KANSAS CITY — It finally hit Dontari Poe that he is playing in the NFL when walked into the locker room at the Kansas City Chiefs practice facility.
There were the helmets. Bright red with that arrowhead logo on the side, as shiny as a child's new ball.
"It was like, 'Yeah,'" Poe said. "I'm here now."
Now it's time to prove he belongs.
The former Memphis tackle was picked with the No. 11 overall selection in last month's draft, a 350-pound stopper expected to fill the biggest hole along the Chiefs' defensive line. The pick was widely panned given Poe's lack of production in college, but his impressive physical skill set means he may be the biggest boom-or-bust prospect in years.
"My point of view is, pressure is whatever you make it, so I'm just working my hardest and doing the best I can. That's all I can do," he said, sweat dribbling off his forehead on a warm afternoon in Kansas City. "Whether I'm the first pick or the last pick, I'm going to go in there and give it my all."
Poe spent most of the first day of the Chiefs' three-day rookie minicamp Friday working with defensive line coach Anthony Pleasant, both of them in a far corner of an adjacent practice field to where the rest of the roughly three dozen players were going through drills.
Poe worked mainly on getting off the ball quickly, often pushing his meaty paws into a blocking pad that Pleasant wore on his chest and sending the coach back on his heels.
"People don't know that there's a big mental part to this game, and it's a lot faster," he said. "You really don't do too much of this technique in college. Just trying to come in here and learn as much of the mental part as I can."
The technique he's referring to is the two-gap, something he did occasionally at Memphis. The idea is that the defensive tackle takes on blockers head-on, and is responsible for the gap over each of their shoulders — thus, two gaps. The result is the defender spending most of his afternoon getting pounded by the opposing offensive line.
"I sat right here and I looked him right in the eye and asked, 'You know what kind of defense we play?'" said Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, who doubles as the defensive coordinator.
"I said that we're going to be head-up on them and you're going to get double-teamed and all those kind of good things," Crennel said, "but if you just make the plays you're supposed to make, you'll make plenty of plays."
That was the biggest point of contention when Poe came out of college.
He put up impressive numbers at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, clocking 4.98 seconds in the 40-yard dash — decent even by linebacker standards — before laying down at the bench press and pushing 225 pounds an astonishing 44 times.
But when scouts went digging through scouting reports, and started review mountains of video, they quickly learned why Poe hadn't been on everyone's radar all along. He only made 33 tackles, eight tackles for loss and had one measly sack last season. Memphis won all of two games, and Poe was only voted second-team all-Conference USA.
There are reasons for the modest production, of course. Poe was asked to move around a lot on defense, and because his team was so miserable on both sides of the ball, he was the only player that the opposing team had to worry about — most either used quick passes or simply ran away from the big guy clogging up the middle.
"It's unbelievable what he's had to play," Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said. "One of the things we've learned over time is for a defensive lineman to two-gap, it takes a certain type of mentality, not only to be a two-gap defensive lineman, but to be a nose. He has played some two-gap, not a whole lot of it, but he has that type of mentality. One of the things that we spend a lot of time on with this player and have a really good feel for is his mental and emotional endurance, in that position in particular."
Poe certainly sounds mature.
He understands that Kansas City has been trying for the better part of a decade to find someone who can play defensive tackle. Guys such as Ryan Sims and Junior Siavii washed out, and guys such as Kelly Gregg were brought in past their prime to fill the hole.
"Every day I come out here, I know some people have said a lot of negatives about me, and it's my job to prove them wrong," Poe said. "I'm trying to do that every day."