Imagine you're fresh out of flight school, having piloted nothing but small prop planes. Then, someone gives you a job flying 747 jets. That's what happened to Na'il Diggs last season. And from the way he handled the jump, if you didn't know he was a rookie, you'd have thought the strong-side linebacker had years of experience.
He admits it wasn't easy. At this time last year, he was adjusting to the NFL's supersonic pace.
"Everything, everything's different," said the soft-spoken Diggs, entering his second NFL season. "Things happen so much faster on the pro level. If I played a college game now, I probably wouldn't even know how to play. Things happen so much slower there; they take so much time to develop. Here, it's done. It's bang-bang."
Diggs as a player did not take much time to develop. A steal as Green Bay's fourth-round selection in the 2000 draft, started 12 games, en route to the team's defensive rookie of the year.
"He learned real quick how to be a pro, how to approach his job" said Bo Pelini, the Packers' linebacker coach. "He really took care of the mental aspect of it, and that enables us to play him right away."
And as quick as Diggs is mentally, he's equally as fast physically. His speed is highly effective in coordinator Ed Donatell's quickness-oriented scheme. Speed allows Diggs to cover a tight end on the deep routes, without help from a safety.
Diggs, 22, is quick to assure that he finds becoming and staying a starter is an ongoing process.
"There was a lot of pressure," said Diggs. "I didn't know what to expect from all the older guys. I didn't know how they were going to take it. I was a new guy, a hot shot. I wasn't sure how everybody was looking at me."
One guy who was looking at him was Donatell, now fully aware of his extreme athletic ability and agility.
"He's one of those guys you like more every time you see him," Donatell said. "He's fast. He's swift. He's explosive. The key words in our defense - fast and explosive - he had those things. He also has leverage. He gets it with his length. It's why he can take on bigger people and still hold his base. I have a very, very high opinion of this guy."
Diggs doesn't fit the "standard" demeanor of the prototypical strong-side linebacker, weighing 15 pounds lighter than the average player at this position, and playing with a quiet confidence he displays only to the attentive teammate or coach. His maturity is beyond his years, and shows in the intense performances on the field. The modest player claims he relied merely on talent for a successful rookie season, but coaches know the year was successful because of his mental toughness in key situations. Fans can expect to see him more in nickel packages on passing downs this season.
"We wanted him to learn one spot," Donatell said of their expectations for Diggs enterting last season. "Now we open the window and get him thinking about every spot. Somewhere, whether in high school or at Ohio State, he learned how to prepare himself."
At Ohio State, he was All-Big Ten on two occasions, and All-America in 1999. He played in 37 straight contests from 1997-99, including a 26-game starting streak.
But Diggs accomplished more than football while competing for the Buckeyes. He earned a degree in aviation, fulfilling a childhood dream.
"When I got to Ohio State and realized they actually offer aviation as a major, I knew that was for me," Diggs said. "I have always wanted to fly, ever since I can remember and the fact that I was actually getting the opportunity to learn about it was a dream come true."
Diggs' impressive drive began in high school, where he was a SuperPrep All-America his senior season at Los Angeles' Dorsey High School. He set the pace that year for his team, which won a state championship. As a prep, he played defensive end, linebacker, tight end, punter and kicker.
Not every NFL rookie gets opportunities like the ones Diggs received in 2000. However not every rookie demands opportunities by showing he is ready, willing and able to perform under the pressure. Coming from Ohio State, where players often perform for crowds as large as 93,000, Diggs is comfortable in the fan-friendly environment and looks forward to a long career improving as a Packers linebacker.
Diggs, special and rare in his work ethic, has endured enough tough times to make a name for himself. Having been raised by his close sister Rosalyn because of his parents death at age 13, Diggs has endured rough periods and is prepared for whatever comes in the future.
He has accepted the starting job at a very tough position, and excelled beyond the hopes of his coaches and teammates. His quiet confidence and mature poise are sure to carry him well into years as a successful veteran.