Mark Bryant | OBSERVER Correspondent
Plenty of hard work and a great showing for scouts on a pivotal day have Kahlef Hailassie poised to hear his name called in the upcoming NFL draft.
The Elk Grove native has been determined to find his way onto an NFL field after a stellar college career as a defensive back at Western Kentucky. He played high school ball at Cosumnes Oaks.
He spent 2021 and 2022 at Western Kentucky as a corner after his freshman year at Oregon in 2018. In between was a two-year stop at Independence Community College in Kansas.
Hailassie had 65 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and two interceptions for Western Kentucky in 2022.
The 6-foot-1, 201-pound hybrid cornerback/safety initially was projected as an undrafted free agent by several draft group organizations, including NFL Mock Draft Database, NFL Draft Buzz, and DraftScout.com. However, after an outstanding day for scouts at Western Kentucky’s pro day March 29, his stock has risen considerably.
“I see myself as a playmaker. I make plays wherever I’m at on the field,” Hailassie said. “I can play man-to-man, zones and blitz, which increases my value in versatility. I can do it all.”
His agent, Michael Hoffman, predicted the multitalented defensive back will be selected Saturday in rounds four through seven. The draft is seven rounds over three days, April 27-29.
“The arrow’s pointing up for Kahlef. He’s building a draft buzz at the right time,” Hoffman said. “Teams are going back and really looking at his film. … They see an NFL player.”
Hailassie declared for the draft in November, shortly before the end of the season. He has been preparing for the next step by training in Gulf Breeze, Florida, with Exos, an elite coaching company that focuses on athlete performance.
Hailassie was not invited to the NFL Combine, a weeklong showcase of draft-eligible college players, because of a hamstring injury sustained in the East-West Shrine Bowl.
Instead, he performed combine drills, minus the 40-yard dash because of a hamstring injury, at Western Kentucky’s pro day March 29.
Hailassie’s numbers were as follows: 321/2 inches on the vertical jump, 10 feet 1 inch on the broad jump, 4.06 seconds in the short shuttle drill, 6.68 seconds in the three-cone drill, and nine repetitions of a 225-pound bench press. NFL scouts use these measures to evaluate athleticism, agility, speed and strength.
“His short shuttle and three-cone drill times are elite,” Hoffman said. “He has superb quickness and change of direction for an athlete his size. … Most people wouldn’t have gone to pro day with the limitations he had with his hamstring, but he’s a competitor.
Hoffman said Hailassie has met or is scheduled to meet with three of the league’s top teams. Teams can use 30 allotted predraft visits with prospects in which interviews, medical testing and meetings with coaches are conducted.
Hailassie has met with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and runner-up Philadelphia Eagles. By draft time he also is scheduled to have met with the Cincinnati Bengals, who went to the Super Bowl in the 2021 season and narrowly missed in 2022.
Hailassie’s road to pro football began when he played for the Valley Junior Vikings at age 7. He then moved up to the Consumes Oaks Junior Wolfpack, Franklin Junior Wildcats, and Cosumnes Oaks High School. He credits his work ethic – and his father, Arnold, for instilling that in him.
“We got serious with training when he was 10,” Arnold said. “He put in work. He started developing. Then in high school, his intensity paid off. I used to tell him practice doesn’t start till practice is finished. At least three days a week, I would have him work out for an additional one to 1½ hours. We would do running, speed work, agility, weights.
“I wanted him to give more than the average player. I told him ‘If you’re average, that’s not success.’ We worked out every day – in the cold, in the rain. I created a monster with his work ethic.”
All that training proved fruitful when Hailassie was rated a three-star prospect by ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports, the latter two being networks of websites focused on college athlete recruitment.
Hailassie chose Oregon over schools including Colorado, Fresno State, Hawaii, UNLV, UTEP, Washington State and Wyoming. However, after a freshman season that saw him play in every game at corner and on special teams, he decided to transfer.
“I was hurt and I didn’t want to waste another season hurt, so I ended up hitting the transfer portal,” Hailassie said.
His experience at Western Kentucky turned out to be more positive. “I loved it there,” Hailassie said. “The coaches and program, both were great, with great energy on and off the field. We tried to build a winning culture. It was hard work.”
Hailassie sees plenty more hard work ahead. It started with pro day, where he performed with Western Kentucky teammates including corner Daewood Davis, defensive tackle Brodric Martin and linebacker Derrick Smith.
“I feel like I’m very versatile,” Hailassie said. “I can play each position. I can do everything on the field, so I displayed a lot of that [at pro day]. So hopefully they’re going to see that.”
The elder Hailassie concurred. “He can roam, tackle and hit. He can pick off passes,” Arnold said. “He’s not a true right corner. “He’s a corner, safety and nickelback rolled into one. He’ll be the most diversified defensive back in the draft.”
The elder Hailassie compared him to safety Derwin James of the Los Angeles Chargers. “He’s a faster version of [James]. Kahlef is very physical. He loves contact. He’s willing to play ball and sacrifice his body.”
After his pro day, Hailassie reflected and summed up what he would bring to the table.
“I’m a playmaker,” he said. “I make plays on the ball. I can tackle. I can cover. I’m a smart football player. I’m a team player. I feel I can do everything.”
Western Kentucky defensive coordinator Tyson Summers also praised him.
“He’s a super-talented, super-smart guy,” Summers said. “He has intangibles and awareness. He can process the game really fast. He was one of our best pass rushers and tacklers. Normally, you don’t hear of a corner having many sacks and tackles, but he did.”
Hoffman said Hailassie is “a unique player” and that many NFL teams are looking for players with his skills.
“He’s a really good press corner,” Hoffman said. “He has good size and he’s very physical. He plays corner like a linebacker. …
“He has NFL talent and ability, and I expect him to be a player who will have a strong NFL career.”