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Zyon McCollum on 'C-Murda,' his path, why the Bucs are 'silent assassins' in 2023
The Buccaneers' young cornerback, like Carlton Davis, still sees a championship path. Our Q&A inside.
Every year, a team nobody expects anything from finds a way to compete. To shock us all.
The Seattle Seahawks, post-Russell Wilson, made the playoffs.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers see no reason why they shouldn’t keep thinking Super Bowl on the other side of Tom Brady. This week, we share Carlton Davis’ rugged story. The Bucs’ shutdown corner didn’t hold back on why he believes everyone is in for a “rude awakening.” His rise from the streets of Miami Gardens, Fla., helps explain how the Bucs can compete, too. You can read that profile right here.
In addition to this week’s feature, here’s my full chat with second-year cornerback Zyon McCollum.
The 2022 fifth-round pick out of Sam Houston State is developing behind starters Davis and Jamel Dean, and offers his sharp insight into the combative style of “C-Murda,” how these Buccaneers can become “silent assassins” and details his own rise. McCollum is a big corner at 6 foot 3, 199 pounds and has a twin brother, Tristin, who plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. His father also played pro basketball, just missing out on Michael Jordan’s title run. Last season, McCollum recorded 24 tackles (17 solo) with a pass breakup. Enjoy.
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On Carlton Davis, where do you start?
McCollum: He definitely is very, very different from all the people I’ve played with in my career. He has a different passion. He’s wired a little bit differently. Coach Rock says all the time: “He’s crazy.” He’s like, “Follow a lot of these guys on the team but be careful with CD because he’s a little bit crazy.” I didn’t know what he meant by that but, once we actually started playing games, and he gets into his competitive world? OK, he might be a little crazy.
How so? I got that sense. He’s a little scary at times.
McCollum: He’s such a competitor and I think he knows himself so well. He knows and he’s in love with who he is as a person — he’s accepted it — and he really doesn’t care about anything other than what he’s trying to do and the job he’s trying to get done. And he has a different love for his teammates and for his family and his friends and the way he talks about everybody. But you really don’t want to be on his bad side and every receiver in the NFL is on his bad side.
I brought up the Michael Thomas feud from a couple years ago, and he said, “Honestly, I’m trying to f--k up every receiver I face.” That it’s not just personal with one guy. It’s everybody.
McCollum: It’s everybody. It’s practice. The first time I got to see him play was minicamp of last season when I came in as a rookie. He came in and he’s putting hands on everybody — it’s like he’s boxing these receivers at the line of scrimmage. The way he’s putting hands on guys. And nobody’s able to get away from him because he’s got these long arms. He’s not concerned about anything. He’s not concerned about covering. He’s concerned about punching these dudes’ chest. And it works. It works for him. It was really cool to see.
McCollum: Oh yeah. This was at practice. His first rep, he gets the speedy, super speedy receiver and he just punches him in the chest and controls him and contains him. My coach was always saying, “You want to put hands on the receiver. You want to put hands on the receiver. That’s what we want to do.” It’s different when you see a guy do it. From a guy you haven’t seen all OTAs. You know he’s working out but he’s really, really quiet about it. He comes in and he starts putting a clinic together, and it’s like, “OK, I see why they call him ‘CD Murda.’ He’s out here tenacious.”
Do you remember who that receiver would’ve been?
McCollum: Deven Thompkins. Our punt returner now. The quickest, shiftiest guy. He was doing the same thing to Jaelon Darden. All the short 5-8, 5-9 guys. The Tyreek Hills of the world. The quick guys you’re not supposed to get hands on, he’s able to do it. It’s pretty incredible.
This probably pisses guys off time to time? Lead to a brawl here and there?
McCollum: Oh yeah. For sure. And he’s the type who’s not going to back down from anyone. He’ll get in a brawl. Guys will pull him off. And all you’ll see is a big smile on his face. He’s having the time of his life.
What’s been the most memorable brawl you’ve seen in practice?
McCollum: Probably vs. Miami. During practice last year. Because you had Waddle and you had Tyreek. When he tries to punch holes through guys, these receivers get absolutely enamored — “Hey! That’s holding! Why you doing all this?” They’re saying all this. They’re complaining. And he’s still driving people back. I can’t tell you the names of these receivers because you see everybody. But I mean he gets people riled up. And then Lavonte or Devin has to come over there and pull him off. He’s just sitting here like, “What do you mean? You need to bring that up with the Miami coaches. Your receiver coaches need to do a better job.”
He’s a trash talker. He’s not a crazy trash talker because really he’s all about business. But he’s never going to let anybody feel like they have the upper hand on him.
When you say “punch a hole” through a guy, what is the technique he’s taught and you’re all taught?
McCollum: So my coach coming in — because I had way different technique in college — my coach is like, “You need to swipe all that. Basement. Level 1. You need to relearn how to press and how to get hands on receivers. But be careful who you watch because there’s some people on this team who do things not everybody can do.” Carlton was definitely one of those guys where his technique, to me, it’s not a technique. He’s out there going off of pure athleticism and how he feels about the game. Because the way he presses is so unique and so unlike anybody else. He’ll lift both feet off the ground into his wide stance and then he’ll shift his hands out — and you won’t think his hands are moving — but he’s able to mirror guys. So, he’ll crowd the line of scrimmage and the only thing going through his head is: “Put my hands on him. Punch the receiver.” It’s so weird because a rookie like me will see that and say, “I’m going to try to do exactly what that was.” And then you do it and the receiver is using a wide release and getting around you. It’s like, “How is he doing it?” I had to take a step back and learn how to play it myself because his body is completely different. I’ve never seen anybody in the league use the technique that he uses. That’s why I say I don’t even know if it’s a technique. I think he’s going off of passion, grit and athleticism.
Within those five yards, it’s still football. You can do whatever you want. It’s just that you better get your hands on the wide receiver or it’s a touchdown. The ultimate risk-reward.
McCollum: Exactly. 100 percent. Especially for him, I don’t think he gets enough credit because what doesn’t go in the stat book is when a quarterback’s staring a receiver down and he has to look the other way. I mean, he doesn’t get thrown at a lot. And it’s because of his ability to get his hands on you at the line of scrimmage. If it takes a second and a half for the receiver to get off the line, it’s pretty much shutting down that entire half of the field.
That’s why I have a hard time agreeing with everybody who says the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to be bad this year. I’m sure you see it.
Everyone has you guys at the bottom of the barrel. A guy like Carlton literally fighting — punching play-in, play-out — I feel like he won’t allow you guys to be a bad team. And then you look at the roster and there’s a lot of talent. Where’s your head at into this season and how does Carlton lead the way toward this being a contender?
McCollum: The disrespect is unbelievable. I know Carlton feels the same way. We love it. For us to be counted out, we love that underdog mentality, that come-from-behind mentality. We’re like silent assassins. We don’t get a lot of coverage in the media. A lot of guys play a lot of good football and people don’t know about it — Carlton, Dean. They’re not getting the Pro Bowls and the All-Pros but they’re doing a lot of things I know coaches see on film. I know the other 31 teams are preaching to their guys, “Hey, don’t listen to the media when it comes to this team. It’s a different kind of team. If you don’t come correct, you’re going to get reminded and humbled really, really quick.”
What is the expectation into this season? Do you talk about playoffs? Do you talk about Super Bowl? Do you talk about the fact that everybody thinks you’ll be this 3-win team?
McCollum: We are trying to establish a core group of guys that can take us, one, to a division win. Then we take it step by step. Divisional winner. OK, now let’s go to this playoff game and win. Let’s go to the next one. NFC Champions. And then eventually Super Bowl Champions. So we don’t really focus on the negatives of anything. We try to play our brand of football, which is aggressive. Nasty. We come from behind like assassins and take people by the throat.
Carlton said he hopes his temperament becomes contagious — just attacking every day like it’s the Super Bowl. How does he do that?
McCollum: He’s real vocal with us corners when it comes to practice. Every day, we’re trying to prove something. He still comes to us and says, “Nobody catches a pass on us today. Dean, nobody catches a pass on you. Zyon, nobody catches a pass on you.” We’re going into 1-on-1’s giving up no passes. It’ll never be different, day-in and day-out. Doesn’t matter if it’s the last day of training camp or the first day of summer workouts. He always is the same when it comes to “no passes allowed.” Talking to the quarterbacks. Being the quarterback’s best friend, but when we’re on the field? That’s our enemy. Even if that’s our own teammate. If you’re wearing an opposite-colored jersey, we’re not friends really.
I could see him and Baker getting into it.
McCollum: Big time. Oh yeah. He’ll jump a three step or play something and he’ll just scream at Baker: “Throw iiiiiiiit!” Because, like I said, quarterbacks just know. If you put the ball in the air, it could be going the other way. He knows he needs more production in terms of interceptions. But it’s so hard to catch interceptions when nobody’s throwing it at you.
Where does the Zyon story begin? You come from a small school obviously and now have a chance to become part of one of the NFL’s best defenses with that cornerback room.
McCollum: I grew up in a basketball family. My Dad (Corey Carr) played in the NBA. Played for the Bulls for a couple years. And then he went overseas and played in the Israel League for a while. But I always gravitated toward football. And having a twin brother, we’re always going at it. So you’ll never see me post anything or go to these big training centers because, shoot, me and my brother just run 1 on 1’s in the backyard. Every day. And we’re constantly learning and soaking in all the information that we get. Especially from this past year — to learn so much, especially at this league which you don’t get at the FCS level what you see in the SEC, what you see in the NFL. Especially being around guys like Carlton and Dean. These lockdown, man-to-man guys. And of course being blessed to be under Bowles, who’s a defensive-minded guy, I’m soaking everything in. And I’m super excited for this year. The jump has been incredible for me and my comfort. Having a year to soak in all the information and sit, man, I can’t wait. There’s no better guys to look up to than “CD” and Dean, who are guys known for their ability to play press man, which is my favorite thing to do.
It is different in Tampa with that press man. Usually, there’s going to be help over the top. Or inside. You’re playing off. Reading, reacting. So many corners love to say, “I’m a shutdown guy. This is my island.” But Todd Bowles loves to blitz, which leaves you on an island.
McCollum: Big time. And I’m completely fine with that. I did a lot of that in college. A lot of Cover 1 with our safety sitting at eight yards. You’re not getting any help over the top. My ability to be comfortable in press in a lot of the reason why I joined this team. Refining the technique is what they consider the easy part. But having the mindset of being comfortable. Going up against a guy who’s 4.4 or 4.3 and not needing any help over the top — because I’m not expecting any help over the top — it gives us a chip on our shoulder. For sure. All of our guys love it. We could press all game, we could play man all game and we’d be completely happy with it. But we’ve got to have a little bit of disguise to keep these quarterbacks thinking.
So your Dad played on the Bulls team right after Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, right after the dynasty?
McCollum: Corey Carr, yeah, the year after. He came in and they just left. I always joked with him about that. “You couldn’t go 1 on 1 with Jordan just for a year? I’m supposed to hear those stories!”
And you were born that same year, in ’99?
McCollum: I don’t remember being courtside but I see pictures and, shoot, there’s little baby Zyon and Tristin.
Basketball was a huge part of your life, I’d imagine?
McCollum: Basketball was pretty big. My Dad and my Mom tried to push us to do any and all sports. Middle school, we were in swimming, tennis, track and field, football, basketball. Any sport there is — soccer — we were playing it. She wanted us to be able to play everything. Because if you know how to play everything, you’re going to add to your athleticism. You’re going to be versatile. Then, you can really nail down and grow a passion for one specific thing. That’s when football came in. We grew late. So, we were short up until my senior year of high school. So I remember the day we gave up on basketball, I like to say I retired from the game. It’s because I was short. I’m supposed to be playing basketball but I’m 5-8 and I’m a sophomore in high school and there’s no signs of getting taller, so maybe I should give up on that. But my Dad said, “No, you’re late bloomers. You’re late bloomers.” He grew a couple inches after college. So I was like, “OK, let me just wait on it.” And eventually, we sprouted up and we still haven’t stopped growing.
There aren’t many corners built like you in the NFL.
McCollum: It’s a problem for sure. It’s going to be a problem. I like to pride myself on my speed and my quickness and the height is a cherry on top. Finding out how to combine and use all that — if used in the right way — it’s a receiver’s worst nightmare. That’s what I plan on being.
That’s such a good point on the multiple sports. Look at Patrick Mahomes. I’ve talked to people close to him and, literally, any sport in existence he has played. Ping pong. Throwing hatchets. Golf. Basketball. Baseball. He was a natural at everything and made his own interpretation of the quarterback position. That gets lost with so much 7-on-7 and quarterbacks anointed The Next Coming out of the womb. Why do you think it’s important to play so many sports?
McCollum: Just from a competitive standpoint. For one. You learn how to compete. Competing doesn’t mean just being the best at one thing. It means being the best at anything life throws at you. There could be one orange left in the grocery store, and it’s you and an old lady. You compete to go get that orange. It’s competing at all and every level. Once you learn how to compete, now, later in life, once you start to narrow things down — and you find your passions — the hard part is already integrated into your veins, your blood. Now you can just compete. When you’re just focusing on one thing, and one thing only, then you can start taking things to a whole other level.
It’s like Jerry with the marble rye.
What’s your favorite non-football memory in sports? Through that competition lens?
McCollum: Me and my brother competed at everything. We were the type of kids where my Mom would take us putt-putt golfing and it’s supposed to be some fun thing and it’s not fun. Because you miss one shot and your life is over. So, I know it was tough growing up around us. We competed at everything. Mom says, “Dinner’s ready.” Who’s going to get to the table the fastest? Who’s going to get done with their homework the fastest? Who’s going to get the best grades? Really everything.
You were going to go to Utah, and you decided to stay closer to home?
McCollum: They offered both me and my twin brother, and he ended up having a little bit of a problem with his back at the time. We knew it wasn’t a big deal. But they offered to bring him in and grayshirt him, so he’d become a part of the next year’s recruiting class. Tristin and I have always been real loyal guys. When we have our mind set to do something, we’re going to follow it and get it done. We know the way that life is, everything will conform to you as long as you’re doing things out of love. So we took a step back and said, “If you’re not going to take both of us, we’ll go to the smaller school. That’ll be fine with us. Because we know we want to play together. We know we can play.” That’s why we ended up going to Sam Houston State.
The cherry on top was being closer to home. Mom could see every game. That’s what happened and it ended up working. The same thing happened before we won the national championship. I had a ton of schools hit me up: “Hey, come and transfer. You’ll improve your draft stock.” But I knew that as long as I was doing things that I love, and I already had a vision set out, none of that stuff was going to matter. At the end game. When we stepped foot on campus, we wanted to bring the school a national championship. We were so close. I couldn’t just leave after being part of that. That year, we won a national championship. So I have a vision for where I want to be.
Plus, you probably gained lifelong memories with your twin brother. You could’ve gone to a bigger school and maybe 99.9 percent of the guys in your position do that, but that twin-brotherly connection is special. Tiki Barber and Ronde were one and the same through high school and college. It was weird when one went to New York and the other went to Tampa. It’s a different kind of relationship, isn’t it?
McCollum: Me and him, we remember reading Tiki and Ronde’s children’s book. When we were young, we’d sit in a circle and read back and forth to each other. We were like, “One day, that’s going to be us.” We don’t know how we’re going to do it. We’re just in elementary school. We don’t know what we’re going to do to get there. But we knew as long as we stick together like they stick together, that we’re going to do it. Now, he’s with the Eagles and I’m with the Bucs. We’ll see each other Week 3. We’ll go up against each other. That’ll be a fun jersey swap.
Looking at both of you both right now, it’s freaky. Imagine you probably mess with people, right?
McCollum: All the time. Elementary school, we’d switch classes a couple times. The only way people told us apart was the shoes. Mom drops us off. So right before we go in — she drives off, you wave. — and it’s “OK, switch the shoes!”
Never girlfriends, though. You wouldn’t go that far.
McCollum: That was never us. We had teammates and guys all the time, “Dude, what’s wrong with y’all!? You all could’ve been running the show! Running Sam Houston! What’s going on?” Hey, man. Maybe you become a twin and you go that route.
A man has a code. You’ve got to draw a line somewhere.
McCollum: Exactly. I mean, c’mon now.
To bring it back to the Bucs here, everybody’s wondering, what’s going on at quarterback? You’re facing them every day. It’s early but what do you see out of Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask?
McCollum: They both look good. It’s really hard to tell when you don’t have an actual pass rush and the D-Line’s actually trying to take the quarterback’s head off. There’s no pads on. Baker looks good. I’ve never gone up against him. I’ve never played him in person. Other than the Rams last year. To see him, he definitely has that cannon of an arm. A way stronger arm than I thought he did. And he’s a competitor. You see on TV when he’s going crazy and yelling and competing and getting on people, he’s definitely as advertised when it comes to that. He’s going to bring the juice every single day. And Kyle, he’s big and he can run. He’s a lot more mobile than people think. People don’t understand how much he can affect a defense’s gameplan — and an offense’s playcalling — just based off of the way he can run. So, I’m really looking forward to their competition in training camp. I know they’re both going to compete. We don’t know who’s going to take it right now. But Baker, he’s definitely smart. He has played in a lot more games obviously. So he knows the smart decisions and where to go with the ball and how to win. Kyle is coming along great. I’m excited to see their competition.
Dave Canales said the same thing about Baker’s arm. That seems to be a theme, that he still has a strong arm?
McCollum: The man can zip that thing in there. It’s especially annoying as a DB when you’re on a guy right then and there and that ball somehow finds a way to zip straight in to a small window. I love to have that quarterback on our team. It surprised me, too.
You’ve got to like the fact that everybody’s counting you out. I think every coach tries to cultivate that "underdog” sentiment in a locker room and it can fall flat when you’re a Super Bowl contender. You can tap into real disrespect.
McCollum: Exactly. That’s been the story of my life. And this team, being a Super Bowl contender and getting so close the next year — to be in the position and to be disrespected the way that they have, especially with the veterans on this roster — it’s exciting to know people are counting you out. And it’s exciting to have that fire re-lit. It’s almost like it creates a new culture. I feel like this is the last defense, the last team overall, that you want to put a chip on their shoulder. But we love it.
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