TEMPE, Ariz. – All the work that Justin Bethel has put in over the last few years paid off in one play – his first play – Sunday.
After two games of trying to get on the field in Arizona’s speed package – which includes seven defensive backs – Bethel was finally able to sub in early in the first quarter against the San Francisco 49ers. He lined up in the deep nickel, on the left side of the defense, to the right of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, about eight yards off tight end Vernon Davis.
At the snap, Bethel backpedaled about seven yards, then broke. On his first defensive snap of the season, the former Presbyterian College safety intercepted Kaepernick and returned it for a touchdown.
It looked easy, considering how Bethel broke on the passes.
It looked flawless, given Bethel’s eye-popping athleticism.
It looked natural, after Bethel’s experience playing safety in college.
But it was years in the making.
And even still, after one pick-six, Bethel’s transition to an NFL corner isn’t nearly complete. In some ways he’s still just a beginner, trying to find consistent playing time among other corners who have played the position since before they could drive. To understand why Bethel isn’t the Cardinals’ starting right cornerback, opposite Patrick Peterson, is to understand his background as defensive back.
Bethel grew up playing wide receiver, and when he got to Blythewood High School in South Carolina, he was 5-foot-2 and 125 pounds as a freshman. Coaches quickly moved him to cornerback. He didn’t hit a growth spurt until his junior year, when he inched closer to his current height of 6-feet. At Presbyterian, a small liberal arts college that plays in the Football Championship Subdivision, Bethel spent one season at corner and then, because of injuries, he was the biggest corner left on the roster who was healthy and was moved to safety.
But playing for a small school had its misgivings.
He wasn’t given the proper and necessary coaching on the fundamentals of being a cornerback or safety, he said. Mostly everything Bethel knew about playing defensive back, he said he learned in high school. The rest, he did how it felt natural.
“I didn’t really get coached because I was so athletic, they just kind of let me do whatever I felt would work for me,” Bethel said. “And when you get to the league, there’s a lot of players you’re going against, so you definitely have to fine-tune your technique.”
Bethel was drafted in 2012 by the Cardinals’ last regime, led by former coach Ken Whisenhunt and former general manager Rod Graves. Bethel has told teammates they wanted to keep him as a safety, the position he played his last three years of college, but he played just 10 defensive snaps his rookie season while blossoming into a future Pro Bowl selection as a gunner.
Not getting that immediate attention or experience has been one reason why Bethel believes his growth as a corner has been stunted.
“I think it probably set me back a little bit, especially not playing too much until last year,” Bethel said. “And that was more inside stuff.
“I think it definitely slowed my progress down.
In Bruce Arians’ first season as coach in 2013, Bethel never played on defense but earned his first Pro Bowl invitation on special teams. He was developing a niche as one of the top gunners in the league, and the Cardinals began grooming him as a cornerback.
Bethel’s largest on-field growth spurt came last season, when he played 93 defensive snaps, and this past offseason, which started by him studying some of the league’s best corners at his second straight Pro Bowl. The rest of the offseason was spent learning the intricacies of his new position while competing for Antonio Cromartie’s old job against Jerraud Powers, who’s played the position for about 15 years.
Before he could be a formidable corner, Bethel said he had to learn the right technique, patience and where he was supposed to be on the field. He gave credit to former Cardinals cornerback Rod Hood, who was a training camp intern. He helped Bethel during camp, especially with his technique.
Almost four weeks into his fourth NFL season, Bethel finally believes he has the fundamentals of being a cornerback down. But one reason why it’s taken Bethel so long to develop into an NFL-caliber corner, he believes, is the direct result of a lack of reps.
“I think the biggest reason it’s taken me as long as it has -- and the process is going a little longer that I would like -- is it’s different in practice than when you’re going against that live game speed,” Bethel said. “I feel like you really need that to see if your technique is really what you think it is.”
Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu agreed that Bethel just needs more reps to master as difficult a position as cornerback.
Mathieu grew up playing running back and was switched to cornerback during his sophomore season of high school. But he said it wasn’t until his freshman year at LSU that he felt comfortable playing the position. That was a span of four years, right where Bethel is this season.
“It’s tough because you don’t understand routes, you don’t understand formations, you just don’t understand what the offense is trying to do to you,” Mathieu said. “Even from a scheme standpoint, everything is so new that it takes people a couple of years to even get into it and start understanding what their coach is asking them to do.
“I feel that this past year like he’s made great strides.”
Bethel’s role is expected to increase this season as long as the offense permits it.
If the Cardinals have time to substitute in their speed package, coach Bruce Arians wants to see Bethel play 10 to 15 plays per game, which could add up to more than twice as many snaps as Bethel got last year.
Bethel knows he needs it.
“Now it just comes down to getting some game time and, you know, working against receivers during actual game time,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing I need now – actual live game play.”