AUBURN – Kiontae “Junior” Strozier looked familiar to Smoke Monday. The young defensive back overcame his teammates with ease in practice. But an observant Monday figured out what he wished he’d known at Strozier’s age: talent alone isn’t enough.
It was an opportunity to get out of the script for the first time.
“You could tell he had that athleticism that not everyone else had, but not the right technique,” Monday thought. Then it hit him.
“Junior is like me in high school.”
Monday began his spring 2021 internship, a requirement for his Interdisciplinary Studies degree. Auburn Security returned home to Carver High School in Atlanta, interning for his alma mater as a temporary defensive backs coach. His curiosity was fueled by three years at Auburn and countless hours spent in high school. Coach Wesley McGriff Office.
Monday had no idea how the course would test him, or how the answers would come to him. A new passion has blossomed, one that has remained throughout his journey up to the 2022 NFL Draft. Monday’s professional playing career is just beginning, but he already has an idea of what’s next.
“I really feel like I can do this coaching thing,” he said.
It all started with Strozier Junior. After the first day of Monday introduced him to the dirty work of washing uniforms, he was soon leading drills. “It went fast,” he said. “I was everywhere.” The coaches provided him with a daily “script”. He followed him. But he quickly learned that there is no real script to coaching – only knowing when a player needs help.
Strozier’s footwork was flawed.
Instinct took over. Monday whistled.
“Before we get into all these crazy game-related drills, you need to learn how to pedal backwards,” he told his new students.
Strozier was receptive. “He was the big face of Carver,” he recalled. “We clicked from that first day. He gave me all the tips.”
Soon, Monday was teaching Junior how to catch punts, something Monday hadn’t even done in college. But he was always attentive to the way Auburn coaches taught. Keep your elbows tight. Don’t let the ball roll between your arms. “Things I’ve seen,” he shrugs.
As Monday demonstrated his own techniques—staying low while coasting—he considered his own high school career: “I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to play position.”
He was always closest to defensive line coach Quinton Wesley, a mentor who led him on recruiting visits. But Wesley was never a defensive back. Monday had no secondary coach until Auburn.
He felt behind on football IQ. He asked for help. Monday’s favorite college memories were formative ones, studying filmmaking one-on-one with McGriff.
“This guy really took his time teaching his players the game,” Monday said. “Teach them why. ‘Why do we call it in this situation.’ It was cool to do that for me…”
Monday started convincing his teammates to join him. Defensive backs have made it a tradition: “Some guys just watch a play and try to remember the play, but that’s not how you watch a movie. -an opening for me when I was going to watch a movie on its own.”
Monday relayed his wisdom. He identified that in field coverage, Strozier’s eyes were always on the receiver for the entire play.
Monday corrected. “He taught me to turn my head,” Strozier said. “When (the receiver) raises his hands, look for the ball.”
Footwork and covering habits have improved. Monday beamed with his progress.
Then, in late spring, disaster struck. Strozier injured his knee during practice, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament.
Monday was busy teaching Junior’s replacement ahead of the spring game. But another challenge of being a coach presented itself. An underdog player needed support.
Monday recalled times when he needed a life lesson. He remembers sitting in McGriff’s office, unsure of what to do as anti-racism protests swept across the United States in 2020.
“‘It’s up to us to stand up rather than just watch this happen, talking about how crazy we are about it all the time,'” Monday McGriff recalled. “If we had to protest, he was going to help us do it the right way: don’t protest just to protest.”
Monday was struck by McGriff’s thoughtful and genuine nature. More than anything, what resonated was the coach’s willingness to support his players as people.
The coach on Monday reflected on that, and he wondered why he came back to Carver for his internship in the first place. In high school, he didn’t have a college model hanging around when he tore his meniscus. “There are days when you’re so mad at yourself,” he says. “Recovery is about putting your pride aside.”
His coaching role came to mind. The course was almost over now.
Monday again became off-script.
“He came to my physical therapy appointments,” Junior said. “He helped me up the stairs.”