As some of his former University of Alabama teammates went through the Senior Bowl experience Saturday, Javier Arenas probably knew the anxiety they would be facing for the next several months as they make the transition from college to professional football.
But Arenas, in town for a conversation last week, also shared some good news with future Crimson Tide professionals headed into their first year: they are a step ahead.
"I didn't feel like a rookie, mentally or physically," said Arenas, who just finished a stellar first season with the Kansas City Chiefs. "It could just be a mind thing, but they knew Coach (Nick) Saban, knew where he had been. So it was the best of both worlds, that we had a great college coach who had also been a pro coach. With all the things I learned from him, I was going in there thinking, "whatever you throw at me, I can handle it.'"
Arenas, one of the most popular and accomplished players to come out of UA in recent years, played in all 16 games for the Chiefs during a playoff season. He started two games in the secondary and was a regular in the nickel back position, making 43 tackles.
He also returned kickoffs and punts, where he shared duties with former Ole Miss star Dexter McCluster. Arenas isn't physically imposing, but has tremendous football sense, an asset he says was enhanced in college.
"When I first got in camp, I was making a lot of plays," he said. "You have to understand how important that is. That's what they are looking for. And I felt as thought that was my strong point. So I got ahead.
"There was a time in rookie camp where they would have us go up and draw defenses on the board. Our base 'D' at Alabama was their complicated 'D.' It got to a point where everything out of my mouth was going to shock those guys. I would go up to the board and draw things and the coaches would be copying it down."
Arenas is quick to point out there was nothing easy about making an NFL roster, and not every player is guaranteed to be as successful as he was in the first year, no matter what their background. But he feels he did have an edge after three years under Saban's defensive tutelage, and that "every little bit helps."
"Adapting is a part of it," Arenas said. "There is a rumor out there that the league isn't that much different from college, but don't believe it. There is a huge, huge difference. But at the same time, it wasn't like I was in awe the whole time. I was ready from the first game of the season to go in and make plays. From the first game, I was out there making tackles, breaking punt returns. It was a smooth transition."
Familiar faces also surrounded him. The Chiefs had a whopping 19 players from Southeastern Conference schools on their active roster, including three others (Tim Castille, Wallace Gilberry and Brodie Croyle) from Alabama.
"It helped, having those guys there, the Alabama guys and the SEC guys," Arenas said. "You know them. Sometimes, you'd be struggling and they would help you through it. Or you would see them struggle, and it would let you know that it happens to everyone."
It also made for some lively Saturday chatter between Arenas and former SEC superstars like McCluster, Glenn Dorsey (LSU) and Eric Berry (Tennessee.)
"I watched Alabama games all year," Arenas said. "That was the highlight of my Saturdays. I talked a lot of trash in walk-throughs, and they talked it back. It was fun."
In fact, Arenas said, the most stressful part of his rookie year is the current vigil on the status of NFL labor negotiations.
"It is a players versus owners situation that I have no control over," he said. "When the season starts, I am going to be in top shape. If we don't go back for three years, I am going to be in top shape three years from now. If they start early for some crazy reason, I will be ready to go. That's the only thing I can control."