The 2021 NFL Draft is loaded with talented pass-catchers of all shapes, sizes, and skill sets. While former Arizona State wide receiver Frank Darby may not be the biggest or the fastest among them, but he may be one of the best route runners of the bunch.
Darby spoke exclusively with The Draft Network about his pre-draft experiences, growing up in New Jersey, what he learned from playing alongside Brandon Aiyuk and N’Keal Harry, why his nickname is “Smiley,” and what will set him apart at the next level.
JM: What was life like growing up in Jersey City, NJ? I know it’s not always an easy place for a child.
FD: It wasn’t pretty. We were surrounded by a negative environment. We were surrounded by a bunch of things that could easily distract you from what you’re trying to achieve. One thing I would say about me is that I got through that by playing sports. Every sport that came up each season, I was there. I played volleyball, football, and basketball in high school. They all happened back-to-back-to-back. As soon as I stopped playing football, the basketball season would startup. Once basketball ended, I jumped right back into football. Anything I could do to stay away from the streets, that’s what I did. I made sure I didn’t have time to run around and get in trouble. There were things happening in my community that I didn’t need to involve myself with. I always had my sight set on college. I knew what I had to do to get there.
JM: What a terrific job you’ve done. You’ve been through a lot in life, but everybody that knows you says you always have a smile on your face. How do you maintain that positive mindset no matter what?
FD: This is a blessing for me, Justin. Where I’m at in life right now, it’s a blessing. Why would I be mad? What do I have to be upset about? I’m not in Jersey City anymore. Everyone in Jersey City is trying to make it out of there. I did that. You go through so many things in Jersey City. It’s hard. Life is hard out there.
Making it to Arizona and traveling all over the place while playing college football, it makes me happy all the time. The energy and positivity that I have towards others, treating others well makes me feel good. I wake up and see the sun every single day. It’s another beautiful day and I’m not in Jersey City anymore. I’m out here competing and trying to be great. I’m trying to make it to the league. That’s just who I am. I always have a smile on my face. When I was younger, they used to call me “Smiley.” That’s what my coaches used to call me. They used to ask me, “Why are you always smiling?” I don’t know man, I’m always happy. I probably got it from my mother. She was always smiling too. My mother was a very positive person. I took everything from her.
JM: You have an amazing outlook on life. I love your attitude. I want to talk some football with you. Now that you’ve had time to really sit and reflect, how do you look back on your time at Arizona State?
FD: It was amazing. I met so many great people there. I built relationships at Arizona State that will last a lifetime. One thing I would say about ASU is that they welcomed me with open arms. There are so many amazing people there. They gave me an opportunity to play Pac-12 football. Coming from Jersey City, that’s a Power Five school right there. I couldn’t be any more blessed. It was great for me.
When [head] coach Herman Edwards walked into the program, everything changed for me. Coach Herm came to ASU and brought an NFL staff with him. He turned the whole program around. He made everything so much easier. He improved everything about the program. He makes you wanna be there. He makes you wanna play for him. His energy matched my energy. We really bonded. I love that man to death. I used to tell him all the time, “Coach Herm, I love you. Thank you for letting me be myself.” With my previous coach, he was the suit and tie type. I couldn’t laugh that much. I couldn’t smile when he was around. He was serious all the time. When coach Herm came in, it made everything better for me.
JM: Coach Herm is a great person and coach. As a young guy playing behind Aiyuk and Harry, it limited some of your opportunities but what did you learn while playing behind those two?
FD: I learned a couple of things from both of them. With N’Keal Harry, it was about his mindset. I didn’t meet Aiyuk until he got recruited there. N’Keal and I had been there since our freshman year. We were also roommates. Me being with N’Keal, it was his dedication that did it for me. I watched him work so hard to make it to the league. This guy was a 5-star recruit outworking everybody. When you’re a 5-star, you're almost guaranteed to go to the NFL. You play right away when you get to college.
He always had that dog in him. I have that dog in me too, but I took his dog from him (laughs). I watched him work his butt off every single day. We’d be in the weight room and you’d see N’Keal Harry lifting curls and doing extra reps. He did extra work on the bench press. He was always trying to get stronger. I’d be watching him and I’d be like damn, maybe I should do that too (laughs). If this 5-star dude is out here working like this, I don’t have any excuses. I should be doing what this 5-star guy is doing. We’ll see how much I improve when I work like him.
That’s how we got close. We started doing everything together. If he stayed behind to get in some extra work, I did too. There were times where we’d be walking in the hallway and he’d be like, “Frank, give me 20.” I’ll drop on the floor and do 20 pushups. I’d see him before he walked into the meeting room and I might say, “N’Keal, let me get a 10 real quick,” and he’d drop down and do 10 pushups. That happened before and after a meeting. That’s what I took from him. Work ethic.
With Aiyuk, he always said that it was already written in the stars. I took that from him. He always said that after every game. We used to stay in the same room at the hotel on the road. He always said that to me. He was so relaxed and laid back. He always trusted his game. He has a ton of confidence. I took that from him. I learned how to trust my game. I started playing with more confidence because of him. I trained just like Aiyuk. I do a lot of the things that he does. It didn’t matter who was older between us. I took a lot of things from him. Once he says it’s already written, the way he plays the game, and how he motivated everybody, he always felt like he was unstoppable. I remember when he first got to ASU, him and N’Keal were always competing with one another. Every training session was like that.
It was crazy to me. I just paid close attention to both of them. I knew those were two NFL draft picks right there. I was just trying to follow in their footsteps. They had such bright futures but they were still getting after it and competing with one another. Those two guys helped me so much. I can’t stress that enough. Even though I had my own talent and brought my own things to the table, I definitely grabbed some things from N’Keal and I grabbed some things from Brandon too. If I would have gotten to play a full season as the go-to receiver, I would probably have done some of the things they did. Who knows, maybe I would have put up even better numbers than they did.
JM: Those are some terrific stories and I don’t think there’s any denying that. As an evaluator, I hate that you only got to play a couple of games in 2020 because I enjoyed watching your tape so much. I see an excellent, advanced route runner who has a diverse release package. That’s part of my scouting report. Tell me a little about how you approach route running.
FD: First of all, thank you for saying that. I’m really big on route running. Coming into college, I didn’t have a wide receivers coach in high school. All I ever did in high school was go deep. I looked at the football like it was a basketball. Go get the rebound. That’s how I saw football. It helped me a lot. When I came to Arizona State, every coach I ever had told me that I was a raw player. The offensive coordinators and position coaches always said that. I used to ask them what they meant by that. They told me I was raw as a route runner. You need to improve your route running and get better at the top of your breaks. You can go vertical, but you need to run intermediate routes too. Ok then. Every offseason, I ran intermediate routes every single day. I worked on my breaks at the top of my routes every day. I got tired of hearing about that raw stuff. I needed to be prepared for when I got back out there. If they gave me a slant, a dig, or an in route, that’s what I poured my time and effort into. I worked my butt off to improve my craft as a route runner. Everybody knew I could go vertical. When it came time to meet with my coaches again, they didn’t call me a raw player anymore. Frank is a better player now. They got excited about me.
JM: There’s no doubt that you’ve put the work in. You’re one of my favorite route runners in this class. Do you have a favorite route to run?
FD: I still love that vertical route (laughs). That’s my favorite route. I’m at home when I do that. My second favorite route is a curl. Everybody sees me as a deep threat. Once I get outside on you, I’m running and running, nobody wants to get beat deep. That’s how corners approach me. Once I stop, they slide right past me (laughs). I have an easy curl route right there.
I love that go ball and I love that curl route. Those are my two favorite routes to run.
JM: You’re not the biggest receiver on the field, but you’re an excellent contested-catch winner on tape. It’s evident. How did you develop that area of your game despite not being 6-foot-3 for example?
FD: I focused on the techniques, especially in practice. My coaches preached the little things. They always talked about holding the line when we were on the outside. They taught us how to fend off the defender with our forearm so that the ball could land on the outside. That’s one thing I was always big on during practice. That’s what I worked on during the pat-and-go drill. I always worked on the technical aspects during the release drills. How can I get better during this? That’s how I approached it.
I remember the game against Oregon State. They had this mighty tall cornerback (laughs). I remember watching him during our film study and I was like, “Wow, how am I gonna get past this tall corner at Oregon State?” That’s all I was thinking about. He had size on me. He had a long reach. Maybe I’ll just hold the line a little bit longer. That’s what I work on. If you go watch that game, watch the play where I caught the touchdown. I held the line for as long as possible (laughs). I knew that the ball was gonna be thrown on the outside. How to catch the ball on your outside shoulder and those little technical things, I’ve always worked really hard on that. It’s all about repetition.
When coach Rob Likens was my wide receivers coach, he was always preaching that. Hold the line, Frank. Catch the ball on your outside shoulder. He used to tell me that I was the best receiver at catching a deep ball on my outside shoulder that he had ever seen (laughs). I just said thank you and kept working at it. I’m gonna keep doing it. I’m working hard on that every single day.
JM: That’s an excellent breakdown. You’ve spent the last few months meeting with NFL teams virtually through Zoom. What’s that process been like for you, and who are some of the teams that you’ve met with? [Editor’s note: This interview was completed April 7.]
FD: It’s been amazing. Especially for me because I’m from Jersey. I get excited every time a team calls me to say they wanna set up a Zoom meeting with me. I’m like “yeah, yeah let’s set it up right now” (laughs). It’s been amazing. That’s how I’ve been reacting.
I’ve spoken with a ton of teams. I met with all 32 teams in person at the Senior Bowl but when I got home, teams have continued to hit me up. I spoke with the Colts, Jets, Giants, and Texans. My schedule has been really busy. I’ve met with more teams than just those four. I have another one with the Giants coming up on April 13. Teams wanna figure out who I am. I had an interview with the Panthers as well. I feel like teams are trying to get to know me. They heard about my energy. They heard that I’m always smiling. They wanted to see it for themselves (laughs). I’m giving every team that same energy when I hop on these Zoom calls. I don’t care if it’s early in the morning or late at night. I’ve had that same energy on every call. I’ve also met with the Packers, Bills, and Titans.
JM: There’s a lot of interest in you and it’s easy to see why. I’ve appreciated your time today. This has been terrific. You’re the happiest, most positive prospect I’ve come across this cycle and I’ve really enjoyed this. In closing, what kind of impact is Frank Darby gonna make at the next level?
FD: I’m gonna be a guy that comes in with a high level of energy. I’m ready to work. I’m extremely competitive. I’m here to earn myself a job. A job is always there for the taking. I’m gonna work hard for it. When an organization welcomes me through their doors, I’m gonna be a guy that’s gonna compete. I’m gonna make plays when my number gets called. I’m ready for this opportunity. If they want me to go out there and block somebody in the run game, I can do that too. If you want me to play special teams, I can use my energy to get down the field and make a play on the hands team. That’s just who I am.
I wanna motivate the players in the locker room. I just gotta get to know them first. I’m gonna take my time in the beginning. I can’t give anybody that energy until I know how they respond to it. I need to get to know you as a person first. I have to find out who my teammates are. I’m gonna find out what they like and how they respond to different techniques so that I can motivate everybody in the right way. I want all my teammates to be great. I want all my teammates to improve every single day. Being in this league, playing every Sunday, that’s a blessing right there. I’m never gonna take it for granted. It’s the ultimate dream come true. I’m gonna bring that same energy to the next level. I want every single one of us to be great.
I’m trying to be a guy that wins a Super Bowl as a rookie. Why can’t I do that? Why can’t that happen to me? That’s how I think about it. It’s all about the level of work that you put in. We all have to work together to reach that level. That’s the goal. I’m a person that’s gonna come in and make a difference.