Thursday night’s tilt against the Arizona Cardinals will be the biggest game of Shakir Soto’s life.
Bigger than when his Pitt team beat the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers last November. Or in-state rival Penn State in September. There was that time he played at Yankee Stadium, too.
Bigger than any of his wins at GAR.
It’s the final week of the preseason, and as an undrafted free agent — with a 53-man roster spot on the line — Soto will be playing for his job when he steps on the turf at Mile High with the rest of the Denver Broncos Thursday night.
“It’s definitely a blessing, man, to go out there and have this opportunity to showcase myself and my name,” Soto said. “It’s been really fortunate for me. A lot of people don’t have the chance to be in the position I’m in. You have to take advantage of everything. It’s been fun. The guys have been great. The veterans are all good and and all the rookies are real good. Everyone’s real fun to be around. Good people.”
As a rookie, Soto has gotten his fair share of hijinks the last month.
He had his rookie haircut prior to Saturday’s third preseason game. He was victim of an uneven buzzcut that left patches of hair alone while the rest of his head was shaved clean. Soto has also had to carry helmets and shoulder pads, too.
But he said it’s all in good fun.
“I got it cut Tuesday. You had to keep it for the preseason game on Saturday,” the defensive end said. “My hair was all uneven. It was bad. It was all uneven and low.
“It was bad. You have to walk around in public and I had a beanie on and it’s 95 degrees. People would ask, ‘Why do you have a beanie on?’ ”
Playing in the same defense as Von Miller, Aqib Talib, Brandon Marshall, Chris Harris Jr. and Shane Ray, Soto has been a sponge. The high expectations have rubbed off on him.
“Defensively, everyone on there, all the older guys, they’re just leaders,” Soto said. “If they don’t win a Super Bowl here, that’s a bad season to them. That’s how high their standards are. That just shows how it’s a winning program. Every year they could go 18-0 before the Super Bowl and lose, and that’s a bad season for them. That’s why I like them. It’s a winning program and they don’t like to lose.
“It’s been a blessing to be around a lot of the older guys. They’re really good people, so they go out of their way to help you. No one tries to scare you away or tries to trick you in some way so you mess up. Everyone’s very helpful.”
From his rookie haircuts to swatting a pass from Chicago Bears quarterback — and 2017 No. 2 overall pick — Mitchell Trubisky in his debut, Soto’s first training camp has been full of memories.
Soto has seen time in each of the Broncos’ first three preseason games, registering five tackles and a pass defensed. With Denver’s starters sitting out Thursday night, the GAR and Pitt alum is looking to make a splash in his extended playing time.
The former Grenadier says it’s possible that he’ll see time in the first half against the Cardinals. And he understands what is at stake.
Not only is he auditioning for the Broncos, but if it doesn’t work out in Denver, there are 31 teams that could add him to their 53-man roster or practice squad.
“I’m confident, but at that point you can control what you can control,” Soto said. “I’m just going to do what I can do. Do the best I can. At the end of the day, that’s all that it is. It’s business.
“My defensive line coach says all the time, you want to make sure you do good. Because at the end of the day, you don’t really care who you’re playing for, as long as you’re playing. And that’s a true statement,” Soto said. “It might not work out here, but it could work out somewhere else. He preaches that all the time. If you put good tape out there everything will be fine.”