Trey Caldwell came up money in Louisiana-Monroe's "money" games.
Those moments, when Caldwell lined up with some of the best players in the country and played some of the best games of his college career, go a long way in explaining why the small-school defensive back carries big-time confidence as he enters the NFL with the Cleveland Browns.
"I had great games against those Power 5 schools," Caldwell said of the games that typically net schools like Louisiana-Monroe hundreds of thousands of dollars. "I kind of realized I can see myself going up against those guys on a weekly basis."
At 5-foot-9 and 186 pounds, Caldwell showed against SEC powers LSU and Alabama he could be the kind of "little guy who could hit" Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton covets. In 2014 against the Tigers, Caldwell piled up seven tackles and had his team's lone pass breakup of the game. Against Alabama as a senior, Caldwell led the team with seven tackles, bringing down 244-pound running back Derrick Henry on three occasions.
Caldwell felt ready for the NFL even though the road to it wasn't as smoothly paved as it is for the players at bigger schools.
Caldwell wrapped up his college career with 143 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions in four seasons. The All-Sun Belt honorable mention selection wasn't invited to February's NFL Combine but his confidence didn't waver. As the draft approached, he had a strong feeling he'd hear his name called Day 3, and he knew the Browns were one of the teams most interested in him.
His phone started buzzing near the end of the fifth round, and he'll never forget the moment.
"Words couldn't explain how excited I was," Caldwell said. "When I got the call, I really just wanted to run outside and spend that time with my friends and family. It was crazy."
The celebration is over, and now it's time for Caldwell to carve a spot for himself in a Browns secondary that could look significantly different from last season's.
Caldwell envisions his role centering on nickel cornerback, a position that's been held by a similarly overlooked K'Waun Williams over the past two seasons. Unprompted, Caldwell brought up the value he can provide the Browns on special teams, whether it be as a gunner, punt returner or kick returner. Caldwell was the Warhawks' primary kick returner in 2015 and finished the season with an average of 23.1 yards per return.
"I always have the mindset that I am trying to take a spot. I am trying to make something out for myself. I want to be a starter. I've just got to put in the effort and learn from the vets," Caldwell said. "Learn from Joe Haden – he's an All-Pro corner. It's kind of surreal to think about that – I am one of his teammates now. I've just got to learn from the vets, take advantage of this opportunity and do my best."
The under-the-radar mindset hasn't gone away. Caldwell, who recently signed his contract, was adamant his status as one of 14 Browns draft picks would only take him so far.
Caldwell knows the next few months are about proving what he showed any time he faced college football's elite.
"Nothing is ever guaranteed," Caldwell said. "I've got to keep working hard every day … I've got to keep working hard and my back's against the wall."