ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — If Dontari Poe doesn't pan out, general manager Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel could wind up wearing the biggest dunce caps in Kansas City.
How could they spend the No. 11 overall draft pick on an unproven kid who rated no higher than second-team all league in Conference USA?
Should the hulking nose tackle rise to stardom, however, the Chiefs could be headed for their toughest defense since Marty Schottenheimer's brawny squads of the mid-1990s. He'll give them what they've lacked most in their 3-4 alignment — a powerful presence in the center trenches, a magnet for double teams who frees secondary defenders to flow to the ball and a disruptive creator of up-the-middle passer pressure.
During last year's injury-plagued campaign, the Chiefs ranked 12th overall in scoring defense, finishing the season 7-9.
This year, the return of Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry from ACL surgery is sure to pump new vitality into the entire unit. Tackles Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey are still young enough to improve, and second-year defenders Allen Bailey and Justin Houston are showing good promise. Plus, Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson is squarely within his physical prime.
But the biggest hope for meaningful improvement rests squarely on the back of a rookie who managed a meager 22 tackles and one sack his entire senior season at Memphis.
In three years, Poe's stats totaled an unimpressive 101 tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles and four pass breakups.
Mike DuBose, Memphis' defensive line coach and co-defensive coordinator, blamed poor coaching for Poe's lack of production, saying he was never used right.
It's not an excuse Poe seems to embrace.
"I think it's DuBose being DuBose," he said. "Like I said, there's not too much for me to say about that. Whatever they told me to do, I did."
The Chiefs decided to roll the draft dice because Crennel, a highly respected defensive coach who helped develop four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork in New England, saw vast potential in the raw youngster.
Crennel is keeping a close eye on Poe, as the Chiefs begin their first workouts in pads.
"I want to see that he is a dominant football player, that he can force double-teams and stay at the line of scrimmage against double teams, and that he is able to push the pocket on a pass rush," Crennel said. "If he can do some of those things, that will be a plus for us."
At 6-foot-3 and 346 pounds, Poe has the size; he has the strength; and judging from his early showing in camp, he also has the desire. What he does not have is the technique. In early drills, he's looked good and bad , getting knocked off the ball badly on one play.
Camp opened with journeyman Anthony Toribio running first team ahead of Poe, who insists he has no desire to prove his doubters wrong.
"I play football. That's what I'm here to do," he said. "Whatever my coaches tell me to do, I'm guessing that'll be the best thing for me. So for me to just listen to people and say I'm ready to this or do that because they said something, that'd be wrong on me. I'm just here to work my hardest and do the best I can."
He is obviously coming in for extra attention at every practice.
"They just stay on me," Poe said. "They make sure I'm being a technician first. They tell me I've got a lot of ability, but it will be nothing without the hard work and the technique. So they're staying on me every day about that.
"You've got to be a man to play inside. Everybody knows that," he added. "You've got to have a mean streak in you, but most people think you just go wild and tear things up, but you've got to be technical. In every technique you've got to know how to use your hands. So that's what I'm trying to do out here."
Crennel has hinted he will be disappointed if Poe does not quickly take charge of the nose tackle job. But he's also trying hard not to rush anything.
"He's got good ability, good size and good work ethic," he said. "So now we'll see where that takes him."