Byard, Kevin
Byard, Kevin

MTSU's Kevin Byard: The Scorcese of interceptions

He’s a film nerd, celluloid obsessive, Scorcese in cleats. Kevin Byard’s slice of heaven runs at 24 frames per second, details nicked like tiny shells off a grainy beach.

“Just looking at different things,” the Middle Tennessee State safety explained. “Formation tendencies. Red-zone calls. I try to pick up little things that a quarterback does, little signals. Maybe things that give away if it’s a run or pass.

“I know you’re going to have to do that in the NFL. So why not start early?”

Sometimes he starts early. Sometimes he starts late. But the key thing to Byard is that he starts reviewing game tape — by himself, inside the office of Blue Raiders safety coach David Bibee — for at least four hours a week. He’s not unlike your typical gym rat, only instead of a basketball and a padlocked door, it’s about footage and a comfortable chair.

“Pretty much,” Bibee chuckled. “Yeah, he’ll run me out of my office sometimes.”

A minimum 35 minutes a day, four to five days a week, grinding, digging, piling up mental note after mental note.

“That’s something I do take very seriously,” said Byard, whose Raiders (3-4, 2-1 Conference USA) host Louisiana Tech (4-3, 2-1 C-USA) on Saturday afternoon on ASN. “This whole offseason, I try to pick at least one or two things about my game that I can improve on.”

This past summer, the target was tackling. Long story short, Byard didn’t like the way he was finishing, both in terms of MTSU’s season and his actual form on the field.

“I felt I left a lot of plays out there,” Byard said.

“And I think the last four games of our season, I think we went 1-3 those last four and a lot of those (games) … it hurts, still, to watch those games to this day. And the one thing that made me sick was my tackling. And that bothered my coaches as well.”

So they did what the good technicians do: They went back to the tape.

Only it wasn’t just Byard’s clips — they watched film of Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas for inspiration, a tackler comparable in size to Byard (5-11, 215 pounds) with a motor to match. The defensive staff found a video of Seahawks coach Pete Carroll discussing the finer points of tackling, and the young safety soaked it up, pouring the lessons back into his preseason routine.

“He doesn’t have blinders on,” Bibee said. “He looks at himself objectively.”

Nor does he take progress lightly: Byard heads into the weekend second on the defense in tackles (45), second in picks (two) and in passes defensed (two). Opposing quarterbacks have been picked off 11 times by MTSU defenders, most in C-USA, while an opponent passing efficiency of 119.0 (13 touchdowns, 11 interceptions) ranks second in the circuit.

“He’s really a good guy in his work ethic in every area — physically, mentally and everything,” Bibee added. “He’s low maintenance for a really good player.”

That and humble. Whether making calls in the secondary or rallying the defense, Byard’s confidence is infectious. Although even he admits to not being sure how far the football ride might last until after he was selected to the FWAA’s freshman All-American team in 2012.

“At first, it was about making my mom proud,” said Byard, who collected four picks as a redshirt freshman that fall. “And once I made that freshman All-American (team), I’m like, ‘Hey, this game of football actually isn’t that hard.’

“I really dedicated myself to watching film (after that). Every off-season, I’m picking something in my game I could improve, every single year. I’m going to continue to do that until I can’t play anymore.”

Pro scouts love the drive, the smarts, the intangibles, that constant pushing. They’re coming around on the tackling, too.

“I think he’s got a lot of things (at the next level),” Bibee said. “He’s a really good athlete and he’s smart and he’s got good size and strength. So I think it’s just getting his shot and staying healthy.”

Little signals have paid off in big ways, week after week: Byard tied MTSU’s career interceptions record (17) with a theft against Vanderbilt on October 3. He’s returned four picks for touchdowns; the NCAA career record is five, a mark held by four players, most recently matched by Oklahoma State’s Darrent Williams (2001-04).

“I’m all about team first,” said Byard, whose six picks last fall topped C-USA. “If we continue to win, and I don’t get another (interception) the rest of the year, I’ll be fine.

“With interceptions, I know they’re going to come. I know … that if I keep reading the quarterback’s eyes, working on my keys, that’ll come.”

If he keeps studying, the rest usually takes care of itself.

Above: Video courtesy Middle Tennessee State athletics; photo courtesy Brent Beerends/Middle Tennessee Athletic Communications

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