For Rams rookie safety
McDonald, a third-round pick of the Rams in this year’s draft out of Southern California, is a walking, talking, hard-hitting replica of his father, Tim. Tim McDonald spent 13 seasons in the NFL, splitting his time between the Cardinals and 49ers, earning All Pro and Pro Bowl honors on six occasions.
That football pedigree easily filtered down to T.J., who said he always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. Now that T.J. McDonald is in the NFL, he’s getting the chance to do just that, right down to the division in which he plays.
Having a father who has played the game, had success and is now coaching for the New York Jets has only made that transition easier.
“It makes it to where I ask the question of why and once I understand the why, I can go out there and do it,” McDonald said. “I have been prepared well to this point and I still have a long ways to go. I’m still learning. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning. So for me, I’ll keep asking questions. It does give me a little help knowing that my dad played the game but I have still got a long ways to go so I am just going to try to keep getting better.”
For any rookie coming into the NFL, the task of learning a new scheme while adjusting to the bigger, faster, stronger players at the game’s top level is one that can be tough to overcome. Heads can spin and rookies can fall behind.
But for McDonald, it seems to come a bit easier than most in no small part because of his football bloodlines, according to coach Jeff Fisher.
“You see it in his play, but we noticed it immediately as soon as we met him at the combine interview,” Fisher said. “You got a good sense for his understanding. He knows the game. He knows both sides. What’s impressive about him is that he has a really good understanding of offense. A lot of guys will come in with an understanding of the defense and concepts of what they’re supposed to do, but he’s light years ahead from an offensive standpoint.”
McDonald’s ability to rapidly pick up the nuances of the defense as well as what the offense is trying to accomplish on the other side has helped him insert himself right into the mix at a safety spot that features a lot of youth and a lot of opportunity.
After the Rams parted ways with Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl earlier in the offseason, McDonald was the lone addition the team made to the position either through veteran free agency or the draft.
McDonald was thrust into the mix right away and spent most of the offseason program for which he’s been present making a strong impression on the coaching staff and surprising some by his ability to read keys, make calls and make plays even as a rookie.
Once again, that’s a tribute to McDonald’s astute father.
“He’s been around football all his life and he picks up things very well,” defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. “It’s a short learning curve for him, but he’s grasping things. You can see his athletic ability. He’s making the transition very well. We’re looking forward to big things out of him and Ogletree – same boat, two young guys that we’re looking to step in and do great things for us. But the football IQ on both of those guys is really good.”
That football I.Q. has allowed McDonald to transition from a USC defense he describes as “pretty different” from what the Rams’ system is. While there are some similarities in terms of the concepts, McDonald said there have been necessary technique adjustments to go along with all of the checks, terminology and communication keys that are also much different.
Coming from college, it can be a bit strange for rookies to focus on football 100 percent of the time without the distractions of having to go to class or any of the other things that go with being in school.
For McDonald, that’s been a welcome change.
“It is different but the thing about it is in class sometimes the homework and things like that you don’t want to do,” McDonald said. “But this is ball; this is what I love to do. So I don’t see it as a chore to me. I want to keep searching, keep doing the things that I can do to get better. The best thing about it is you come out here on this field and you see it pay off and you see that you are executing the right stuff and it makes you want to keep going and keep digging into that playbook and keep getting better.”
In an effort to help with grasping the alterations, McDonald has relied on the simple advice his father gave him long ago and re-iterated to him before he came to St. Louis.
“The biggest thing was just keep doing what I had been doing, don’t change anything,” McDonald said. “Ask questions, keep studying film and take advantage of every opportunity they give you. Every rep that I get out here is an opportunity and just make sure I can go out there and make my presence felt on the field and do what I can.”
Much was made about whether McDonald would fit into the Rams defense as a free or a strong safety but the scheme actually allows the safeties to be interchangeable so he says his football education enables him to have equal parts playing physical up in the box and running the alley on the back end in coverage.
“You have got to be able to do both, especially in this league now,” McDonald said. “It’s changed a little bit and you have got to be able to hold disguise and if you start doing one thing, you can kind of give that away. So you have got to be able to do both, learn both positions and be able to go out there and execute to the best of my ability from both the free safety and strong safety spots.”
Like the rest of his rookie teammates, McDonald has one more week in St. Louis before he is able to depart for more than a month and training camp begins anew. That time allows for McDonald to return home to Fresno, Calif. and spend time with his family.
It also allows for McDonald to pick his father’s brain even further on some of the basic NFL concepts he’s already learned. He’s hopeful that will allow him to be even sharper mentally when he gets into the grind of training camp.
“Everything is mental,” McDonald said. “I feel like physically, I can compete with everybody out here. It’s just learn the playbook, come out here, get all the checks, being comfortable talking with all the guys that have been here already and be able to be confident and vocal. That transition is something that takes awhile to get going but once you get it and get confident, you just get back to doing what you love and playing football.”