On April 28, the NFL will welcome its next round of incoming players through the 2022 Draft. In the span of a short telephone call, a college player’s life may change forever.
Just two years ago, Casey Toohill ’19, then a fifth-year linebacker for the Cardinal, got his call. Originally drafted in the seventh round by the Philadelphia Eagles, Toohill now plays defensive end for the Washington Commanders. He took on an expanded role this season as injuries impacted the team’s defensive line.
After redshirting his freshman year at Stanford, Toohill started 11 games as a sophomore for the Cardinal and has not looked back since.
As current Stanford players prepare for this year’s draft, Toohill reflects on his college experience, draft preparation and transition to the NFL.
Next man up in the nation’s capital
Most Washington football fans probably did not know Toohill’s name until Week 10 of the 2021 season. Facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chase Young, the starting defensive end and No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 Draft, unexpectedly went down with an injury mid-game. Toohill was the next man up.
“Obviously that’s a huge loss because he’s a great player,” Toohill said. “I had to just come in. I was playing more at that time anyway, just because Montez [Sweat] was also down. And it was just me and the other defensive end James Smith-Williams, who’s a good friend of mine.”
Despite the sudden adjustment, Washington came away with the victory against the Bucs. The following week, Toohill earned his first start — a spot he kept for a large part of the remaining season.
“We didn’t win so much toward the end, but it was still really an enjoyable experience,” he said of the season. “And I think I got a lot better from it, so I was pretty thankful for those opportunities.”
Toohill’s improvement throughout the season was evident. He collected 27 total tackles, a huge increase from the two he recorded in his rookie season.
“He’s just worked hard,” said Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, under whom Toohill played for five seasons. “With some injuries and stuff this year, he’s had an opportunity to get on the field and made the most of those opportunities and was productive.”
The San Diego native’s increase in playing time over the course of the 2021 season eventually led to his first career sack, which came against one of the best quarterbacks in the leagues — the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. Despite his ability to get to the superstar, Toohill was not fully satisfied with his overall performance.
“I think I had a lot of opportunities for sacks this year that I missed,” he said. “Going forward, it’s really about how I can finish those and also just improve my pass rushing so that I can get more opportunities, because that’s one thing I was not satisfied with this year. I thought I had opportunities that I missed and also opportunities that I didn’t do a good enough job creating, you know, potential opportunities. So yeah, wasn’t anything particularly special.”
Despite his recent uptick in playing time, Toohill’s path to D.C. was far from linear. He spent the first part of his rookie season in Philadelphia, only to be released in Oct. 2020. Just one day later, however, Toohill signed with NFC-East rival Washington, and the nation’s capital has been his home ever since.
Upon his arrival in Washington, Toohill’s main focus was making the best of a new opportunity and adjusting to an entirely new system. He described joining a new team mid-season as “drinking through a fire hose.”
Toohill entered an already stacked defensive line room, which included defensive tackles Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Matt Ioannidis in addition to Sweat and Young. Although Toohill had limited snaps during his rookie season, he saw the team’s existing depth as an opportunity to improve even more.
“You have two guys that are physically some of the most gifted guys in the NFL, so it’s always good and bad to compare yourself to them, right?” Toohill said of Sweat and Young, the 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year. “Because they’re so gifted and so talented, you don’t want to get down on yourself. But really what I’ve tried to do, and how I look at it, is: they set the standard for so many plays that they make and their technique and how they win.”
“They helped me see a lot of the improvements I can make. And also, I just love playing with them. They’re good dudes — fun to be around,” he added.
Although Toohill was “way farther away” from Young in technique and ability their rookie year, Toohill appreciates having him as a role model.
Going into next season with the Commanders, Toohill intends to keep the same collaborative mindset on and off the field.
“We have elite, defensive-line talent, so you really want to rise to that standard, right?” he said. “And it’s really surrounding yourself with people like that, whether it’s in football or life. If you want to be a successful person, I think you want to rise to that standard and you want to be lifted up by that — rather than be upset by that or unhappy with how much you might think people are better than you. But I’ve been trying to rise to that standard, and I’ll continue to try to do that, because that’s my focus.”
Toohill’s development in such a talented defensive-line room has not gone unnoticed within the Commanders coaching staff, according to Anderson.
“He’s made a great impression in that Washington organization,” Anderson said. “Just talking to people there, people understand his work ethic and that he’s going to do things right. He’s going to make great decisions, and he’s just a great kid.”
From the Farm to the League
After his four years playing in the Pac-12, Toohill immediately noticed the stark physical difference between the NFL and college at his first professional practice.
His first time stepping onto the professional team’s field in Philadelphia before organized team activities had formally begun, Toohill had his “Welcome to the NFL” moment.
“I went against this huge left tackle that’s a starter right now. I just came off the ball, and he just killed me,” Toohill said. “Oh, it was embarrassing, and my coaches were screaming at me. So at that moment, I was like, ‘I gotta improve from here.’”
“I was better the rest of the practice, but that moment was just tough,” he said. “You’ve always got to be on your toes.”
To make things harder, Toohill’s rookie season coincided with the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Drafted in April 2020, Toohill’s draft class had no offseason training, and the pandemic continued to affect the team’s preseason plans, as all NFL teams were unable to hold organized team activities.
When the pandemic first spread throughout California in March 2020, Toohill was training at Cal Strength in San Ramon — a common destination for post-Stanford players. Facing closures due to the pandemic, however, he went home to San Diego to train. While NFL draft prospects typically participate in group workouts with other prospects, or at least train in a typical gym environment, Toohill remembers that he “just grinded in my garage for months.”
With most gyms closed, he found unique ways to train, purchasing a squat rack and borrowing weights from his high school. To get in some fieldwork, Toohill had to resort to training wherever he could, which led him to local high school fields.
Before this unorthodox training, Toohill was invited to the NFL Combine, which took place just weeks before the pandemic began. Because COVID-19 had not yet reached pandemic proportions, the annual event was held in its traditional format, although it was canceled completely in 2021. COVID-19 did force some changes in 2020, however, including the fact that offseason workouts with coaches were limited.
“Those were obviously very challenging, long days — very built up for a few physical tests,” he said. “You can do well the whole rest of the week, but if you have a bad showing, that can really impact your football career forever. But I did really well there, so I had a good experience.”
This extremely unconventional pre-draft experience eventually culminated in an entirely remote 2020 NFL draft, which Toohill attended from his family home. As it is every year, the draft was spread out over three days. Toohill had to wait all three days to hear his name called. He recalls the wait being a “very, very challenging mental experience.”
“But then the relief of getting drafted and just the jubilation from that was one of the best moments of my life,” he said. “It was a long process but one that I really enjoyed, especially training. I look back on it fondly, but I know there were definitely some tough moments.”
The next generation of Stanford in the NFL
“Booker is very big, very athletic,” Toohil said, previewing this year’s draft-hopefuls. “D-Wade had some flashes when I was there that made him look like the best tackle in the conference.”
“I think they’ll both do well, and I think they both have NFL ability,” he said. “It’ll just be interesting to see where they end up.”
During the 2018 game versus UC Davis, Toohill remembers tipping the ball, which Booker, then only a freshman, intercepted.
“He was making a lot of plays early on in his career that were really impressive,” he said. “I remember watching him last year block a ton of PATs. It was like, ‘Yeah, this guy’s definitely trending in the right direction.’”
The two recently caught up after Booker was named a William V. Campbell Trophy finalist, an honor that both he and Toohill received in their respective final seasons at Stanford. The so-called Academic Heisman honors the individual who has the best combination of academic success, football performance and leadership.
Despite his own busy schedule, Toohill keeps up with the state of the Stanford program and the high-profile transfers of junior running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat, which made national headlines. For one year, Toohill overlapped with the pair on the field.
“They don’t get their due for how good they are,” he said of Jones and Peat. “Those guys are elite … but we got a good recruiting class, and they have E.J. Smith.”
Two and a half years out from Stanford, Toohill still looks back on his Stanford years fondly.
“It’s such a desirable place to go to school,” he said. “I can’t imagine they have trouble recruiting — it’s such a great experience.”
Cybele Zhang and Daniel Wu contributed reporting.