Joe Bolden is a damn good football player. The former University of Michigan linebacker, a defensive captain for the Wolverines, racked up 185 tackles over his final two seasons in Ann Arbor. In 2015, Bolden was the leader of a staunch Michigan defense that held opposing offenses to 281 yards per game, the fourth-lowest average in the nation. His accolades include being a four-time letter winner and an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention.
In terms of background, Bolden has everything you'd want from a prospect. He played at a great program, produced against elite competition and was a leader on and off the field. Just one problem—he doesn't possess the elite athleticism NFL teams covet during draft season. This is not to say the Bolden is a lead-footed weakling, but his game relies more on instincts and toughness than speed and explosiveness. "[Bolden] lacks the size, speed and athleticism teams look for from NFL linebackers. A conversion to fullback might be worth a shot," writes NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein.
Bolden knows where he stands with NFL teams, so he's doing everything in his power to earn a chance to play football for a living. In addition to learning fullback skills, he's also taken up long snapping. STACK caught up with Bolden at TEST Football Academy in Martinsville, New Jersey, to discuss his Michigan career, his leadership skills and what he hopes to bring to an NFL team.
STACK: How did it feel to be a captain at Michigan and to be responsible for leading the defense?
Joe Bolden: It was huge. One of the biggest honors I've ever received was being voted a captain, a defensive captain. It just goes to show you the impact you had on guys while you were there and the responsibility that they think you can handle for the team, that you have the best interests of everyone on the team and all the coaches at all times. That was quite the honor. I played four years at Michigan, ups and downs, been at my highest highs and lowest lows, but really to finish with being voted a defensive captain and then playing for all the guys around me was a huge honor. I enjoyed every minute of it and I'll miss playing with those guys.
You got the opportunity to play for Jim Harbaugh last season. What was that like?
Interesting. Every second of the day, especially during football season, you really see how he operates. Everything is scheduled to get the most out of every second that you're spending—in practice, in the building, in the weight room. Whatever it is, you're getting the most out of what you're doing. Playing for a guy like that who wants to win at everything he does, who competes and has such an unabashed love for the game, that's what you want as a player. He's a guy that will stand up for you if you're playing and get a terrible call. He'll be vocal about it and say, "hey, that's the wrong call!"—sometimes more animated than others. I loved every second of playing for coach Harbaugh.
Do you have a favorite play from your time at Michigan?
Probably my junior year, playing for coach Mattison [then Michigan's defensive coordinator], a guy I committed to. He was probably the main reason I went to Michigan. We're playing at Northwestern, and Jake Ryan, who plays for the Packers now, is lined up to my right. Coach Mattison signals in the play, but they're running a hurry-up offense, so it was kind of a mess. We had a general idea of what defense we were running, but not everyone was on the same page. But Jake and I were running the same defense. It was fourth down, and Jake and I are playing man and everyone else is playing zone. Somehow, Jake and I passed two crossers off and he made the play and knocked down a pass. We just looked at each other like, "we're not telling coach until after the game so he doesn't get mad at us." That just kind of epitomizes football to me. I started playing when I was 4 and now I'm 22. You learn you can play off of guys and learn how important it is to be close to a teammate and have that chemistry.
How has your off-season training been different this year than in previous years?
Everything I've done up to this point in my life and my career playing football has been to play the football game. I've never had to run a certain time or bench press certain reps or jump a certain height in order to get an opportunity to play football. It's always just been go out on the field and play ball how you've been taught and coached. I mean, the last time I ran 40 yards on a football field was either on kickoff or a bad play for the defense, because I was running 40 yards the opposite way you want to be running. It's kind of interesting. People continue to put more and more emphasis on these tests and things, and in my opinion, let's just go play football. That's just the kind of guy I am.
Many prospects make changes to their diet while transitioning from college life to training for the NFL. Has your eating changed?
I've never really paid attention to organic or anything like that. I haven't necessarily been a bad eater. I felt like I've been a pretty good eater throughout my life. I never went out to eat a whole lot. But I've learned the difference between processed foods, unprocessed foods, organic, all these things. And I've just been eating fresh meals and it's definitely different for your tastebuds to adjust. I love Oreos, I love ice cream, I love all that stuff and it's hard not having any of it.
What's the toughest thing you've overcome to get to this point?
I think It was trying to get over the stereotype that I'm not fast enough or strong enough to play college football. I proved people wrong there. I can play college football and I think I did pretty well playing college football. Now to this point, I'm hearing it again. You're not big enough, you're not fast enough. Well, give me an opportunity to play football and I'll show you I can play football.
What's your strongest trait as a player?
Probably my instincts. Sometimes just knowing or seeing something that can tip me off and I can get a better feeling where the ball is going. It gets harder every level you go up, because this is what guys do for a living now. In college, it's pretty much what you do for a living outside of going to class and getting a degree. Guys hide things better. But I grew up in a football family. I've been around football since I was 2 weeks old, so it's something that's been a part of me. My dad and my uncle coach football. It's something that comes naturally to me. Just kind of get out on the field and see things maybe somebody else wouldn't see because I've been around it for so long. That's probably my strongest trait.
Who are some NFL players you admire and why?
The first one, off the top of my head, and any linebacker will probably say it, is Luke Kuechly. He's smart, his instincts are unreal. He's also from Cincinnati, and I'm from Cincinnati. The only issue is he went to St. Xavier and I went to Colerain, and our schools don't like each other. But he's a good guy. I've talked to him a few times. He's one of those guys where it's like, "alright, you want to play linebacker? Watch this guy play linebacker." And that's something you saw throughout his whole career. And then guys like Ray Lewis and Dick Butkus, they played the game the way it's supposed to be played.
How would you pitch yourself to an NFL team that's interested in you?
First and foremost, I got no issues, no background issues, no present issues, nothing you'll have to deal with in the future. No arrests, no nothing, I have a clean slate. The only time I got in a little bit of trouble was when I got in a minor collision with my truck when I was 17 or 18. If that's a big issue, we can talk about it. But you're getting a straight-shooting guy. I'll tell you how it is on my end as long as you're honest with me. And I'm going to play football the way it's supposed to be played. Every play is going to be 100 percent, everything I got. No matter if it's a kick-off, a 4th-and-1 to win the game, no matter what the situation is, you're going to get everything I got for the organization and for the team. We're going to end up winning football games because that attitude, that effort, is going to start wearing off on people who don't have it or people who need a refresher.
If you could offer one piece of advice to high school athletes, what would it be?
Grades. You're not going anywhere without grades. I know a kid who had over 20 opportunities to play college ball and he didn't get in because of grades. It kind of hurts, because you love the guy and you want to see him succeed. So definitely grades. And also, do one extra rep of whatever it is you're doing. If you're on the field or in the weight room, do one extra rep each time you go—and those will add up. You'll start to see that the guys who just do the reps that are recommended get by, they're doing things and performing how they should perform, but if you want to outperform and keep getting better—whether it's in the weight room, on the field, in the classroom—do something more than the standard.
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