One of the most intriguing mid-round prospects in this year’s NFL Draft is Missouri linebacker Zaviar Gooden. Gooden wowed the scouts with his performances at both the NFL Combine and his Pro Day at the University of Missouri and is quickly shooting up some NFL teams draft boards. He couldn’t tell me which specific teams were interested in him, but said that there are eight teams in consistent communication.
The former Mizzou Tiger took time out of his busy off-season schedule to sit down with Pro Player Insiders and discuss a number of topics ranging from his background in sports, to his favorite off-season activity, and even offered a look into his everyday life.
Zaviar Gooden was raised with a diverse sports background, but said that his one true love was football. “Growing up, I played basketball, football, baseball, and ran track in high school…and I was actually pretty good at all of them. I just always liked football more than that rest.” Gooden also pointed out that a scholarship offer from the University of Missouri is what ultimately what lead to his primary focus on football.
A former Texas high school product, Gooden played on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball prior to his collegiate career. When asked who he tried to model his NFL game after, the answers I got were surprising; Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson.
Curious, I asked the talented linebacker why his NFL role models were both running backs. What many people don’t know is that the speedy linebacker actually got his start in the backfield before converting to defense.
“Growing up, Barry Sanders was my guy, and I wanted to be just like him. When I got older though, Adrian Peterson filled more of that role. I identified with him because he was a big, physical runner with good feet, and that’s how I was in high school. Playing running back was like my first love. I really considered myself an offensive guy up until about my sophomore year of high school.”
Gooden was actually the second-string running back at his school and struggled to get on the field consistently. That’s when he decided it was time for a change.
We actually had a 4-star prospect (Antwan Cobb) who ended up at Texas, so I started playing defense to I started playing defense to get on the field more, That’s really how I got in to defense. If we didn’t have [Cobb], I probably would’ve kept with running back and never played DB.” Laughing, Gooden told me, “I guess it all worked out.”
Scouts have noticed that Gooden appears more as a safety in a bigger body, so I asked him if he would be willing to switch positions at the next level. “Of course I would do whatever to get on [an NFL team]. I wouldn’t mind playing safety or playing deep. I feel comfortable in coverage, covering receivers, tight ends. But I do consider myself a linebacker now and that’s the first thing I’d want to play. But if they said ‘we’re going to try you out at safety,’ I wouldn’t mind.”
With his draft stock quickly rising, I asked Zaviar if the conference re-alignment that sent the Tigers from the Big 12 to the SEC impacted him in any way.
“I respect both conferences and enjoyed playing in both, but the thing the SEC did was put me in position to face more of an NFL-type offense. With fullbacks, tight ends, and running backs, we had to play more in the box and more physically. In Big 12, I had to cover more slot receivers because teams run a spread offense. Most of the time, I felt more like a nickel [cornerback] than a linebacker. The SEC gave me a more realistic feel of what I’ll see at the next level.
Gooden played in a bulk of the Tiger’s games in their inaugural season in the SEC. Despite finishing a disappointing 5-7 this season, Gooden is still given a number of looks by NFL talent evaluators. When asked what he would tell those team representatives about himself, Gooden gave an emotional response.
“I think number one, I take pride in my work. You can ask anybody at Mizzou, I’m definitely one of the hardest workers to come through there and I take pride in that and my craft. But most of all, I’m hungry man. I want a chance, and am not just satisfied at getting the chance in the NFL, I want to be great. I’m going to work my butt off. I’m intelligent and I can pick up defenses quickly and learn what coaches want me to do. I am a great locker room guy and leader and can do anything they could want me to do. Obviously, I think they know that I have the physical attributes to do what they ask of me.
Those physical attributes are what may have solidified the former-Tiger as a Day 2 selection in the upcoming NFL Draft. Standing 6-foot-2 and nearly 235 pounds, Gooden has prototypical linebacker size. What sets him apart from other prospects though is his raw speed. Gooden ran a 4.47 40-yard dash, which qualified him for tops among all linebackers. His favorite part of the Combine experience though was being able to work out with his teammates.
“When T.J. [Moe] got invited to the Combine, I was very excited for him when he texted me. He did great there and he’s a great friend and teammate, and so is Sheldon Richardson. I hope they get drafted as high as possible. I will always root for my guys and wish the best for them.”
Gooden also mentioned that he was not really paying close attention to the stats put up by his fellow linebackers
“I don’t really worry about my competition, just about myself. I compete against myself. Even if I run a 4.47 like I did at the Combine, if I know that I can do better I’m going to be upset with that. No matter what anyone else does, I always compare myself to my best, that’s how I measure myself. I saw [Te’o] and I was unaffected. I look at the competition to see what makes this player so great and why is everyone talking about this guy. I don’t have anything against anyone. They go out there and do what they’ve got to do and I do the same to put myself in the best situation. I can’t control what they do or how they perform, but I can control me. Everybody wants to be the best, and I go out there to prove that to them. But at the end of the day, I’m competing against myself”
Gooden has always had the reputation as a hard worker, so I asked him what he likes to do when he’s not in the middle of his biggest job interview to date. “I really enjoy playing guitar. But I’m a really chill guy. I just like to have fun with my family—I’m real family-oriented. At school, one of my best friends was Kenronte Walker, and we hung out. We’d play dominoes or a board game and get together and talk. I’m so tired after working out hard all the time that I don’t really feel like doing too much. I don’t really do the party-type stuff.”
Though he enjoys spending time at his Texas home, the NFL has kept the family-oriented Gooden plenty busy so far. While most people would succumb to the pressure of hard work, he is enjoying every process. His favorite so far? The Senior Bowl.
“We went down there with a lot of big name guys and that’s where you really get to see where you stack up against those guys. It’s actual football, and you get the chance to see how great you are. I had a great time learning NFL defenses from Detroit Lions coaches, and it was fun to go out there and compete to see how you stack up against the supposed best talent in the country.
Many fans of the Mizzou Tigers are going to be sorry to see such a dedicated, and hard-working guy like Gooden go, but can be appreciative of the level of talent he can bring to the NFL. He did give a big shout-out to some of his fans and spoke about his favorite memory from his college playing days.
“My best time at Mizzou was the great people that I met—on the football team. They’re like my brothers. You may here that a lot but I am very sincere about it. I have met lifetime friends and brothers that I am going to be in contact with for the rest of my life. There have been a lot of great teammates that I’ve had, and coaches too. Coach Jones who recruited me checks up on me a lot.”
“Football wise, beating Oklahoma in 2010 has to be tops. I’ve never experienced anything like that. College Game day was there, there were two undefeated teams, and Mizzou hadn’t played Oklahoma in awhile. We beat the #1 team on National TV.” Even better, I loved proving the doubters wrong, because they always pick against Mizzou. I loved the fans and watching them rush the field.”
Finally, I asked him what advice he had for the young fans that want to grow up and play football for a living. With such a tough journey for the select few that are fortunate enough to have the abilities to excel on football’s biggest stage, Gooden biggest emphasis was off the field.
“[The process] starts in high school, so number one-you have to get the grades. I’ve seen people not make grades or get a good SAT scores and watched good guys not get into the college they want to. The goal is to make it to D-1 so why not work hard and give yourself the best opportunity possible? When you get to college, they really help you with tutors and keep you on top of that. And also stay out of trouble. Do those things and you’ll be good.”
Gooden’s workout numbers were through the roof. So much so, that he projects at anywhere from a round 2 to round 4 selection in the NFL Draft. The NFL team fortunate enough to get Gooden’s services will be getting a player with a high ceiling and a model citizen. Gooden has worked hard to get to this point, and there is little indication that work will stop when his name is called at Radio City Music Hall.