No cornerback in the 2022 NFL Draft possesses a higher ceiling than UTSA's Tariq Woolen. The Fort Worth, Texas native is the definition of an athletic specimen. The rocked-up, 6-foot-4, 205-pound Woolen literally dropped jaws at the NFL Scouting Combine by running the 40-yard dash in a staggering 4.26 seconds. It qualified as the fourth-fastest time in combine history. Woolen also showcased his unique lower-body explosion by leaping a 42-inch vertical jump.
Woolen has an excellent chance to be a first-round selection on Thursday.
Woolen recently spoke exclusively with The Draft Network regarding his breathtaking combine performance, his flexibility as a cover-man that can handle both man and zone coverage responsibilities, what sets him apart from the other cornerbacks in this draft class, his overall identity as a cornerback, which teams have shown interest in him throughout the process, and so much more.
JM: What a process it’s been for you. I’m not sure there’s another prospect in this draft class that has attached a jetpack to their pre-draft stock in the manner that you have. Have you noticed a gradual uptick in the attention you’re receiving throughout the process?
TW: I definitely have. That time frame before the Senior Bowl to after the combine, it’s been crazy to measure how things have changed for me. Seeing my name in different mock drafts and on the big boards, it’s been wild to witness how much has changed. I was viewed as a sixth-round pick in the media when the process was just getting started. I’m not getting out of the second round in those mock drafts anymore (laughs). It’s pretty crazy.
JM: Your journey has been so much fun to monitor. When we turn the tape on, we see a unique cornerback that blends size, length, and athleticism. How would you describe your overall identity as a corner?
TW: First and foremost, I’m a long, rangy guy. I love to play press-man coverage, but I can play zone coverage, too. I can also go out there and take away the deep ball. I can make some extra plays when our defense needs it most. I feel like I’m an all-around playmaker.
JM: I’m excited to dive deeper into those topics with you. You’re 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds. How do you use your rare physical gifts to your advantage in coverage?
TW: In press-man, I feel very comfortable using my size because I have so much trust in myself in regards to defending the deep ball. I dare a receiver to run a deep developing route on me (laughs). I trust my speed at the end of the day. That’s one of the key traits I lean on, but I’m also a long cornerback that was born to play press-man.
My length makes it extremely difficult for a receiver to get around me. I love to use my length and try to force a wide release. I use my length to make life difficult on opposing receivers. It helps me throw off the timing between receiver and quarterback.
JM: All of those things help set you apart on tape. What do you feel sets you apart from the other top-ranked cornerbacks in this draft class?
TW: Shoot, I’ve only been playing the cornerback position for two years. A lot of these other cornerbacks in this draft class have been playing cornerback, or other defensive positions their entire lives. Most of them at least played cornerback throughout their entire collegiate careers. I didn’t do that. Those guys may look polished or whatever, but I’ve only been playing cornerback for two years and I’ve accomplished things at the position like a veteran would. I have so much trust, confidence, and faith in my abilities at cornerback.
When I get drafted and get an opportunity to work alongside a great coaching staff, I’m so excited for the opportunity to continue honing my craft. I feel like I’ll be the best cornerback when we look back on this class a couple of years from now. Knowing my traits, knowing what I’m capable of, I feel extremely confident about the process I’m going through right now. I’m excited to work alongside an NFL coaching staff. I feel like I can be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in a few years’ time.
JM: We agree with everything you’re saying. The sky’s the limit for you thanks to your rare physical and athletic traits. You talked about playing man and zone. UTSA ran a lot of man and zone coverage. They mixed it up. Talk to me about your flexibility to thrive in both. Do you have a preference? It sounds like you prefer press-man.
TW: Going into my senior season, I was really focused on getting my techniques down. I did a better job understanding where my help was when playing zone coverage. I understood that. I was reading receivers at a higher level. I started to realize that I didn’t have to do as much on certain plays this year. I played more relaxed and comfortably than I did the year before. I don’t have to be aggressive on every single play.
I got myself into more of a rhythm. I started to understand I didn’t have to go as hard on the shorter routes when in zone coverage, Cover 3 to be specific. You have to protect those deep routes. That helped me notice a big difference between my first and second year at corner.
JM: There was definite growth. What goes into your film study? What are some of the things you look for throughout the course of a game-prepping week?
TW: Early in the week, I enjoy doing my research on which receivers I’ll be covering on the weekend. I pay attention to the outside receivers specifically because I spent most of my time outside. I start by looking at which receivers they’re going to play on the outside. I identify those guys, and then I start paying close attention to their tendencies on film. Some receivers like to tighten up their gloves before a play. For me, that’s a tell that it’s about to be a passing play. That’s something I’ve noticed on film. If they’re tightening their gloves pre-snap, it’s about to be a passing play.
I also research the percentage of targets each receiver typically gets on a weekly basis within their offense. I’ll also identify on which downs they’re most likely to target a certain receiver. Down-and-distance can be a pretty big tell in that regard, especially on third down. I want to cover that receiver on third down. How often does he get targeted on third down? I enter a game having a pretty good idea. I know who the go-to guy is on third down. I’ll look at that throughout the week. I also pay attention to which receivers get the ball in the red zone, too. That’s obviously super important. I like to key in on that.
Now I start paying attention to their preferences. Does he like to be pressed at the line of scrimmage? Does it make him uncomfortable? Some receivers excel against press coverage and I have to switch up my technique. I love doing all of these things throughout the week and the season. It helped me a lot.
JM: You obviously take your film study very seriously. That’s great to hear. Do you approach a smaller, shiftier receiver in coverage differently than you do a bigger, more physical receiver that can match your size?
TW: Sometimes I do. I know those smaller guys are typically savvier and more efficient off the line of scrimmage. It’s better to get your hands on them as quickly as possible. Those bigger receivers, it can actually be easier for me to get my hands on them. I just try to make sure I get the right hand placement every single time, especially against those smaller receivers. You’re trying to slow those types down, even though I’m a faster cornerback that can match their speed.
JM: That makes a lot of sense. You had one of the best combines of any prospect at any position when you ran the 40-yard dash in 4.26 seconds and leaped a 42-inch vertical. Do you feel like you opened some eyes in Indianapolis?
TW: I definitely did. A lot of the people that I trained with, people who were around me at the UTSA program, those people knew how athletically gifted I am, and what I could possibly do at the combine. When it was time for me to display that in front of the whole world, it was pretty cool to see everybody’s reaction. I was definitely an unknown commodity for a lot of people. I went out there and turned some heads.
It’s crazy when I look back at it. It already feels so long ago (laughs). It seems like it didn’t even happen. It was all a blessing. I’m glad I was able to go there and showcase my skills.
JM: You blew away a lot of people. Which teams have you met with throughout the process, either virtually or via in-person top 30 visits?
TW: I made Top 30 visits with the Las Vegas Raiders, Carolina Panthers, and I went to Indianapolis as well. I had so many Zoom meetings, it’s difficult to remember them all. I had some with the New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs, and Arizona Cardinals, to name a few. A lot of teams have been reaching out to me. Those are just a few. It’s tough to remember them all. A lot of teams have reached out to me and have shown interest.
JM: There’s a lot of interest in you and it’s easy to see why. You’ve absolutely aced this process, but it won’t stop some people from calling you a “small-school prospect” coming out of UTSA. How do you typically respond?
TW: Back in the day, I used to see UTSA as a small school because I was a younger cat that didn’t really understand the full scope of the program. When I received my scholarship offer to the program, I didn’t know anything about the school really (laughs). I was curious and I began doing some research.
As the years have gone by, I don’t consider us to be a small school anymore. Not at all. I started to realize that as long as you have talent, the NFL will find you anywhere. When people refer to us as a smaller school, we just play with a chip on our shoulder. We’ve displayed that we can play with the big schools. It doesn’t matter what level it is. As long as you go out there and compete, and you execute, it won’t be a problem going forward. We routinely went out there and showcased that. I don’t even consider us a small school anymore.
I know we’re a school on the rise. In the years ahead, everybody will start realizing that. I promise you.
JM: I love how passionate you are about the program. If you could pick the brain of any cornerback in today’s NFL, who would you choose and why?
TW: I would choose Richard Sherman. Back when I was playing receiver, I loved watching tape of my favorite receivers going against Richard Sherman. I tried to learn from those tapes. I studied those games. I loved studying receivers against Sherman. Now that I’m on the other side, not much has changed (laughs). I still love watching Sherman.
It wasn’t hard for me to find a guy to model my game after. We’re both taller cornerbacks, we have similar body types. I went back into the lab and started watching Sherman tape. He’s not super athletically gifted or anything like that but he went out there and killed every receiver he lined up across from (laughs). I’d love to pick his brain and understand how the game slowed down for him. I’d love to ask him how I could be a baller like him. That’s something I would love to talk to him about.
JM: That’s a terrific choice. I’ve really appreciated your time today. I feel like this conversation has highlighted why Tariq Woolen has a chance to develop into the best cornerback in the 2022 NFL Draft. In closing, why should a team use a first-round selection on Tariq Woolen on Thursday?
TW: If a team were to use a first-round selection on me, I feel like I would reward them beyond being just a great playmaker. I’m a great teammate in the locker room, and off the field as well. I try to be a great teammate on a daily basis, in life in general.
Guys enjoy being around somebody they’re comfortable with, and I try to do everything possible to make myself a great person and teammate to be around. They also want to be around teammates they can play well with in the secondary. I’m a guy that can do that at the next level. I’m excited to get the right team around me.
A team that banks on me understands what my traits are. They trust my progression. I’m excited to go out there, play, and develop. I think that makes me a great person to use your first-round pick on.