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Full Speed Ahead: E.J. Speed’s rise to the NFL

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Rookie linebacker E.J. Speed has been a revelation during Colts training camp and off-season work. With his athleticism, intensity, and physicality, the 5th Round pick has shone bright and is already looking to play key snaps once the season begins. He may not have been on many draft analysts radars, but Speed is already looking like another Chris Ballard steal - just a year after Darius Leonard shocked the NFL world. For Tarleton State’s linebacker Coach Marc Martinez, however, Speed’s initial success doesn’t come as a surprise. At all.

“I haven’t had a player like him,” Martinez remarked when I asked about Speed’s game. “You know a kid with that much talent, length and aggressiveness. Typically you don’t get those kids at the Division 2 level. He had a situation in high school with his brother that led him to Tarleton State, so we were just blessed to have a kid of his talent choose to come here.”

That situation Martinez refers to, of course, involves both Speed and his adopted brother Paul Sneed. Paul was diagnosed with cancer during Speed’s senior year of high school, leading Speed to turn down outside offers and stay close to home. FBS schools like Oklahoma State, Colorado, and Colorado State all came knocking on the former quarterback’s doorstep, but with his brother also committing to Tarleton State, the plan was for the two to stay together. Sadly, Snead passed away that coming April, before he could even step foot on campus.

The unfortunate tragedy didn’t define Speed, however, as he still attended Tarleton State that coming fall. But as Martinez states, his early career with the Texans wasn’t quite as you’d expect.

“He was a unique situation,” Martinez explained of the high school quarterback. “(We) tried him out at receiver to start. He was even going to play there in his redshirt freshman year before a foot injury kind of stopped him in his tracks.”

That aforementioned foot injury may have just been the best thing possible, as Speed flipped to the defensive side of the field for his sophomore season - where Martinez began to coach him. Starting as a rush linebacker, Speed’s tenacity and gritty mentality made him a natural on the other side of the ball - and Martinez knew it. He stayed there for the entire season before moving to the SAM linebacker position as a junior, and then finally playing the coveted WILL position for his final year and a half.

Now, all this position switching was tough on Speed, but as Martinez explains, it allowed him to be the player he is today.

“Well, you can see the athleticism and footwork from being a receiver,” Martinez elaborated. “And with the rush linebacker background, he was used to going up against tackles. Now you put him off-ball and it’s even easier shedding blocks from tight ends instead of linemen. All in all, that experience really just helped him grow.”

A switch to defence wasn’t the only major change Speed saw during his time at Tarleton, however. A dramatic change in physique was just as - if not more - important. After all, there’s a reason a former wideout was able to go up against lineman and not get killed.

Coming out of high school weighing 190 pounds and running a 5.3 forty yard dash, Speed gained roughly 40 pounds throughout his collegiate career, quickening his forty time by 0.7 seconds in the process. Although Martinez would like to take some credit for Speed’s remarkable transformation, he acknowledged that the linebacker, along with strength coach Rod Cole, did all the work in that regard.

“I would obviously give a lot of credit to (E.J.) putting the work in,” Martinez professed. “But also our strength coach Rod Cole. He’s been at Tarleton for 11 years now, and over his 36-year career, he’s coached guys like Jordy Nelson, Terence Newman, and more. He knows what it takes.”

With his hard work and determination - along with some help from Cole - Speed did everything he could to try and get his NFL shot, with Martinez reminiscing on one moment in particular that highlighted his unrelenting drive.

“In his senior year (E.J.) didn’t miss one summer workout,” Martinez explained. “There were times he would go out with the morning group and run, and he would come out in the afternoon group again - without having to do it - and do extra drills and run with them (in the 100-degree heat). It just tells you where his mindset and priorities are at.”

Those priorities and newfound gifts allowed Speed to dominate his final year at Tarleton, racking up over 100 tackles and helping lead the team to a near-perfect record (and the most successful season in school history). His play also attracted the eyes of NFL scouts, which was foreign territory for a prospect from the Division 2 school. For Martinez, the opportunity to coach such a gifted individual was a blessing, and he said the same in interviews with scouts.

“It’s awesome to coach,” he recited. “Athletes like him make you seem like a better coach because they make the plays you just can’t teach. That natural speed and natural aggression he brings to the table. His strong football IQ. He’s just a kid that always wants to learn more and more. He would always come and sit in on defensive staff meetings and was always hungry to learn more.”

Everything Martinez said was true - and seemed great on the surface - but there was also trouble in Speed’s off-field past that organizations were worried about. In late August of 2018, he and 4 others were arrested for illegal criminal activity in Harris County, Texas. Teams needed answers, and thankfully for Indianapolis, Speed helped provide them. The linebacker has since distanced himself from all those involved in the incident, and according to Martinez, has learned how to live right.

“We do our work,” Indianapolis Colts GM Chris Ballard remarked when asked about Speed’s troubled past. “I can’t emphasize it enough: kids make mistakes. They make mistakes. That doesn’t mean they are bad kids, it doesn’t mean they are bad people - he simply made a mistake.”

To no surprise, Martinez doubled down on Ballard’s stance when asked about Speed’s character.

“He may have made a mistake or two,” Martinez referenced, “but he knows what’s right from wrong.”

The linebacker coach then elaborated on Speed’s personality, citing his strong sense of leadership and his enthusiastic nature.

“He likes to talk smack talk a lot,” Martinez said with a small chuckle. “(E.J.) will speak his mind and go out and tell people if they aren’t doing something right. He has a leader mentality that a lot of guys fed off of. As a person, he’s just really assertive. One on one he’ll be honest with you and let you know how he feels, but he’s also quick to ask questions and always ready to learn.”

Indianapolis was clearly enamoured by those same personal qualities, as they wound up pulling the trigger on Speed with the 154th pick - a much earlier selection than expected. Even Martinez himself was a bit surprised.

“You know, I was at his home and we had a little draft party - his family was all over at his house,” Martinez explained. “(E.J.) was sitting there getting phone calls from teams saying they were interested, but I was still nervous. I mean he’s a Division 2 linebacker who had only played the position for a year and a half. I knew he had a chance, but I was just praying. Eventually, he got the call from the Colts and everyone started screaming. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

It’s been roughly 4 months since that unforgettable Saturday, but that doesn’t mean Speed and his former coach haven’t kept in touch. Despite the recent fame, the promising defender hasn’t forgotten where he came from, even if a 6 tackle performance in the pre-season opener had him looking like a star player.

“You know, I always ask him how practices are,” Martinez stated. “This is my first player that’s gotten drafted so I’m almost just as interested as he is. I like to ask him how practices are, how they do drills. He even reached out to me when he learned he could wear his college gear on road trips. He wanted to let me know that he can wear a little jumpsuit and backpack that say Tarleton on it. Even after he’s gone, he’s still thinking of ways to get us exposure. That’s just the type of guy he is.”

As for Speed’s NFL future, the sky is truly the limit. One of the main standouts of Colts training camp, the rookie linebacker is dominating headlines and may just be starting by season’s end - which just weeks ago would’ve seemed like a ridiculous proposition.

But Martinez has learned by now never to doubt Speed, summing it up with one simple word - DAWG.

He’s a dawg”, the coach proclaimed. If you tell him to run through a brick wall to get to the ball carrier, he’s going to find a way. Nothing is going to stop him.