ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Commanders rookie cornerback Emmanuel Forbes was offered a chance to re-watch the six plays that made him an NCAA record holder, just to jog his memory on those pick-sixes. But he didn't need any help.
“I don’t need to see the video,” he said.
You don’t forget your first love or, apparently, your six touchdown returns over three seasons at Mississippi State. Forbes intercepted 14 passes in his career, a primary reason why Washington drafted him with the 16th overall pick in last month's draft.
The Commanders have intercepted a combined 20 passes the past two seasons. Only three teams had fewer.
“He’s a difference maker,” Washington general manager Martin Mayhew said. “People throw around the term ball hawk pretty loosely. This guy really is that.”
Forbes displayed a number of skills in picking off the passes. In some cases it stemmed from knowledge, which helped his anticipation. Other times ability -- he also played basketball and baseball in high school, and he said he could have played the latter in college, thanks to what he said was a 94-miles per hour fastball, before suffering an elbow injury. Playing other positions in baseball honed his hand-eye coordination, as did his time at receiver in high school.
During Washington’s rookie minicamp earlier this month, coach Ron Rivera noticed something else about Forbes in meetings.
“The questions he was asking were really well thought out,” Rivera said. “That's why he makes those kinds of plays because those little detail things don't get away from him.”
Forbes repeated a mantra from his position coach, Darcel McBath, at Mississippi State.
“Never hesitate; you’ll never be able to make a play,” said Forbes, who admitted to doing so a couple times his freshman year. “You just got to have the guts and do it.”
Forbes did it and became the FBS record holder for pick-sixes in a career. Here’s how it happened:
Opponent: 11th-ranked Texas A&M
Date: Oct. 17, 2020
The situation: The Aggies, leading 14-0, faced third-and-6 at the Bulldogs’ 32-yard line with 11:54 remaining in the third quarter.
The play: Forbes, aligned on the right side, inches to his left moments before the snap and blitzes A&M quarterback Kellen Mond. As he starts to wrap his arm around Mond, the quarterback throws a pass to a receiver near the first down line. But the ball ricochets back, and into the backfield, where Forbes makes the catch. He then ducks under a Mond tackle attempt and sprints 60 yards for a touchdown.
“I guess it hit off somebody’s helmet and I just see the ball flying in the sky,” Forbes said. “I caught it, made the quarterback miss and I just went and scored on it… That play I was like, people say that’s pretty lucky. I was just like, the ball fell in my hand and I went and scored.”
Date: Dec. 19, 2020
The situation: Missouri faced a first-and-10 from its own 15 with 5:40 left in the game with Mississippi State leading 44-25.
The play: Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak faked a throw to the left flat as the Tigers attacked with a high-low set. For much of the game, Forbes, in zone coverage, attacked the flat route leaving the corner route behind him more open. But on this play Forbes changed it up. He had made up his mind beforehand that if Missouri ran this concept again, he would play the role of a con man. So, as he played his coverage, Forbes faked as if he was going toward the man in the flat.
“I baited him, acting like I was going to go to the short one and I popped out to the deep corner route and I just picked it,” Forbes said. “I acted like I was going to commit to it and he was waiting on me to do that.”
After Forbes intercepted the ball, he ran to his left at the 29-yard line, gathered himself and turned upfield. A receiver appeared to have a shot at him, but was nudged every so slightly by another Bulldog – and that was enough to spring him.
“I really thought I was going to get caught on that,” he said. “The receiver was right there. I just cut upfield, made the quarterback miss and was in the end zone.”
Plays like this cause Rivera to dream.
“He has very good awareness,” Rivera said. “You see that element to his game. That’s what you’re getting.”
Date: Dec. 31, 2020
The situation: Mississippi State led, 14-13, with 3:49 left in the third quarter. Tulsa faced a first-and-10 from the 39-yard line. It was cold and rainy that day in Fort Worth, Texas (the high that day was 37 degrees) for the Armed Forces Bowl.
The play: The Bulldogs were in a cover-3 zone as Tulsa used a three-receiver set on the left side. Forbes was responsible for a receiver running a post route. The safety in the flat was supposed to run with the player running an out-and-up. He did not. The receiver was open. But Forbes, keeping his eyes on the quarterback, saw what was happening.
“I seen the ball in the air and flipped my hips and went and intercepted it,” he said. “I just made a play on the ball.”
He picked it off at the 10-yard line and sprinted up the right sideline untouched, before turning back to the middle around the Bulldogs’ 47. One linemen ostensibly had a shot at him seven yards later. He whiffed.
“It’s a long run, a long cold run,” Forbes said. “I had to open it up. There was actually a flag on the play and I thought it was going to get called back, but it was on the offense.”
Earlier in the week, McBath discussed with his defensive backs what they need to do if the flat defender – the safety – gets beat on the out-and-up. His plea: “Make a tackle to save us.”
Instead: “He sees it, comes off the post and takes it to the house,” McBath said. “He’s a cut above, man. He mentally prepares and is so confident in how he does it. It’s unbelievable.”
“He studies the game,” McBath said. “He can recognize things in the middle of a game most guys can’t or it takes them three to four times to get it. He usually gets it on the first try. He’s always a step ahead. He’s playing chess.”
Opponent: No. 17 Texas A&M
The date: Oct. 1, 2022
The situation: Mississippi State led, 35-17, with 3:38 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Aggies faced a second-and-10 from their own 21.
The play: Forbes, who already picked off a pass earlier in the game, played off-man coverage vs. receiver Noah Thomas on the right side, shading Thomas inside. Quarterback Haynes King, under duress from a seven-man blitz, threw early and inside as Thomas broke outside.
With Forbes’ locked on Thomas and not the ball, he reads the receivers’ eyes and raises his arms to defend the pass. The ball bounces off his hands; Forbes spins around and balances the ball with his left hand until his right hand can help and then starts on a 33-yard return for a score.
“I know the ball has to come out fast,” Forbes said. “The ball is kind of thrown a little late, but that’s not my problem… I literally punched the ball up with my hands, then caught it and managed to stay in bounds. I actually came to the sideline and … I was like, I definitely stepped out. But apparently I didn’t step out, by a couple centimeters.”
The date: Oct. 15, 2022
The situation: Kentucky, leading 20-10, opted to go for it on a fourth-and-2 from the Bulldogs’ 37 with
The play: It started the morning of the game when McBath said he showed his corners a similar play Kentucky had run earlier in the season. He told them: If it’s a third-and-short or two-point play and the ‘Z’ receiver goes in motion to a certain formation, they’ll run a particular play, a receiver screen to the inside. Forbes, though, remembered being told this at the beginning of the week.
“It stuck in my head,” he said. “It shows my intelligence on the field.”
Sure enough the 'Z' receiver went in motion to the right. The formation wasn’t identical to what McBath had told them, but Forbes was still ready. When the ball was about to be snapped, he stepped inside to his right; after the snap he ran upfield and stepped in front of a Will Levis screen pass intended for receiver Chauncey Magwood. Forbes ran untouched for a 59-yard score.
“Once he went in motion it was just like, I'm going to make the tackle and give offense the ball,” Forbes said. “Or I can try to make a play on the ball and go score with it. And I just took a chance and went and picked it.”
Washington’s senior director of player personnel Eric Stokes called it “one of the more fantastic plays that I've seen in a number of years. When I saw that, I was like, wow.”
Forbes’ new teammate, rookie running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., was lined up to the other side of Levis, picking up a blitz. By the time he turned around, Forbes was sprinting in the other direction.
“It caught me by surprise,” Rodriguez said, “but Emmanuel… he’s a freak.”
Opponent: East Tennessee State
The date: Nov. 19, 2022
The situation: Mississippi State led 21-0 early in the second quarter with ETSU facing a second-and-9
from the Bulldogs’ 24.
The play: Quarterback Baron May threw a slant pass low and behind receiver Cam Lewis, causing him to reach back and roll over trying to corral the pass. But the ball bounced off his foot and into Forbes’ arms.
“That was a pretty lucky one, I’m not going to lie,” Forbes said. “I got out of my back pedal too quick and I was going to come up and make the tackle. The ball was just in the air and I caught it. I hit a nasty spin move that came back from my high school skills. That’s what I was telling my teammates on the side.”
Forbes kept all of the footballs he intercepted, but with this one he had it painted with the score and a record-breaking note.
“It means a lot,” Forbes said of having the record. “To be able to pick it off and go score, that’s a different skill that you don’t see regularly. It’s something I take a lot of pride in and it’s something I like to do.”