Terrence Brooks wasn't having any fun.
Seven months after helping Florida State win a national championship, he was just another NFL rookie, lining up as the Ravens' third-string safety during training camp. He was struggling to master the defensive playbook and fulfill all the responsibilities the coaching staff asked of him. He was distracted by things off the field and bothered by factors he couldn't control.
Fellow defensive back Chykie Brown saw a teammate who wasn't taking football seriously enough. Brooks looked in the mirror and saw the same thing.
"That's what it was," Brooks said. "Coming in as a rookie and a safety at that, there's a lot more pressure on you. You're the commander of that defense. You have to be very comfortable with what you know and getting people lined up. I would say, at first, I didn't have the game down seriously and things like that. I really should have been more a student of the game."
Frustrated with his situation, Brooks had an epiphany a couple of weeks ago. He would stop worrying about where he was on the depth chart. He would start studying the playbook more. And he would rid his life of "clutter" and "selfishness," factors that were getting in the way of his improving as a football player.
The result has been the emergence of the player the Ravens thought they were getting when they selected Brooks in the third round of May's NFL draft. His rapid improvement was on display in Saturday's 23-17 victory over the Washington Redskins as Brooks chased down quarterback Robert Griffin III for a sack, made an interception that was nullified by a defensive penalty and finished with three total tackles.
"Terrence has really made a move in the last week or so. He's playing faster. He's playing more assured of what his assignments are and what he's supposed to do [and] where he's supposed to be. That's a natural progression," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You hope the guy is coming along quickly. He was kind of slow for a while. He wasn't showing that he kind of understood what he was doing, but I think the light came on maybe two weeks ago, football-wise, and now it's really starting to show up in the way he's playing. That gets me fired up. I'm really happy to see that."
Brooks, 23, has made enough strides that the cornerback-needy Ravens have entrusted him with the nickel back role the past two games. He's held up well. While Darian Stewart and Matt Elam are entrenched as the team's starting safeties, Brooks is giving the Ravens' coaching staff something to think about.
"We've seen a big change out of Terrence," Brown said. "At first, he was a guy that we saw potential, but he wasn't taking it serious. Now, since he's been playing with the [starters] and he saw how we practiced, it started to hit him. He's starting to wake up and play like he's supposed to play out there."
Brooks is refreshingly candid about how difficult his transition was to the NFL. He acknowledged that he's had to learn quite a bit about conducting himself as a professional, taking care of his body and putting in the extra hours watching film and studying the playbook.
He had to get over not getting drafted until late in the third round when he still feels he was the best safety in the draft, and spending the first couple of weeks of training camp working with the reserves, often on a different field from where the starters were practicing.
"Anything that could be a distraction to getting better, that was pretty much what I had to eliminate," he said. "I was pretty much just learning the playbook, getting adjusted to this life, how much they expect out of you. Those are the types of things I was dealing with. [I needed to] get all the selfishness out of the way and things like that. Just get down to being a pro and loving the game and making it fun. That's what I have to do. I feel better. I feel more confident out there. I can move faster. It's definitely a lot easier."
Brooks was recruited to Florida State as a cornerback and he didn't make the transition to safety until his junior year in Tallahassee, Fla. That season, he led the Seminoles' secondary with 52 tackles to go along with two interceptions. A year later as Florida State won the BCS national championship, he was the key cog in the nation's top pass defense. He had 56 tackles, including eight for losses, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
However, he was still largely overshadowed by several higher-profile players. It took an eye-opening performance at the NFL scouting combine to lift him into the conversation to be a second-day pick. He ran a 4.42 40-yard dash, the fastest time among safeties, and his 38-inch vertical jump was tied for first among players at his position.
Brooks held out hope that he would go in the first round, but five safeties were drafted before he landed with the Ravens with the 79th overall pick.
"If you want to go out there and be the best, you have to work to do it," Brooks said. "I don't fear any other safety in this class. I don't think they're better than me. I don't want to just be in this class. I want to be the best safety in the league. I know there are some big guys out there to fill up to but that's only a matter of time."
Brooks said that he felt his performance against the Redskins showed a "little bit" of what he can do but he's not even scratched the surface of his potential. He feels he's getting there, though. The distractions are fewer, the playbook is easier to understand and the speed of the game has slowed. And above all, the player nicknamed "Showtime" is having fun again.
"For the most part, I feel like I'm still in a very good spot," he said. "I'm on a great team and in a great situation. It's all here for me. The stage is set up for me. I just have to go out there and perform."
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