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NFL draft: Texas' Caden Sterns, fueled by Jon Gruden's criticism, eager to move on Longhorns drama

Eric Edholm
·7 min read
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Many once thought Texas safety Caden Sterns could have been off the NFL draft board by Day 2.

Following a Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year performance in 2018, Sterns — a highly touted, five-star prospect rated ahead of fellow Texan Jaylen Waddle coming out of high school — looked to be a future first-round pick. That season, he intercepted four passes, broke up another eight, blocked a field goal and made three tackles for loss.

The next two seasons featured some bumps in the road. To the surprise of some, Sterns declared early but wasn’t selected in Round 1 on Thursday night. He remains hopeful and excited for what lies ahead.

“I can tell I am ready,” Sterns told Yahoo Sports this week. “It’s something I have seen in myself. I’ve shown what type of player I can be. I wish I could have shown it more.

“Things didn’t turn out the way I wish they did. That’s just part of my story now. I just feel I am 100% ready to play at the next level.”

Injuries were the biggest roadblock to Sterns not taking the next step in Austin. He suffered a knee injury late in the 2018 season, which carried over to 2019; that and an ankle injury derailed his 2019 season, resulting in four missed games. He also was set back by a toe injury this past season.

Sterns played a combined 16 games over the past two seasons, making only one interception and five pass breakups. He never looked like the rangy, ballhawking, game-changing center fielder Stern did as a freshman.

Longhorns fan message boards lit up Sterns at times over the past few seasons, which is par for the course for a player failing to meet high expectations. When he heard similar criticism from an NFL head coach — directly to his face — it struck a different tone for Sterns.

Jon Gruden wasn't afraid to call out Caden Sterns' play

Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden isn’t one to sugarcoat things or beat around the bush. He came right out during a pre-draft Zoom meeting with Sterns and delivered the hard truth: Gruden, just like Longhorns fans, expected more out of Sterns when he watched his college game tape.

Sterns' reaction to the criticism? He was all ears.

“It was actually really cool,” Sterns said. “[Gruden] was coming in hot. He was just straight-up with me. He really just expects more out of me. He wanted to see more on my film. At times it was inconsistent. I was dealing with a lot when I was playing, in terms of being injured. A lot of other stuff was going on, too”

“He was testing me a little bit. I was like, ‘Wow, I am talking to Jon Gruden now, and he’s telling me the hard truths I need to hear.’”

Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden wasn't afraid to call out Texas' Caden Sterns for his lack of consistency. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden wasn't afraid to call out Texas' Caden Sterns for his lack of consistency. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Sterns mentioned his tackling and his consistency as the things Gruden (and other NFL coaches) harped on during the pre-draft process.

“My tackling is not where it needs to be,” Sterns said. “It’s a weakness of mine for sure. Taking better angles to the ball, better technique in tackling — it’s something I need to clean up. ...

“[Gruden] had some pretty interesting things to say to me. It was great feedback, and it shows he sees a great player inside of me, which I do too. He just wanted it to come out.”

Sterns' pro-day performance changed the narrative

Some of that natural ability came out in Sterns’ pro day. He didn’t measure out with tremendous size at a shade under 6-foot and 202 pounds, and his 14 bench-press reps were considered below-average. But everything else he did that day gave the look of a highly trained athlete.

(He lasted until Saturday in Round 5 of the draft, where the Denver Broncos selected him with the 152nd overall pick.)  

Sterns measured with strong length for a safety, with a 77 1/8-inch wingspan and 32 1/4-inch arms. His 40-yard dash — a time of 4.4 seconds — that really opened eyes. The hesitancy Gruden saw on tape might have shown a player who didn’t always maximize his terrific athletic skills, offering a mirage of a slower player.

“I think people really didn’t expect that out of me,” Sterns said. “But I expected it out of myself. I saw people predicting I would run a 4.6 or something. That just fueled me even more to show them what I can run.”

On top of that, Sterns turned in great results in the vertical jump (42 inches), broad jump (128 inches), 3-cone drill (6.96 seconds) and short shuttle (4.13 seconds). It helped revive his stock and reminded observers that this was a player with first-round expectations not long ago. Sterns credits heading to EXOS for pre-draft training, which helped get his body right and improve his nutrition.

“I came in with a little chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I trained hard for it.”

Texas defensive back Caden Sterns runs during the school's pro football day in March. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Texas defensive back Caden Sterns runs during the school's pro football day in March. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The injuries are still a big story line. But Sterns believe the pro day is proof of what a healthy version of himself is capable of.

“After the pro day, putting up those numbers, I was [showing teams] I am healthy,” he said. “I never had surgery. I just had all these nagging things that [added up]. Now it’s time to show I can stay healthy.”

The 'Eyes of Texas' alma mater controversy

Sterns said he isn’t anxious to get a fresh start in a different state, even if he couldn’t be blamed for feeling that way. There are still hurt feelings and controversy swirling from the aftermath of the school’s “Eyes of Texas” alma mater song.

Last fall, following the race discussions across the country amid the pandemic, the school’s students raised concerns about the song’s minstrel roots and requested it no longer be played at Longhorns games. This led to many Longhorn donors and boosters threatening to stop giving money to the school.

Sterns said last fall that he wasn’t going to sing along with the song if it was played. He then revealed on Twitter that some of those boosters and alumni threatened to take it out on players if they didn’t fall in line.

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“It was a team meeting, and [former] Coach [Tom Herman] and the AD told us about [the notes from boosters],” he said. “I don’t want to dive too deep into it. But I said what I said, and I’ve moved on from what happened. 

"I've been through a lot. We all have.”

In the end, Sterns wished Herman (who was fired at season’s end) and the Longhorns program the best — even those who wanted to hurt Sterns and his teammates for their stance on the song.

“I came to Texas because it was close to home and I wanted to get the program back on track. We wanted to be a top program in the country. Win the conference, compete for [national] titles. It just didn’t work out that way during my time.

“I want the school to get there, I really do. I wish I could have done more.”

His agent, former NFL player Barry Gardner, says Sterns standing up for his beliefs — while knowing not everyone would approve of them — is a testament to his character.

“You have a player with high expectations, who has taken on a leadership role with the team, and he’s faced with injuries, COVID, the race debates, this controversy with the song and everything else,” Gardner told Yahoo Sports, “and his teammates are looking to [Sterns] for guidance and leadership.

“That told me everything I needed to know about his character. I’ve known him since he was 16 years old, and I knew he had it. But seeing him handle the controversy head-on and stand up for it like a man, that let me know he’s going to be able to handle almost anything thrown his way at the next level.”

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