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Former UNH star ready to line up for Eagles in Super Bowl

  • Philadelphia defensive back Corey Graham (right), who was a star at UNH, celebrates after the Eagles won the NFC championship. Courtesy



For the Monitor
Sunday, February 04, 2018

Watching Corey Graham play in Cowell Stadium and other college football venues around the country was one thing.

Watching him jump-start the University of New Hampshire football team to a victory with a huge kickoff return at Georgia Southern in its first FCS tournament game in years – a triumph that kicked off the program’s remarkable string of playoff success that continues to this day – and make assorted other explosive plays through the years was certainly impressive.

You should have seen Corey Graham in his other elements, too.

“He was the best athlete on our team,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “Him and David Ball. They were both terrific athletes. The most fun thing ever was watching them play knockout, one-on-one basketball against each other. In the gym or at my house. Great kids. Great competitors. That’s one of the things you just can’t measure. Corey’s an unbelievable competitor and on top of it he’s really smart. Really, really smart. He’s got the whole package.”

Graham – who arrived in Durham as part of a class that included fellow program-changers Ball and Ricky Santos – took that whole package he displayed at UNH and turned it into arguably the best National Football League career ever for a Wildcat.

A safety and special teams standout with the Philadelphia Eagles, Graham looks to cement any argument even further on Sunday when he and his team take on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.

Graham, leads a one-two punch of former Wildcats representing the Eagle secondary. Dino Vasso is a defensive quality control coach and assistant secondary coach with his hometown Eagles.

Graham starred at defensive back for the Wildcats from 2003 to 2006 and collected a dozen interceptions and set kickoff return records. Vasso followed close behind and started 51 straight games at cornerback from 2007 to 2010 and totaled 18 interceptions.

Both are in their first seasons with Philadelphia.

An 11-year NFL veteran, Graham won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013 and will attempt to add to his ring collection. He was drafted in the fifth round by the Chicago Bears in 2007 – despite missing half his senior season with a broken leg – and went to the Pro Bowl with them in 2011 before moving on in 2012. He spent two seasons with the Ravens and then went home to play three seasons for the Buffalo Bills.

Released by the Bills after last season, he signed with the Eagles.

Graham looked back on the journey this week in a story in the Chicago Tribune.

“I never thought that I would have a chance to play in two Super Bowls or I would have a Pro Bowl or I would even play 11 years in the NFL, so it has just been an amazing ride,” Graham said. “Even I didn’t dream of all of this.”

McDonnell saw the talents and abilities of Graham and the leadership and competitiveness of both Graham and Vasso up close and isn’t surprised by what they’ve been able to accomplish at the next level.

“Corey was so athletic. Very long. Long arms, high hips. He was the most unbelievable competitor,” McDonnell said. “You’d look in his eyes and he’d be, ‘We’ve got to go. Come on.’ You’d look at him and go, ‘Wow.’ ”

Graham’s kept that approach.

“You talk to the pro guys and Dino about Corey’s presence in the locker room, his presence on the field and how he works with people,” McDonnell said. “He’s such a class act. People love him for who he is.”

Vasso had similar attributes. Like Graham, he could have played on offense for UNH, but was needed on defense and shined there.

“Guys loved playing with Dino, too,” McDonnell said. “He had a presence about him and an ability to believe we were going to win a game and beat people because of the confidence he had in himself and what we were doing. It was a pretty cool thing to watch, the swagger he had as a player. He was another smart football player.”

Now the two former Wildcats will help an Eagles defense that needs to at least slow down Brady and the Patriots offense.

Graham plays mostly in an Eagle “Big Nickel” package that features three safeties, according to the Tribune story, and he often gets called on to deal with tight ends. Good evening, Rob Gronkowski.

“Corey is such a dependable player and he has had a couple of times this year where the chips have been down and he has made a play for us,” said Philly’s defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who worked with Graham with the Bills, in the Tribune story. “Sort of an unsung hero to our defense. Very consistent player.”

Graham intercepted a Case Keenum pass in Philadelphia’s win over the Vikings in the NFC Championship game that got the Eagles to the Super Bowl.

It was his first postseason interception since he picked off Denver’s Peyton Manning twice in the divisional playoffs on the way to the Super Bowl XLVII title. The Ravens beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship that year.

“He always had a knack for making big plays when you needed them most,” McDonnell said.

Sunday, he’ll be seeking to make a couple or three more.

McDonnell and others in Wildcat Country will be watching closely.

“I think it’s going to be an unbelievable game,” McDonnell said. “Obviously I’ll be cheering for the Eagles. I like the Patriots and I’m a Giants fan, but the Eagles are playing and two of our guys are there. You’ve got to go with them.”

(Allen Lessels can be reached at Allen.Lessels@unh.edu or on Twitter
@UNHInsider.)