At Pac-12 football media day Friday, a few writers heard another twist in the saga of Richard Sherman, the Seahawks cornerback, and his improbable rise to stardom.
It came up as a handful of us sat down at a luncheon table with David Shaw, the third-year Stanford football coach, and Shaw marveled at the exploits of last week’s Sports Illustrated cover boy, Sherman, a Stanford grad and ex-pupil of Shaw.
“I can’t tell you how proud I was to see that,” said Shaw. “Twice, I stopped myself from calling Richard; I’m not ready to talk to him yet. Where he came from (Compton, Calif.) to what he’s been able to do, how hard he’s been able to work. He’s done a lot. He’s crazy and loud, but he’s done some great things in the community. He’ s a phenomenal football player that’s put in a lot of work, and he deserves to be where he is right now.”
Then Shaw unloaded a surprise about Sherman, whose meteoric rise from fifth-round draft pick to primo NFL corner remains a bit of an enigma.
“I’ll come clean,” Shaw said after a brief hesitation. “Richard asked to switch to defense a year before he did and I said no.”
This was the picture: Sherman got to Stanford in 2006, the final year of the two-season Walt Harris regime. Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2007, with Shaw as his offensive coordinator and receivers coach.
Sherman was a productive receiver, catching 34 balls as a true freshman with a 17.1-yard average (on a truly bad team whose one win was against Washington). The next year, under the Harbaugh-Shaw regime, he had another 39 catches and averaged 16.7 yards.
That’s when he approached Shaw about becoming a defensive back.
“I mean, he’s averaging 17 yards a catch for his career,” Shaw said. “I said, ‘Richard, you can’t do that to me. You gotta stay on offense.’ I made a completely selfish decision that my biggest offensive weapon outside of Toby Gerhart was gonna play offense. We had Andrew Luck (coming up to play in 2009), he’s (Sherman) making big play after big play and we needed that downfield threat.”
So Sherman stayed at receiver in 2008. But he got injured that season, and that might have been the difference in him getting drafted at all in the NFL. That would become a redshirt year, after which Sherman convinced the Cardinal coaches to move to defense, and the injury essentially bought him an extra collegiate season at cornerback that otherwise would have been played at receiver.
“He begged me,” Shaw said, referring to Sherman’s second request during the 2008-09 off-season. “I said, ‘Go talk to coach Harbaugh.’ ” The head coach approved the move.
He had 62 tackles and a couple of interceptions that first season, which Shaw characterized as “up and down.”
“That second year (50 tackles, four interceptions), I saw some glimpses.”
Shaw had spent 10 seasons in the NFL, so he knows whereof he speaks.
“Having seen some NFL corners, they’re not just all fast, not just all quick,” he said. “They all have that knack for getting their hands on balls. They have that knack for letting a guy think they’re open and then closing. They have that knack for getting beat and still coming back and making a play, as he did against the Atlanta Falcons last year (in the NFL playoffs), where he was beaten on a post, and he ran it down and still deflected the pass.
“I kept saying (in 2010), ‘You know, this kid could be really, really good,’ ” said Shaw. “But the biggest thing about Richard Sherman, and will continue to be the biggest thing is, he’s ultra, ultra competitive. That’s the driving force behind his success.”
So did Sherman perceive a big future at corner that wasn’t there at receiver?
“The conversation with me was, ‘Coach, that’s my mentality,’ ” Shaw said. ” ‘I have the mentality of a defensive player. I want to hit guys. I love scoring touchdowns, but I’m losing that aspect of who I am.’ ”
Fast-forward to the 2011 draft, and after the Seahawks chose Sherman, coach Pete Carroll called Shaw.
“What do you think?” Carroll asked Shaw.
“Coach, he’s competitive, and long and so fast,” Shaw said.
“He’s a physical kid,” Carroll responded, “and I love that about him.”
So what might have been if Shaw had consented to Sherman’s initial request? A pretty good case can be made that the Seahawks wouldn’t have ended up with Sherman — although, barring injury on defense that 2008 season (his last year of playing offense), he still would have played two college seasons on defense.
But he would have been available in the draft a year earlier, in 2010, and with different needs of the full array of NFL teams (including, to a degree, the Seahawks), it’s doubtful one of the league’s ascendant players would have ever played in blue and green.