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Small College, Big Hopes

Rookie defensive back Bethel counting on learning NFL game quickly


Rookie safety Justin Bethel, a sixth-round pick, takes part in an OTA this offseason.

The play was over during a recent OTA and rookie defensive back Justin Bethel had apparently made a mistake.

Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, jogging back to the huddle, mentioned as such to defensive coordinator Ray Horton. And Horton made sure Bethel heard about it.

"Larry's right," Horton said for all to hear. "That's a play that's going to get us beat."

Recounting the story later, Bethel shook it off. The first of two sixth-round picks wasn't all that sure he was totally to blame, and regardless, he's up for constructive criticism. "I'll get everything together and learn what I need to learn," Bethel said.

Third-round cornerback Jamell Fleming is the most likely rookie to make an impact in the secondary, but Bethel is an intriguing prospect. Small school defensive backs have been a staple of the Cards of late, drafting Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie out of Tennessee State and Greg Toler out of Saint Paul's College. Bethel arrives in the same vein, having played at tiny Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.

There is much to learn, as his moment with Fitzgerald showed. How much will be determined in training camp.

The coaches have their thoughts. "I would say he's exactly where we thought he'd be," defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. "Everything is foreign to him." Bethel, however, felt comfortable that he had at least learned everything put in front of him this summer.

The heavy playbook teaching doesn't come until Flagstaff, but for now, "I basically know everything, where everyone is supposed to be, I know the calls," Bethel said.

The doubts come from his small-school background, both sides acknowledge. Whether they should depends on who is answering.

"I really don't think my learning curve is as bad as everyone thinks it is," Bethel said. "When I mess up, everyone's eyes are already on me because they expect me to mess up because of that learning curve. I think I'm getting it."

So if he went to, say, USC or Alabama, he'd be viewed differently? "Yeah, it'd be different," Bethel said. "That's just the way it is. Just part of the process."

The process also includes Bethel's use at multiple positions. Horton gave him some time at cornerback, nickel back and safety, just to see where he might fit. Eventually, the Cards worked Bethel more at safety, a spot that could use depth with the years totaled by starters Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes.

Horton wanted Bethel to see the defense from different angles, but that isn't necessary anymore.

"I think we'll move him to one place," Horton said. "But playing out here and in here and back there, I think he knows how the defense works and will be a better player for it."

The hope is that Bethel makes some inroads on special teams – special teamers Hamza Abdullah and Sean Considine, both safeties from last year's team no longer on the roster, have to be replaced – and grows into a defensive role.

Bethel believes it will happen, never doubting despite his college that he'd find himself on this level, or doubting he'll get past his mistakes. He'd like to be known for more than a grainy YouTube video of jumping a stack of boxes.

"Yeah I would," Bethel said with a smile. "Most definitely."

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