Towson football coach Rob Ambrose always considered basketball players among the “softest human beings on the planet.”
Then he met Ryan Delaire.
Delaire showed up on Towson’s campus after transferring from Massachusetts as a sculpted 6-4, 250-pound defensive end, but that didn’t stop Ambrose from busting Delaire’s chops for his former status as an “AAU basketball rock star.”
Delaire, recently acquired by the Carolina Panthers, didn’t play football until he was a high school junior in Windsor, Conn.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
But he’s made up for lost time, bunching 22.5 sacks into his two seasons at Towson, an FCS school outside Baltimore.
Delaire had a sudden impact in the NFL, too. Four days after the Panthers signed him off Washington’s practice squad, Delaire broke through for two sacks against Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston on Oct. 4 in Delaire’s first regular-season game.
I could’ve told you a long time ago, he had such a tremendous, ridiculous upside.
Towson coach Rob Ambrose, on Panthers DE Ryan Delaire
Delaire nearly had a third sack late in the Panthers’ 37-23 victory, but Winston slung the ball away to avoid the sack and was called for intentional grounding.
Delaire’s debut caught a lot of fans and observers off-guard: He’d gone undrafted in May, then was one of the Buccaneers’ final roster cuts in August.
Ambrose, the Towson coach, doesn’t want to be an I-told-you-so, but he saw it coming.
“I could’ve told you a long time ago, he had such a tremendous, ridiculous upside,” Ambrose said in a phone interview last week.
‘A voracious learner’
Delaire, who is of Jamaican and St. Lucian descent, grew up in suburban Hartford, where his main sport was basketball. But after joining his high school football team as a junior, he averaged five tackles a game as a senior and received a scholarship offer from UMass.
He was with the Minutemen for three seasons before a coaching change prompted his transfer to Towson.
Although Delaire was raw, he was determined to polish his game.
“Unlike a lot of kids that have played football their entire lives, Ryan’s a really smart kid who knew that he didn’t know,” Ambrose said. “He didn’t know all the ins-and-outs of football. He didn’t know all the technique. And he was hungry to learn, just a voracious learner.
“That’s him in pretty much everything he does. I said when he graduated, Ryan Delaire’s going to make six figures doing something.”
With his long frame and quick feet, Delaire was a natural pass-rusher. Defending the run didn’t come as easy, according to Ambrose.
But Delaire learned how to take on different blocks and anchor down when a team was running at him. Scouts stopped by Amherst to look at Delaire, but some of the interest waned after Delaire sustained a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery after his final college season.
Delaire was invited to the scouting combine, but he pulled his groin running the 40-yard dash and was clocked in a disappointing 4.97 seconds. Delaire, with his leg healed, performed better at Towson’s pro day, running the 40 in the 4.7- to 4.8-second range, according to reports.
Still, three days of the draft came and went without Delaire hearing his name. But plenty of teams called afterward trying to sign Delaire as a priority free agent.
He ended up with Tampa Bay, making it to the last round of cuts despite never getting much of a chance to show his talents, in his estimation.
Short stay in D.C.
Delaire said the Panthers called and offered him a workout after the Bucs let him go. Instead, he took Washington’s offer of a spot on its practice squad and moved into an extended-stay hotel in northern Virginia near the team facility.
It turned out to be a short stay.
Dealing with an injury to defensive end Charles Johnson and an inconsistent pass rush after a Week 3 victory over New Orleans, the Panthers traded for Jared Allen, the NFL’s active sacks leader and No. 9 all-time.
Delaire arrived the next day after Carolina signed him, although without the fanfare Allen received. While Allen entertained a huge group of reporters at his locker, Delaire went mostly unnoticed, other than a quick hello from a media member on his way to the training room.
But he introduced himself to everybody against the Bucs, not the least of whom was Winston. The storyline of an undrafted rookie racking up five tackles against the team that cut him and getting the best of the No. 1 overall draft pick was not lost on Delaire.
But he wasn’t crowing afterward. Instead, he found Winston and told him simply “good game,” then made his way to the locker room.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Delaire’s intelligence helped him pick the Panthers’ defensive scheme up quickly. After a couple of days of practice, Rivera asked defensive line coach Eric Washington what he planned to do with Delaire against the Bucs.
“Coach, he’s ready to roll,” Rivera recalled Washington telling him.
Was he ever.
“We liked him. But to see that he’s had this kind of impact and to say we knew it all along, then why didn’t we get him from the beginning?” Rivera said. “We do like who he is. We like his athleticism. He’s a very smart young man.”
With his long dreads and facial structure, Delaire bears a resemblance to Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the former South Carolina standout and the No. 1 pick last year.
But Delaire hasn’t been in Charlotte long enough to get noticed much.
“To be honest, it’s the same week of practice. It’s the same kind of studying as always,” Delaire said of how he was received after his two-sack debut. “Nothing really changed too much as far as being on the field and being in the facility.”
While some of his teammates were headed to the beach and other vacation spots during the bye week, Delaire planned to fly to D.C. to retrieve his belongings from the extended-stay.
He was going to load everything into his 2005 Toyota Camry and put a few more hundred miles onto a car that already has more than 120,000.
Delaire, who’s making the first-year minimum $435,000, said he’s content with his no-frills sedan. Same goes with his other possessions.
Delaire buys household goods at Wal-Mart and shops for clothes at H&M and Macy’s.
“I’m still the same frugal person with money,” he said. “I’m not cheap. I don’t have to live luxuriously to be happy.”
Ambrose has had three of his Towson players make the NFL. He tells each of them to be smart with their money.
Some listen, some don’t.
“I have a sit-down conversation with them. In the first contract, you don’t spend money. You live like you’re a pauper,” Ambrose said. “If you can make it to the second contract, if you can make it ‘til you’re vested, you can buy houses for whoever you want because it doesn’t matter anymore. That’s the kind of money that you’re allowed to do that.
“But until that time, don’t spend money. ... But if Ryan keeps doing what he’s doing, he will get the second-contract money.”