New Ravens defensive back Brandon Stephens broke into tears when he got the news.
Two years after switching schools — and positions — Stephens was on the receiving end of a phone call from Ravens GM Eric DeCosta, who informed him that Baltimore was selecting him in the third round with the No. 104 pick. Stephens’ memories of how he got to this point flooded back, and he was quickly overcome with emotion.
Stephens explained on Glenn Clark Radio May 4 why he was so emotional when he was talking to DeCosta and head coach John Harbaugh.
“When I got the phone call, I had just a flashback of everything that I’ve gone through in the past three, four years,” Stephens said. “Every decision I’ve made and every workout that I’ve had and all the moments — just everything, man — I just had a whole flashback of what I’ve been through.
“It’s really been a long time coming. Not a lot of people know exactly what I’ve been through, but it’s been a long time coming. I had this vision from a little kid. Just to see my phone ring and talk to Coach Harbaugh and Eric DeCosta, it was literally a dream come true. I was emotional. They could’ve held out the crying part a little bit, but it’s all good.”
The past five years have been a winding road for Stephens. A native of Plano, Texas, Stephens was recruited by UCLA as a running back as part of the Class of 2016. Stephens showed some promise as a sophomore in 2017, running for 182 yards and a touchdown on 46 touchdowns, but he barely played the following year.
Stephens knew he had to make a change to have a chance to achieve his dream of making it to the NFL. He announced his intention to transfer from UCLA in January 2019 and landed at Southern Methodist — close to his hometown of Plano — in August later that year. He also switched to cornerback at SMU.
Listed by the Ravens at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Stephens had the prototypical body of an NFL defensive back — but was short on experience.
“I’ve always had a love for the position,” Stephens said. “I played it a little bit in high school. I just felt like playing on the defensive side of the ball was my best chance at getting to this point. It just all started with my love for the position. I really didn’t hesitate to make the transition and make the switch. I knew it was the right call. I just talked to my family about it and we just went with the decision.”
SMU head coach Sonny Dykes had known of Stephens from his time as the head coach at Cal (2013-2016), having played against Stephens when the running back was a freshman at UCLA. Once Stephens got his degree from UCLA and decided to transfer, he reached out to SMU cornerbacks coach Kevin Curtis to get the ball rolling.
Stephens initially walked on to the Mustangs, but Dykes said the team’s coaches realized Stephens was good enough to be a scholarship corner 30 minutes into SMU’s first practice in the summer of 2019. When did the coaches realize he had a chance to be a special player?
“Probably about midway through his first year playing the position, he just kept getting better and better and better and better,” Dykes said. “We were in a meeting one day and said, ‘Hey, this guy’s got a chance to be really something special.’ Just because it’s hard to find corners who are that physical, that willing to tackle and continue to improve week after week after week after week.”
In 2019, Stephens made 49 tackles and broke up 12 passes in 13 games. In 2020, he posted 43 tackles, broke up 10 passes and had an interception in 10 games. Dykes said Stephens transitioned to the defensive side of the ball so smoothly because of his work ethic and maturity, along with his understanding that he wasn’t going to be a finished product overnight.
Stephens will likely be learning another position with the Ravens, who view him as a free safety. His path to the team’s game day roster in 2021 will come via special teams, and should he perform well, that’ll give him an opportunity to play safety (or corner) down the line.
“He’s a really good open-field tackler. He’s physical. His mentality’s very, very physical. He’s got an attacking mentality,” Dykes said of what makes Stephens a versatile player. “He’s durable just because of his size and his strength. He’s going to be a big impact on teams. He understands how to play the game. He’s always in a good football position. He anticipates the game well. Just because he has played on offense, I think he probably sees the game a little bit differently than some defensive players.”
For his part, Stephens is excited about the opportunity to play for a franchise with a rich tradition on the defensive side of the ball.
“I grew up watching Ed Reed and Ray Lewis,” Stephens said. “This team, they’re known for their defense. Just to be able to be selected to represent this organization, filling in big shoes that came before the ones who are here now is really an honor and a pleasure.”
For more from Stephens, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of SMU Athletics