For Jets defensive assistant Nathaniel Willingham, serving as the National Team's linebacker coach for the Senior Bowl is more than just a great opportunity, it's a full circle moment. Willingham found his new home with the New York Jets two years ago in Mobile, AL.
"I think 64 guys put their name in across the league," Willingham said about the process of being selected as a Senior Bowl coach. "So just being able to be chosen as one of them is a really proud moment for me because I came down here looking for a job a few years ago, and that led me to get a job with the Jets. So, to be down here again, now coaching this thing, is a really big deal. I take a lot of pride in that."
Willingham spent three seasons with Denver (2019-21) as the defensive quality control coach. During his time with the Broncos, they became the first team since 1995 to lead the league in red zone defense in consecutive seasons (2019-20).After the 2021 season the Denver coaching staff was dismissed and Willingham, who was looking for a new job, traveled to the 2022 Senior Bowl to network.
"It was me and three other guys from Denver came down here trying to find something and it felt like a desperate attempt, it felt like a Hail Mary at one point there," Willingham said about flying down to the Senior Bowl to look for a new job. "Then I met with Michael LaFleur one night. I just introduced myself to him, and then he was spreading my name to [Robert] Saleh and then I got a call from Saleh the next week."
National Team LB Payton Wilson, out of North Carolina State, has been working with Willingham throughout the week and has gained invaluable experience.
"He's nothing but the best," Wilson said of Willingham. "I mean, off the field, one of the best people I've ever been around. Just getting around Coach Nat, an NFL scheme, getting around new terminology, and just seeing how smart he is. He's up there coaching the best in the world. So just the knowledge that he has behind the game from his own knowledge and learning from those guys as well. It's just really cool."
Willingham has been prepared for this opportunity because of all his work under Jets LB coach Mike Rutenberg. He is capitalizing on being able to coach the prospects exactly like he coaches the Jets linebacker group and trying to prepare them for their NFL careers as best he can.
"Everything that I've been able to do with Rudy back home at Florham Park, he's been a great guy and a great mentor in the sense of allowing me to do some of the things that I've been doing here. This whole past season and the season prior, he's kind of given me the opportunity to step into the same role. Being in a different place and being able to do it here, it's just kind of like a training experience.
"How we do everything with the Jets linebacker group is one way and I try to apply it the same way to these guys so they get a little taste of what the Jets defense is. Specifically, the linebacker group down here, so I can tell them just how we do it with our Jets linebackers. All those little things, all those little keys that they can get to try to hopefully start their journey off right."