Most of Kahzin Daniels' University of Charleston teammates over the past four years did not know he's blind in his right eye. (Courtesy of Zack Santolla / University of Charleston)
Kahzin Daniels shot into the B-gap, slid underneath the right tackle's block attempt and slammed into the H-back who was crossing the formation. Daniels shed both of the West Liberty blockers and arrived at the quarterback at the same time as one of his Charleston (W. Va.) teammates who was unblocked on the play.
It was a play from last fall that impressed NFL scouts. And that's before they knew he might not have seen half of what they thought he did.
Daniels, a potential late-round pick in April's NFL draft, has begun to generate buzz among talent evaluators as a dynamic pass rusher with a tremendous get-off, good hands and impressive bend who racked up 31.5 sacks over the past three years for the Division II Golden Eagles.
As Daniels' teammate John Cominsky -- a participant in last month's Reese's Senior Bowl -- garners attention as a potential middle-round pick, Daniels' stock has risen as well, particularly after a strong showing during practices leading up to the NFLPA Bowl, which was held a week before the Senior Bowl. Daniels was consistently one of the first defenders off the ball in those sessions and became a constant disruption in opposing backfields, leading scouts on hand to do more work on him as they became intrigued.
A few asked the right, in-depth questions, leading them to answers that stunned them.
Daniels is completely blind in his right eye, the result of a childhood accident that had an impact on his personality but apparently hasn't affected him much on the football field -- so little, in fact, that very few people in the entire Charleston program over the last four years even knew about it.
"I knew when we got him he had a little bit of an issue with his right eye, but didn't realize it was to the extent it was until he said something, or else I would've never known," Charleston head coach Pat Kirkland said by phone the other day. "It did not limit his play at all. He played on both sides, left and right, and never used it as an excuse or crutch or anything like that.
"I truly don't think in his eyes -- no pun intended there -- he saw it as an issue."
Daniels played four seasons at Charleston after completing his high school career at East Orange (N.J.) and then spending one year in prep school at Milford Academy (N.Y.). He has been tracked as a prospect since high school, but there are no mentions online of the fact he's blind in one eye.
Reporters didn't know. Scouts didn't know. Some coaches at Charleston didn't know. Most of Daniels' teammates didn't know.
Daniels never hides his condition or lies about it. If asked -- and he surely will be in the coming weeks -- he'll explain it in full.
"It's not a huge deal to me," said Daniels, who will work out at the Marshall pro day on March 13 after falling only a few votes shy of an invite to next week's NFL Scouting Combine. "I just try to be a hundred percent honest and truthful, just harp on the fact I've been this way and playing at a high level and I'm trying to play at an even crazier level with coaching and things like that.
"I've been doing this for a while. Nothing's changed. I have a lack of sight in one eye, but that makes me just want to go harder in all aspects."
Charleston defensive line coach Zack Santolla said a scout asked him recently about Daniels' injury history and he merely mentioned a sprained ankle during Daniels' junior season. Daniels' blind eye never occurred to him, not since he first worked with Daniels a few years ago and tried things in practice to see if certain schemes or blocks caught the youngster by surprise.
"I was laughing the other day while watching some film. He gets on the edge and it looks so fast and clean, I'm thinking to myself he can probably do it with his eyes closed at times," Santolla said.
Santolla has put a hand over one of his eyes and thought, "Wow, he's seeing with half a lens. But his body has had time that he's been able to adjust."
Daniels said he was 5 years old when he was riding a scooter on his grandmother's block in Orange on a summer night. As he passed an abandoned building, he collided with a pole that was sticking out toward the sidewalk. Daniels said he was knocked off his feet and believes he did a full flip before falling to the ground. He said he felt no pain, and that a man came running up to him asking if he was all right. His two cousins carried him back to his grandmother's house, where his family was gathered.
Daniels remembers his mother crying hysterically when she saw him and assuring her it would be OK as someone put a rag over his face. Then the hospital. Then waking up as he was being stitched up. Then thrashing and screaming while medical workers held him down. Then ... nothing. "Blackout," he says. "Just starting the journey back."
Daniels had to wear an eye patch for a few months, long enough to be teased by his friends and classmates.
"Kids are vicious. I feel like everybody goes through that, to an extent," he said. "My reaction to it was it only made me stronger. I didn't look at it like I was any different from anybody else. Going through something like that at an early age, it cemented who I was. It created that introvert in me and that lock-it-down, focus-in attitude. It made me shy away from people. I was a loner for a long time."
Football helped bring out Daniels' personality, and for that he thanks Ashley Pierre, a fixture in the New Jersey high school football scene who is now the head coach at Irvington, just outside Newark. Pierre, known by his nickname "Smoke," encouraged Daniels to play football at Barringer High School in Newark. Pierre said he noticed Daniels wasn't reacting to some plays as quickly as other players. When he asked why, Daniels told him the story of his right eye.
"Since then, he's played so much football, is so gifted athletically and has that fight in him, that dog in him," Pierre said, "that (the eye) isn't a factor anymore."
Football helped build Daniels' self-esteem, though he retains a bit of that hard shell he built up as a child. He and his coaches say he's not a rah-rah, vocal presence and prefers to lead by example. He was voted a team captain before this past season but declined the honor by saying it'd be forcing himself into a role that didn't suit his reserved nature.
That's not to say he doesn't play with emotion. His highlight reel shows the passion he brings on the field -- including after making a play.
"Once I do my job," he said, "people are gonna hear about it."
People around the NFL are starting to hear about Daniels, and the revelation he's been doing it with vision in only one eye will contribute to the buzz. There will also be plenty of questions.
One scout who has studied all of Daniels' tape came away impressed and didn't notice any instances where he lacked on-field vision. But the scout said he will go back and review the film again to see if any negative plays could be attributed to Daniels perhaps not seeing something develop.
Santolla, Daniels' position coach at Charleston, believes that scout won't find anything of the sort. Santolla noted Daniels' penchant for jumping offsides on occasion might lead to some pause from talent evaluators, though Santolla is adamant those penalties were due to Daniels trying to anticipate the snap count. Daniels studies tape of the top pass rushers in the NFL and said the Dolphins' Cameron Wake is someone whose get-off he tries to mimic.
"When I get the snap count down," Daniels said, "it's pretty much game over."
There will also be questions about whether Daniels, who weighs around 242 pounds right now, can make the move from full-time defensive end in college to outside linebacker in the NFL. Kirkland, Charleston's head coach, said Daniels can drop back and play in space. The coaches just didn't ask him to do it very often because they could count on Daniels and Cominsky constantly collapsing pockets on both sides of opposing offensive lines.
Kirkland and Santolla believe Daniels has the skill set to play in space. As to whether he can see the field from out there, they say Daniels' adeptness at reading his keys to defend the read option should quiet those concerns.
But the questions are coming. And Daniels is ready for them.
"Even growing up, I never let anybody treat me different in any way," he said. "I never used it as a disability, never got any checks for it or anything like that.
"I see through one eye and I live life to the best of my ability."