ENGLEWOOD -- Caden Sterns did not have to watch "Friday Night Lights." He lived it.
"It’s a religion down here in Texas. We breed football athletes," said Sterns, who attended Steele High in Cibolo. "I went to a football powerhouse. You are grooming. You are getting put into the system in middle school. My high school state football game had 42,000 people there. So, yeah, it's big down here for sure."
With the support of his mother Brandi Biddy, Sterns grew his passion for the game. His prep career was straight out of a movie, winning a dizzying array of games, while he ranked as the second-best safety in the country. At the University of Texas, Sterns stepped into the spotlight and did not flinch, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors as a freshman.
Then came injuries. COVID-19. An opt-out that ended his junior season prematurely. Once considered a potential early pick, Sterns dropped to the fifth round (152nd overall) to the Broncos.
"I am not going to blame COVID on anything. That's just on me. I have to get better. I got hit with a couple of injuries that lingered. And that's part of the game. I just needed an opportunity. I am coming in with a coaching staff that believes in me and will develop me into the player I know I can be," said Sterns, featured Friday at 6 p.m. on our Denver7 Meet The Picks segment.
"It was unreal to get drafted. A lot of relief. And a lot of work put in to make this dream come true. To finally get that call means a lot, especially with a team with a history like Denver. I am ready to get to work."
Sterns represents an interesting addition. The Broncos might have the best safety tandem in football with Justin Simmons, a franchise cornerstone with a new four-year, $61 million contract, and veteran hard-hitter Kareem Jackson. Safety is not a need. For now. Jackson becomes a free agent at season's end, and there's little trusted depth behind the starters.
Enter Sterns, a player with the upside to make an impact on special teams and follow a path into the lineup down the road. Sterns netted the first interception of training camp on Thursday. General Manager George Paton and Coach Vic Fangio viewed Paton through a wide lens when making the selection.
"Caden had a good season or two early in his career. Not so much this past season. He slipped a little bit," Fangio acknowledged. "We're hopeful we can get him turned back around and playing up to his potential and his ability."
Sterns boasts NFL athleticism. At his pro day, he ran a 4.41 40-yard dash and recorded a 42-inch vertical leap. A knee injury suffered his sophomore year slowed his progress toward the NFL. And Sterns opted out after the Iowa State game when Texas was eliminated from the Big 12 title game a year ago. It served as one of Sterns' best performances as he delivered 13 tackles.
He embraces physicality, but must improve technique.
"I am willing to tackle, but that is one of my inconsistencies as well. That’s one of my weaknesses. And it starts with angles. I tend to take a bad angle. It’s stuff that can get cleaned up. I plan on cleaning it up," Sterns said. "It's going to get better. I like contact. That’s why I play football."
At Texas, Sterns learned from former Longhorns star Michael Huff. Those conversations helped prepare for the transition to the NFL. He also sought out film on the Pro Bowler Simmons. Serving as a teammate with Simmons and Jackson could microwave his development.
"I think it’s going to accelerate it. You know, I have a lot of room to grow as a player. You get two guys like that ahead of me, that helps a lot. I spent a lot of time watching Justin Simmons play," Sterns said. "To be in the same room as him is pretty awesome."
Simmons welcomes a leadership role. He did not need a big contract to lift teammates. Like Jackson, he looks to challenge the young players. He received positive early impressions from Sterns and Jamar Johnson, who landed on the COVID-19 list Monday along with seventh-round rookie Kary Vincent Jr.
"I always like looking at safeties that are coming out. It's always been an interest of mine, so I knew a little bit. Just from the first couple days of practice in OTAs, those guys have great ball skills. That's something that just pops out," Simmons said. "In practice we're doing the drills — just simple things that you pick up on. They have great ball skills and are really quick learners."
For Sterns to find his way onto the field, versatility is critical. Special teams becomes part of the equation. Sterns brings experience and willingness.
"That's how it was early on at Texas — it was a must if you wanted to play on defense. I am going to know my role," Sterns said. "It doesn’t matter. I plan on being on special teams. It’s just as important as offense and defense. I am going to take it that way. I love playing football."
After all, he has lived the game his entire life.