When Kendall Coleman texted his parents, Nikki and Kevin, that he thought he didn’t want to play football anymore, they knew he was serious.
Coleman’s always been deliberate, Nikki said. If her son says something, he means it. So, days after tearing his left labrum against Louisville in November 2017 — his second major injury that season — Coleman reached out to his parents. Kevin, as Nikki remembered, felt Coleman should stay at Syracuse.
“I’m not going to make you stay but I want you think about this,” she recalled Kevin telling Coleman on the phone. “Life is hard. We can’t give you anything. You have to earn everything. And yes, you have had unfortunate injuries, but you know, that’s some of the trials and tribulations. So we want you to think about that because this was your dream.”
A day later, Coleman called them back. His mind was made up. He’d stay at SU.
In the nearly year-and-a-half since, Coleman’s grown into a dominant force off the edge of Syracuse’s defensive line. After two injury-plagued years, Coleman’s body caught up with his technique and he reaped the rewards in 2018, totaling 10 sacks — tied for 10th in the country. But Coleman’s unsatisfied. Prior to his junior season, he wrote down a list of goals: Record double-digit sacks, 40 or more tackles and earn an All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection. In his final season this fall, he intends to achieve the latter two.
“Understand what my goals are for my individual self and where I want to take my career and then go out there and just perform,” Coleman said of his 2019 mindset. “Perform through doing my job.”
When he arrived at Syracuse in 2016, Coleman looked like a linebacker at 6-foot-3 inches tall and 235 pounds. Yet, he only managed two bench press repetitions of 225 pounds.
Still, the undersized freshman from Indianapolis, Indiana pushed into the starting lineup, playing in all 12 games — 11 starts — at defensive end. Coaches loved his relentless work ethic and with a thin group of ends. He recorded a sack and led SU’s freshmen with 29 tackles. Coleman took hold of his spot, even if he wasn’t quite ready.
Head coach Dino Babers said Coleman simply outworked anyone threatening his spot. Unable to overpower ACC offensive linemen, Coleman leaned on his techniques, placing his main focus on becoming a skillful pass rusher. Defensive tackle Josh Black said he frequently finds Coleman before and after practice and workouts on his own, honing his technique with drill after drill.
“I would say that the smaller or less fitting to your position that you are, the more you have to outsmart your opponent,” Coleman said. “And when you add size and the right elements to your ability on the field, then outsmarting your opponent is something that’s an option.”
Coleman understood his need for improved technique, at the time — it was the only way to be effective. But injuries piled up his sophomore year. He wishes now that he spent more time on his physique, getting to the necessary physical level to stay healthier, longer.
Against LSU on Sept. 23, 2017, Coleman left the game with a right foot injury. He missed the next four games before returning against Florida State on Nov. 4.
Coleman’s game experience seemed nullified by the injuries happening at a rate he hadn’t experienced before. Nikki said Coleman dealt with a handful of other injuries like a broken thumb and a pulled ligament. Coleman, who’s body held up at Cathedral (Indiana) High School, showed the wear of college football.
His numbers soon dipped and he finished the season with half a sack. He felt he wasn’t helping the team as much as he could’ve or should’ve.
“‘I gotta improve, I gotta improve, I gotta improve,’” Black said of Coleman’s mindset through their first two years. “But sometimes, you gotta rest a little bit, make the injury feel a little bit better.”
Then he tore his left labrum again, texted his parents and nearly quit football.
In that moment, when Coleman wanted to step away, he immersed himself. Technique and hustle got him the starting job, but Coleman needed to do more to stay healthy — to become elite.
He redoubled his efforts in the weight room and in film review, poring over technique and alignment. He focused on strengthening his upper body to incorporate more power pass-rushing moves into his arsenal. This winter, he tallied 17 reps of 225 on the bench press.
With two years of starting experience, and finally healthy, Coleman wreaked havoc in 2018. He finished with the second-most sacks in the ACC. He played a massive role in one of Syracuse’s best defenses, and seasons, in decades.
Even after the ascension — which almost never happened — Coleman is still unhappy with where he is. Not because finishing second in the ACC in sacks wasn’t enough, but because he could finish second in the country.
“He’s mentally relentless,” Babers said. “I mean like, he doesn’t have a bad day at practice… You don’t yell at him to pick it up. I can’t recall doing that. When you have a guy that plays like that all the time, great things are going to happen to him.”
Published on April 10, 2019 at 10:48 pm
Contact Andrew: firstname.lastname@example.org | @A_E_Graham