Slater is not an underdog anymore
Rashawn Slater has spent most of his career as an underdog. Now, he’s one of the top dogs in the NFL Draft.
The former Northwestern tackle is considered to be one of the two best tackle prospects in the draft, along with Oregon’s Penei Sewell. Slater is projected to go in the upper half of the first round, perhaps in the Top 10.
Whenever he gets his name called on April 29th, Slater is sure to become a very rich man. He’ll also become the first Northwestern player to be picked in the first round since defensive tackle Luis Castillo in 2005.
Slater isn’t used to all of the attention being showered upon him, and he tries to block out all of the endless predictions about which team will take him at which spot. But it’s something he could get used to.
"It's funny, I've grown so used to being the underdog. My high school was not very good, we weren't very competitive in our district, so I was under-recruited. Then, Northwestern is the underdog of the Big Ten, so I got used to that.
“Now, being ranked so highly and in the public eye, it's completely different. It's pretty cool."
Yes, it is.
Slater didn’t take a very typical path to arrive on the doorstep of first-round glory. He was a largely overlooked prospect from Sugar Land (Texas) Clements in the 2017 class. His only Power Five offers were from Illinois, Kansas, Northwestern and a couple others he didn’t report because he was so committed to the Wildcat program. He was rated as a three-star prospect and projected to be a guard.
Yet Slater wasted no time making a name for himself in Evanston. He started his very first game at right tackle, a rare feat for a true freshman in the Big Ten. He wound up starting every game he played in purple, 37 in all (he missed one due to injury). He played the 2017 and 2018 seasons at right tackle, and then showed his versatility by moving to the left side in 2019. He seemed to get everyone’s attention that season by holding Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, the eventual No. 2 pick in last spring’s draft, to just two tackles.
When asked what fueled his rise from an afterthought to a first-rounder, Slater says “it was the way I was raised.” Then he tells the story of his father, Reggie.
Reggie Slater was an undersized big man who played basketball at Wyoming, where he was a three-time All-WAC selection and the 1992 WAC Player of the Year. He then carved out a 12-year professional career that included stops in Spain, the CBA, the ABA and with seven teams in the NBA. A lunchbucket type of player, Slater made himself into a pro by sheer determination, says Rashawn.
"He didn't have the physical gifts to excel at center. He's really about 6-5,” said Rashawn. “So he had to do it with work ethic. Growing up, he would always be in my ear telling me stuff like that.
“So in high school, when I decided to pursue football and try to get a scholarship, I knew I had to put in more work than anyone around me. I got lucky, too, because I hit a growth spurt."
Indeed, he did. Slater was listed at 275 pounds coming out of Clements in 2017, and he now is 6-foot-4 and 312 pounds.
If you read the NFL scouting reports on Slater – and there is no shortage of them – just about all of them rave about his feet, athleticism and technique. The only major knock against him is that he is undersized. Like father, like son.
Slater not only has the God-given natural talent, but he also added his father’s work ethic to the mix. At Northwestern, he said that he and other linemen would regularly do a little extra weightlifting, late in the day, in addition to the regular workouts with the team. He was willing to do whatever he could to get a slight edge on Saturdays.
"Everyone in the country is doing the same workouts," he said, their time determined by NCAA practice limits. "So we took it on ourselves to go to SPAC or the facility late in the day to work out."
Working out is just about all Slater is doing right now to prepare for Northwestern’s Pro Day, as well as the upcoming draft. He works out six days per week at Michael Johnson Performance, a training facility in Dallas, where he has been living since August when he opted out of the 2020 season. Slater’s family lives in Sugar Land, outside of Houston, but he is living in an apartment with his fiancée – his high school sweetheart, Stassney Brown – to whom he proposed on Dec. 21.
Slater graduated with his Communications degree from Northwestern in December, so since then it’s been all football, all the time. He lifts weights in the morning and then does some combine-specific drills late in the afternoon. He does skill work with an OL coach some mornings, too. He spends the rest of his time talking to NFL teams, watching film and studying playbooks.
As you'd imagine for someone that has devoted so much of himself to football, opting out of the 2020 season was the most difficult decision of his life. “It wasn’t an easy choice,” he said. Really, he had to make two choices.
As Slater explains it, he initially had a lot of reasons to come back and play his senior year. "I wanted to get my degree, I wanted to improve as a player, I wanted to correct the 2019 season (the Wildcats went 3-9). So my reaction was that I wanted to play.”
But when the Big Ten cancelled the 2020 season in August, he had to make his first decision. This was the easy one.
“I had to look at it and say, ‘What are my options now?’ A spring season wasn't going to work for me because I had NFL aspirations. It was an easy decision. So I came down here (to Dallas) and started training,” he said.
But then, just a little over two weeks after his move to Dallas, the Big Ten reversed field in mid-September, announcing that it would reinstate football and play a shortened, all-league schedule in the fall, after all.
Now, Slater had to make another, much more difficult decision.
“I talked to Coach Fitz (head coach Pat Fitzgerald) and Coach Anderson (offensive line coach Kurt Anderson). I ultimately decided that with all the uncertainty around college football, I was going to make the best decision for myself and focus on what was guaranteed: next season. Everyone (in the program) was completely supportive."
The fact that his coaches and teammates had his back made his choice easier to live with. “Once I made my choice, I knew there was no room for regret,” he said.
Still, while it may have been the best move for him, Slater missed playing football. It was his first fall without the sport since he was in sixth grade. He missed the competition, the hand-to-hand combat and the camaraderie in the locker room.
He was happy for his teammates as he watched them rebound from 2019. The Wildcats went 7-2 to claim a second Big Ten West division title in three years, a VRBO Citrus Bowl win over Auburn and a final No. 10 ranking in the Associated Press poll, the highest finish for the program since 1995.
“I missed being out there and not being able to contribute on the field,” he said. “It motivated me to go harder in training. I tried to be an asset to the team.”
Nothing says more about the type of person and teammate that Slater is than this story of what he did for his fellow tackles back in Evanston. Slater would not only watch the Wildcats’ games, but he would also watch their practice film every day. He would then cut up highlights, on his own, and send them to individual players, with specific pointers on how they could improve.
He also did advance scouting for Northwestern’s tackles – senior Gunnar Vogel on the right side and true freshman Peter Skoronski in Slater’s old position on the left – providing them with a report on the defensive linemen they would be facing that week.
“For Ben (Wrather), Zach (Franks), Peter, especially the younger guys who don't get as many reps as they'd like, I saw it as important, something I could help them with,” said Slater. “I still felt a part of the team. I figured it was the least I could do.”
And probably far more than most would do.
Slater will probably spend draft day at his parents’ house in Sugar Land, so he can wait to hear his name called with the rest of his family. A film crew will likely be there, too, to capture the big moment.
A cerebral, soft-spoken sort of guy, Slater is very thoughtful with his answers. But underneath lies a confidence borne from all the work he’s put it to get to this point.
Because of his lack of ideal length, some talent evaluators project Slater to be a guard at the next level. Ask him, though, and he’s emphatic, almost forceful.
“I'm a tackle,” he shoots back. He adds, in no uncertain terms, “I see myself as the best tackle in the draft. I feel confident about that.”
Slater knows that it will be a big leap from college to the pros, but he’s already made one big leap, from high school to college. Believe it or not, he feels better equipped to handle it this time around.
“When I came to college, I didn't know much about football. I didn't know much technique or what makes players successful. Now, I know the game of football. I know what makes a lineman a good lineman. I played against high-level players in the Big Ten, against many NFL talents. So this transition, I feel like I'm more prepared for.
“I played at Northwestern, in the Big Ten, and got coached by some of the best coaches in the country. So that gives me confidence."
No, Rashawn Slater isn’t an underdog anymore.
For more about Slater, including his thoughts on Peter Skoronski, his best memory as a Wildcat and more, go to My Interview with Rashawn Slater on The Rock premium message board, for WildcatReport subscribers only.