INDIANAPOLIS —In 2014, despite the fact many pundits believed he would go in the later rounds, the Dallas Cowboys used their fourth-round pick on a linebacker out of Iowa by the name of Anthony Hitchens.
It wouldn't take long for Hitchens to prove his value at all three linebacker spots in the Cowboys' 4-3 base defense. Working with linebackers coach Matt Eberflus, Hitchens was able to develop his game first as a valuable fill-in piece before getting his shot as a full-time starter, collecting 301 tackles (21 for a loss) with 3.5 sacks, 14 quarterback pressures, two forced fumbles, eight passes defensed and an interception in 60 games with 48 starts over his first four seasons in Dallas.
Last month, Hitchens' mixture of tough tackling and solid cover skills earned him a reported five-year, $45 million free agent deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Now in his first season as the Indianapolis Colts' defensive coordinator, Eberflus hopes to produce many more success stories just like Hitchens'.
Eberflus' former boss in Dallas thinks he's just the right man for the job.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, talking to Colts.com last week from the NFL annual meetings in Orlando, Fla., said Eberflus, who added passing game coordinator duties to his plate in 2016, "did a fantastic job for us."
"Yeah, we love 'Flus,'" Garrett said. "And if you know his history, he was a longtime defensive coordinator at the college level, and he had that opportunity when he was a young guy. And I think you see a lot of those traits right from the start.
"We were talking about Anthony Hitchens earlier, the versatility that he demonstrated as a young player; (it) had a lot to do with Hitch, but also a lot to do with Matt Eberflus, the kind of coach he has been for us."
Indeed, Eberflus, who started his coaching career in 1992 at the University of Toledo as a student assistant, would spend nine seasons at the school, serving as a grad assistant, recruiting coordinator, outside linebackers coach and defensive backs coach, before getting his first big break in 2001, when he was hired as the defensive coordinator at Missouri.
Five seasons later, Eberflus was promoted to associate head coach of the Tigers. It wouldn't be until 2009 that he would take the dive into the NFL, joining the Cleveland Browns as their linebackers coach. He was hired by the Cowboys two years later, where his role would continue to grow and expand under Garrett and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
One of Eberflus' biggest challenges with the Colts will be transitioning the defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base scheme, with a Tampa 2 coverage look on the back end.
Up front, Eberflus will want a much more physical, attacking unit; one in which all defensive linemen get after the quarterback instead of the more gap-oriented 3-4 approach. In the secondary, the Colts will mostly shift away from press coverage and play more zone, with linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties each responsible for their own parts of the field.
Garrett has no doubts Eberflus will take the right approach to making those major changes in Indy.
"He loves football," Garrett said. "He's an excellent teacher, he challenges the players, he brings the most out in them.
"Really excited about him, for the opportunity that he gets to run the defense there in Indianapolis," Garrett continued. "He's going to do a great job for them."