Cardinals cornerback Elie Bouka (right) smiles with wideout J.J. Nelson during Thursday's OTA.
Elie Bouka's native tongue is French. His second language is English.
In order to make his mark with the Cardinals, the young Canadian must now become fluent in American football parlance.
Bouka has the physical gifts required to become a cornerback in the NFL. He's 6-foot-1 , 205 pounds and runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash.
If football was like modeling, where looking the part equals success, Bouka would already be a starter. Instead, he's battling to make the roster as he navigates a considerable mental climb.
Bouka is a native of Quebec, where most kids play hockey, and the ones that pick football play under a different set of guidelines than in America. The fields in Canada are 12 yards wider than in the United States, and the defense uses 12 players instead of 11.
When Bouka arrived in Arizona as an undrafted free agent last year, he had never heard of a nickel cornerback or a strong safety (in Canada, the secondary consists of outside cornerbacks, a free safety and halfbacks).
Exacerbating the problem was the language barrier. He learned English while attending football camps growing up, but wasn't used to the different dialects coming from Cardinals coaches. When each play was barked out, Bouka strained to understand the instructions before translating the coded terminology.
"Physical ability has never been a question," Bouka said. "I know I can run with anybody. It's understanding how to be a better DB. You can run a 4.3, but if you don't know how to play DB, you can't play. When I get that down, I know I'll be a good player on the field."
No player wants to spend his entire rookie season on injured reserve, but for Bouka, it was probably a good thing. He was already transitioning from wide receiver to defense at the University of Calgary when serious shoulder and Achilles injuries sidelined him as a senior.
Bouka returned to the field in offseason work with the Cardinals, but then hamstring issues in both legs popped up.
"We'd been working on the Achilles for so long," Bouka said. "When you've been off for so long, all these soft tissue injuries come in. I ended up popping both hamstrings. It was just a matter of time, but when you get to training camp, you don't have time. We tried and we tried. We realized, 'He's not ready. He's still hurt.' I see that as a blessing and a curse. Yes, I was hurt, but it allowed me to learn, which is what I needed."
The Cardinals have a star cornerback in Patrick Peterson, while Justin Bethel and Brandon Williams are expected to battle for the other starting spot. The Cardinals drafted Rudy Ford in the sixth round and have plenty of other veterans and youngsters on the roster, but Bouka is trying to make a name for himself.
He was recently promoted to the main field to practice alongside the starters and top reserves. There have been good days and bad.
"He got put over on Field 1 and got exposed a little bit," coach Bruce Arians said. "He'd been doing really well on Field 2. We'll see. He's big, strong and fast. It's just whether or not he can handle it."
Bouka had an interception on Wednesday and knocked down some passes on Thursday. Wide receiver J.J. Nelson has faced off against him a few times and said he can see the improvement Bouka is making on a daily basis.
After making the transition to the main field two years ago, Nelson knows it's not easy.
"The first field, man, it's hard," Nelson said. "It's so much faster. Everything's different. You have to know everything on the fly, which is why I encourage the guys to stay in the playbook and ask as many questions as you can."
Bouka is a regular next to cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross during practice, dissecting plays when others run them before giving it a go himself.
While it took some time to learn English, Bouka now speaks it fluently. If he can pick up the language of football, there is a legitimate chance at success.
"I don't have a specific goal this year of what I want to be, but I know that if I do the little things every single day, I have the physical ability to be a really good player on this field," Bouka said. "But it's a process. If I don't end up getting (significant playing time), I won't get down on myself. If I look at the tape from OTAs to training camp and I see a big improvement, it's a win for me. I've only played DB for one year and I've been off the field for two years. I can't be too hard on myself."
Images from the ninth OTA of the 2017 offseason