A sixth-round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals out of tiny Presbyterian a year ago, Justin Bethel faced an uphill fight to make it in the NFL.
He found his niche on special teams, where he is thriving as one of the league’s best.
Arizona coach Bruce Arians has seen a lot of special teams players in his two decades in the NFL.
”I can’t think of one that was better,” Arians said, ”because he can do so many different things – being able to block kicks, especially field goals and extra points, but then to be a gunner, a vice, block on kickoff returns, and all the things that he can do. I’ve seen individuals do some of those things well, but not the whole package like him.”
Bethel said he knew that if he was to have a chance to play, it would be because of special teams.
”Most definitely,” he said Wednesday. ”Coming in I knew that that was going to be something I was going to have to excel at while I was still trying to learn another position (cornerback). Obviously, I’ve been able to do that. It was something I was already comfortable doing.”
In last week’s victory over Houston, Bethel blocked Randy Bullock’s 40-yard field goal attempt at the end of the first half. It’s a play that turned out to be huge, since Arizona won by three points, 27-24.
It was Bethel’s second blocked field goal of the season. He knocked down a 47-yard attempt by David Akers in Arizona’s 25-21 victory over Detroit in Week 2.
Bethel comes off the edge and essentially tries to beat the kicker to the ball.
”It’s kind of just reaction time,” he said, ”being able to see the snapper, just reading when he snaps, kind of guessing so you can get off fast, just knowing when to jump for it.”
Bethel’s remarkable athletic ability can be seen on YouTube, where a video of him making a 60-inch vertical leap from a flat-footed position has drawn more than a million hits.
Arians marveled at how quickly Bethel can get to a kicker.
”He’s got great anticipation and feel when to leave his feet,” the coach said.
Bethel can be equally devastating, maybe more so, on punts when, even though teams often put two blockers on him, he is in the returner’s face virtually as soon as the ball gets there.
He said he enjoys blocking field goals and making big plays on the punt team equally well.
”If you block it, you’re automatically taking points off the board and if you block it right you can put points on your board,” Bethel said, ”and then with a punt, just going out there and making that splash play, making a hit, giving the defense good field position.”
The son of a gospel singer, Bethel was a defensive standout on his Blythewood, S.C., High School team. He went on to Presbyterian (enrollment 1,200) in Clinton, S.C., where he became the school’s career leader in tackles and interceptions. He also played drums in the school pep band.
Bethel became the first player from Presbyterian to be drafted in 43 years. His special teams ability was quickly apparent, and he appeared in all 16 games a year ago.
This year, teams are game planning for him.
Some teams attempting a field goal simply tackle him, he said. Regardless of the attention, Bethel still makes his way to the middle of things.
”I’m kind of used to it,” he said. ”I expect it every game, but I plan on beating it.”
Bethel is continuing to work on playing cornerback. He wants to be a position player and not just a special teams performer, even if he is one of the best.
”He’s a Pro Bowl player,” Arians said. ”If he doesn’t get voted in, it’s a shame.”