How chess and Brandon Marshall prepped Jets' Dexter McDougle for possible breakout year
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FLORHAM PARK — Between team periods Tuesday at Jets practice, cornerback Dexter McDougle jogged to the sideline, buzzing with excitement.
“Ain’t this [expletive] fun?” he asked corner Derrick Jones, as McDougle recalled later.
For McDougle lately, this sure is, at long last. Gone are his dark days of rehabbing injuries and wallowing on the practice squad. Now, he is slimmer, faster, more confident. Entering his fourth NFL season, a contract year, the former third-round draft pick has renewed resolve.
And his journey back here to fun football began with a chess board, of all things.
As he fights for a role in this training camp — and gets regular encouragement from ex-Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall — McDougle’s goal is simple, albeit challenging.
“Make my impact known,” he told NJ Advance Media. “Whoever steps in front of me, I just want to dominate them.”
A non-factor for most of his first three seasons, McDougle has impressed so far in camp, through 13 practices and one preseason game. Last Saturday against the Titans, he played 25 snaps with the reserves and broke up three passes.
The Jets’ top three corners are currently Morris Claiborne, Buster Skrine, and Juston Burris. McDougle is competing for playing time with Marcus Williams and Darryl Roberts. Is this the year McDougle finally proves why the Jets picked him in Round 3?
His struggles to date underscore former general manager John Idzik’s awful 2014 draft class. Idzik picked 12 players that year. Three remain with the Jets: receiver Quincy Enunwa (injured and out for 2017), backup offensive guard Dakota Dozier, and McDougle.
The Jets’ top two picks that year have been busts: safety Calvin Pryor and tight end Jace Amaro. The third, McDougle, has delivered underwhelming results — zero interceptions and one pass breakup in 20 career games (no starts), after missing his rookie year with a torn ACL.
The seeds of McDougle’s offseason transformation began, rather indirectly, a decade ago. When he got in trouble as a teenager, his father, Dexter McDougle Sr., forced him to sit down and play chess all night. They’d play for hours on Dexter Sr.’s bed. His son’s analytical mind and competitive spirit eventually embraced the game. He loved outwitting the old man.
Years later, at the Jets’ training facility, McDougle noticed Marshall playing chess on his phone. “You play chess?” McDougle asked. And so a friendship and mentorship began. The young corner and veteran receiver bonded over hours-long chess games. They still play via an app, now that Marshall is with the Giants.
After last season, McDougle joined Marshall at his gym in Florida and trained there for a month. Marshall told McDougle he had plenty of ability, but suggested McDougle lose weight.
So McDougle poured himself into offseason training. He dropped from 207 pounds to 194. He cut out fried foods and late-night snacking. Never a heavy drinker, he gave up alcohol entirely. He ran and ran and ran some more.
In the six weeks between mid-June minicamp and training camp, McDougle stayed in northern New Jersey, rather than returning to Virginia to relax and enjoy his mom’s rich cooking. He was one of the few players who worked out at the Jets’ facility, instead of training elsewhere. McDougle hadn’t ever stuck around Florham Park in the summer like this before.
Some evenings at his apartment, an urge would strike him, and he’d pull on his sneakers. Off he’d go for a two-mile jog — or to a local park, to run sprints alone.
“I was just driven by something else,” he said. “The big thing for me is I know who I am as a player.”
He believes it’s not the guy whose body betrayed him so often over the past four years — a fractured shoulder in 2013 at Maryland, the ACL tear in 2014 camp, a pulled hamstring that sidelined him for most of camp last year. He spent much of last season on the practice squad, playing just six games. He never wants to feel that miserable again.
“It was a down time for me,” he said. “I wasn’t taking it very well. It just sucked, man.”
When his teammates saw the new, sleeker McDougle last month, they were stunned. They thought he had some kind of illness.
“Man, you look sick,” they said, as McDougle recalled.
Quite the opposite. He learned to control his body. He drinks more water, because he thinks dehydration caused his pulled hamstring last year. He spends more time in the trainers’ room before and after practice, rolling out his legs to limber up, soaking in hot and cold tubs to heal.
“I’ve figured out my body,” he said after Tuesday’s practice. “I felt like I was flying today.”
Corner Buster Skrine said McDougle is showing two important signs of a confident corner: He “trusts his speed” more now, and is “more patient.” Jets coach Todd Bowles said McDougle appears “finally comfortable,” partly because of his physical conditioning. It’s also because of his chess player’s mind, always analyzing.
“What have you been doing up to this point that hasn’t been working?” he asked himself earlier this offseason. “You need to change that.”
He did. All those summer sacrifices — not seeing his friends, family, or girlfriend as much, while he stayed in New Jersey — are beginning to pay off. And his old chess partner has noticed.
Marshall was a polarizing figure in the Jets’ locker room, but McDougle still values their friendship. They regularly exchange text messages, along with chess moves on a phone app.
After McDougle excelled against the Titans, Marshall texted him, saying he looked good. McDougle sends Marshall updates on his weight and body fat. Marshall tells McDougle he envisions a breakout year for him.
For McDougle, it’s about time. He is tired of being an afterthought.
“I think my peers are starting to notice,” he said. “I just know who I am, and I know why I was brought here. I never lose sight of that. I wanted to make a statement when I came out this year, and I want to keep doing that. I want them to know I’m here and I’m ready to compete.”