You have to do something pretty special to overshadow the first preseason start of the polarizing new quarterback for a team that nearly made the Super Bowl only months prior, especially when that quarterback connects on a 76-yard bomb to the rookie field-stretching wide receiver, which alludes to a previously uncharted dimension for one of the league’s most efficient offenses. Especially when you’re a fifth-round pick from the MAC West, battling to become the team’s nickel corner.
Well, that’s exactly what Sam Womak III did against the Green Bay Packers. He made himself un-ignorable, and it almost immediately resulted in the cutting of Darqueze Dennard, an eight-year NFL veteran, and former first-round pick out of Michigan State, who’s been in the building since the end of last season.
Two stellar picks on back-to-back possessions, one that he wrestled away from the receiver as they went to the ground and the other off tight press coverage that led to a clean snag from mid-air, will get you noticed. Turns out, Womack’s been overcoming the odds to turn heads his whole career.
As a high school senior, Womack played both ways, lining up as a wideout on offense and defensive back on the flip side. Safe to say, he earned his All-State distinction by joining an echelon so exclusive that I cannot personally think of another member. As a charter member of the Football Double-Double Club (20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions), he received attention from colleges, but, for a confluence of reasons, he ended up without a scholarship.
Take a peak at some of his highlights from his senior year in a game against powerhouse Martin Luther King High School. Womack faced off against now teammate Ambry Thomas, who attended the rival school and made his presence known to the soon-to-be Michigan product.
Firstly, you can chalk up Womack’s non-recruitment to his less than ideal build for wide receiver and outside corner. There are plenty of under 6-foot CBs in the world, but 5’10” feels like a generous number at best for Womack, and he tipped the scales in the mid-180 range. For any big DI program, that’s someone you file as “undersized.”
Furthermore, according to Womack, he was less than active in his own recruiting process. He played basketball in the spring, focusing as much time and energy on his second sport as possible, leaving little opportunity to attend camps and garner attention for his abilities outside of what was on tape. Though, as you saw, it was pretty good tape.
Good enough that the clearly gifted player eventually landed a preferred walk-on role at Toledo. It didn’t take long for the tenacious corner to earn a scholarship, thanks in no small part to what might be his most important attribute, outside his sub-4.4 speed and 32” long arms: Coachability.
Anyone who’s crossed paths with Sam Womack mentions just how quickly he takes to coaching and how hard he works to instill what’s been coached. At Toledo, he studied under the tutelage of a former pro, Hank Poteat, who Womack described as his “cheat code” to make it to the NFL. It obviously paid off, leading the MAC in pass break-ups for three straight years and leaving Toledo as the all-time pass record holder with 45.
Toledo’s head coach succinctly summed up Womack’s journey like this:
“To make it happen, you’ve got to be really, really committed to being who you said you were going be and that’s what I really appreciate about Sam. That’s how he earned a scholarship. That’s how he earned to become a starter. That’s how he earned to be an all-conference player and ultimately worked himself to be a draft pick.”
Womack credited his production to his focus on technique. That dedication earned him a nickname amongst his fellow players, “The Technician.” Tycen Anderson, who played alongside Sam in the Rockets’ secondary as a safety, elaborated further when asked by the Toledo Blade.
“Sam is a lockdown corner and we put a lot of a lot of respect on him,” Anderson said. “He listens to coaching and since the first day I met him, he’s always been good in press and that’s his baby, press is his baby and he’s pretty much just coming around and learning the game of football. He’s becoming a smarter player.”
Given the Niners' newfound use of press under second-year coordinator DeMeco Ryans, you could understand how someone like Womack, a player that many thought might go undrafted, could catch the front office’s eye. And that scouting paid immediate dividends.
When asked specifically about his second interception against Green Bay, Womack provided clear insight as to how his workman attitude helped make the play. “That’s like a route that I cover every day in practice… That play was just like being at another practice. It was game time, and I took advantage of it.”
Womack has taken advantage of it so far to the tune of the starting nickel for the San Francisco 49ers. Given his track record of working hard, overcoming the odds, and producing at a high level, his role feels very secure moving into this season and beyond.