RICHMOND, Va. -- As the pass reached its destination, Washington Redskins secondary coach Torrian Gray anticipated cornerback Josh Norman would make a play. Instead, he didn’t get high off the ground, leaving Gray a little puzzled.
A day or two later, Norman looked more spry. He raced over from his side of the field toward the middle and jumped high. With an extended reach, he intercepted a pass.
The difference could be owed to one thing: an 18-pound vest that Norman often wears underneath his pads during practice. Gray didn’t even know about it until he was asked about it -- and Norman was reluctant to discuss it. Why give away his secrets, after all?
He started using it in the spring and kept it on during almost every practice in training camp. And he’s not really sure why he started doing it in the first place.
“It was one of my sarcastically bright ideas,” Norman said of wearing the vest.
But Norman also said he’s worked even harder this offseason. He said the training work he put in for "Dancing With the Stars" this spring was more intense than anything he’d done on the football field. He trained in the mountains; he ran sandy hills.
“I pushed my body further than I thought it could go,” Norman said.
And then the vest.
“You put on a vest and see,” he said when asked how much he notices it during practice. “It restricts you in a lot of areas, obviously gravity. It restricts you in your ability to get in and out of breaks faster. Everything you do is mental; be disciplined in your mind and you can go through anything.”
Norman said there have been some practices in which he didn’t use the vest, and he intercepted a pass in one of them. But it’s not as if he had looked bad in other practices before then.
However, there were times when Gray wondered about a play that wasn’t made, such as the time in a one-on-one drill when Norman had good position on receiver Josh Doctson, but the wideout was able to reach high for the ball and make the catch.
“It was a play for sure I thought he would make, and he didn’t get off the ground as I thought he would,” Gray said. “Maybe that vest had something to do with holding him down.”
Gray also said Norman’s practices Saturday and Sunday were two of his best in terms of his technique and fundamentals. He also noticed something else.
“I’d seen him come out of a couple breaks and was like, ‘Whoa, that was pretty good.’ He looked quick in some instances,” Gray said.
For Norman, it’s about being able to accept defeat in training-camp practices to make sure he’s more prepared in games. That’s not always easy when practicing in front of fans, knowing that videos of you getting beaten will be seen by thousands on social media.
“I know if I’m defeated on this play by an inch or 6 inches, OK, let’s take off [the vest] and see how it really gets down,” Norman said. “Every day I’m doing this so when the season comes, I can be a top corner and then I can peak toward the end of the year, not now. What for? It’s training camp. It’s to get your body broken down to levels you can actually withstand it.
“It’s a grueling test. So you get roasted? So what? Who gives a ... I really don’t. I do what I’ve got to do to get my body right before the game actually comes. So it’s me just being disciplined and understanding there are levels to your training and you can go further than you think you can.”
Norman, who turns 31 in December, is entering his third season with Washington. The Redskins made him the NFL’s highest-paid corner at the time and he still counts more money against the cap than any other corner. He played well overall last season, though he didn't come up with the game-changing plays the Redskins also needed.
That’s why the ball he intercepted in 7-on-7 Saturday pleased Gray. In the 2017 season opener against the Eagles, Norman was unable to come down with a ball in which he tried to make a similar, high-reaching grab.
“He just didn’t seem to come down with them the rest of the year,” Gray said. “The opportunities will come if you’re in the right vicinity and doing the right things or have the right type of pressure. You’ve just got to finish them. ... His last two practices have been as good as I’ve seen since I’ve been here, from a technique, fundamental standpoint and the things you always try to preach. He just is really honed in.”
As in his first two camps with Washington, Norman is almost always the last player to reach the locker room. He stays on the field for extra work after practice, often with some of the younger defensive backs. Afterward, he signs autographs for fans. He often doesn’t reach the facility after practice for an hour. That was the case last Sunday, a day when the heat index reached the upper 90s. It was also a day when he wore the vest.
“My offseason was the hardest I’ve had since I’ve been in the league, from dancing, to the mountains and running sand hills,” Norman said. “That was hell. But you go through all that and something’s gotta come from it. I truly believe this year it really will. I’m gonna have a breakthrough one way or another.”