in the end.
It seemed inevitable. His coach’s sarcasm is widely known for its acetylene content.
“Dean seems to catch the hard ones and drop the easy ones, so he makes two great plays,” Todd Bowles said three days after Dean helped clinch Tampa Bay’s 20-10 win at New Orleans. “We’ve just got to tell the quarterbacks, ‘Don’t throw it straight at him.’”
Dean just smiled, having learned long ago that anyone who plays for Bowles becomes a charter member of his burned unit.
“Well, you know, that’s Bowles for you,” he said with a smile. “He’s just never satisfied. It’s never good enough for him.”
Besides, what are some busted chops every now and again when you’ve endured a busted spirit and psyche?
These are surreal times for Dean, who earned the starting corner job opposite former Auburn teammate Carlton Davis in training camp and leads the team in interceptions (two) and passes defensed (three). On Sunday, he faces future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers, against whom he returned an interception 32 yards for a touchdown in a 38-10 Bucs regular-season romp in 2020.
“It was a confidence-builder, because that was my first pick-six in my career,” Dean recalled. “And it just so happened to be on Aaron Rodgers, who barely throws them (three in an 18-season career), so I was like, ‘What are the odds of that?’”
About the same as the odds of Dean starting for a bona fide Super Bowl contender. In a previous life, at a previous level, he nearly came one signature from having his career end.
“I was once told that I had a 3-percent chance of being successful in football,” said Dean, who suffered a sequence of knee injuries at Cocoa High. “So now I’m just like, ‘Wow.’”
The instincts, agility and fleetness that Dean, 25, brandished at varying points his previous four seasons in Tampa Bay converged Sunday at the Superdome. He actually had safety responsibilities on his first interception, when he recognized Jameis Winston was locked in on receiver Chris Olave and broke toward the end zone, where he snagged Winston’s deep throw.
“Man, it’s a beautiful thing,” said Davis, a Dean teammate at Auburn for three seasons.
“I told him that earlier today; I was like, ‘Man, I’m proud of you.’ I had a feeling he would take another leap. He took a leap last year, but to see him progress and to know where he’s been and where he came from ... look at him now. He’s a rising star, for sure.”
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Before the refinement and the rise, there was raw speed.
An honor student with a GPA near 4.0, Dean was employed everywhere — return specialist, receiver, running back and corner — at Cocoa High, where teammates included Jaguars offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor and Eagles safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Dean’s quarterback, Bruce Judson, was a three-star prospect who pledged to USF before instead following Willie Taggart to Oregon.
“(Dean) was just so fast and so long,” said former Cocoa coach John Wilkinson, who watched Dean place third in the 100-meter dash (10.67 seconds) at the Class 2A state meet as a sophomore. “Our quarterback was pretty good, and you’d just tell him, ‘Hey, just throw it as far as you can, Dean will go get it.’”
The only hitch was hard luck. On the final play of the final practice of his junior year, Dean tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee.
“I was running a ‘go’ ball and the ball was underthrown,” he recalled. “So I tried to stop on a dime and then turn a whole 180 degrees, and then I just heard a pop.”
A year later, Dean again tore his right meniscus in his final prep game, a 14-12 loss to Miami Booker T. Washington in the 4A semifinals. The next morning, he flew to Columbus, Ohio, for his official visit to Ohio State, where he would enroll in January 2015. What ensued shortly after Dean’s arrival still makes Wilkinson fume.
After doctors at Ohio State examined Dean’s knee, Wilkinson said then-Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer wanted to place him on permanent medical hardship, ensuring his scholarship but denying him the chance to ever play for OSU. Wilkinson told his former player not to sign anything, believing Meyer was trying to trim a roster with a surplus of scholarship players.
“We had some interesting conversations with Urban and those guys, and they weren’t budging on it. It was bad,” Wilkinson recalled. “If he had signed that paper, he never would’ve gotten two interceptions on Sunday.”
A second opinion from globally renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews yielded a far more encouraging prognosis: A little rehab, and Dean would be fine in a few months. Wilkinson, whose contacts at Auburn included then-Tigers defensive coordinator (and former Gators coach) Will Muschamp, helped facilitate Dean’s move to the SEC school.
Surgery to the left knee in 2016 postponed Dean’s career with the Tigers, but he totaled 73 tackles, 19 passes defensed and two picks over the next two seasons. At the 2019 NFL scouting combine — four years after he was encouraged to quit football — Dean recorded the event’s second-fastest 40-yard dash (4.3 seconds).
Three and a half years later, the knees remain as nimble as Bowles’ tongue. A little sarcasm from his superior? All part of a day in Dean’s life — which is on its second lease.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” Davis said. “That’s my guy.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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