Xavier Rhodes lines up across from Clemson star receiver Sammy Watkins.
Looking back, Xavier Rhodes can now laugh and put the blame on himself for the unwanted position switch he made upon his arrival in Tallahassee more than three years ago.
Rhodes came to Florida State as a well regarded wide receiver from Miami Norland High School, and he had every intention of playing receiver for the Seminoles.
He just neglected to say that to the FSU coaching staff.
“It was my fault,” Rhodes said. “Because they asked me what I wanted to play, DB or receiver. I told them it was up to them, I would play anywhere. But I’m thinking, ‘I’ve never played corner, so obviously I’ll be a receiver.’”
But Rhodes' new coaches had different plans. They lined up the 6-2, 217-pound athlete on defense and liked what they saw.
Even if Rhodes didn't.
“I talked him into going over. He was mad at me,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We needed help over there. I talked him into it. He was mad at me for a year. We laugh about that right now."
It didn't help that he had played all of one game at cornerback, when Norland played North Miami Beach, and it didn't go very well.
Rhodes said he played just one game at cornerback in high school.
“Our best corner was hurt,” Rhodes said. “And I was the best athlete on the team, so they told me to go out there and play him. The first play, he caught a fade and that made the (Miami) Herald. Took a picture on the front page. I was embarrassed. I didn’t like it. But I grew to like it as I got here.”
But that growing process took a while. As he struggled to get settled at his new position, Rhodes leaned on a variety of teammates, mentors and coaches.
Patrick Robinson, a senior during Rhodes' true freshman year and an eventual first-round draft pick, encouraged Rhodes to redshirt and soak up as much knowledge and practice time as he could.
FSU great Terrell Buckley, then on staff with the Seminoles, helped Rhodes break the mindset of a receiver and start thinking like a defensive back, and worked with him to fine-tune his technique.
And Nigel Dunn, Rhodes' coach at Norland, encouraged Rhodes with the idea that his rare combination of size and athleticism could make for a bright future on the defensive side of the field.
Dunn would know a thing or two about it – among his former proteges in pro football are Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe and Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.
“I remember telling him that there's not a lot of 6-2 corners out there in college football or in the NFL,” said Dunn, who also hired James Coley to be his offensive coordinator at Norland in 1997.
“I told him there's a lot of 6-2 receivers – I've got three of them in the NFL right now. I used to always tease him about that. There's a lot of 6-2 receivers, but there's not a lot of 6-2 corners covering those 6-2 receivers.”
FSU great Terrell Buckley helped Rhodes with his transition.
Eventually Rhodes warmed up to the idea. But it wasn't a smooth adjustment.
During his true freshman year, with just a few weeks of defensive football to his credit, Rhodes went to practice and lined up against the experienced, speedy and especially chatty Bert Reed.
“Bert Reed was killing me in practice,” Rhodes said. “He wasn’t quiet about it. Knowing me, being a real competitor, I kept going against him. I said, ‘Bert, I’m going to get you.’ The last time, Bert said, ‘Xai, get out. I need a real corner.’
“So he said that, and it hit me in my heart. So I took that very seriously.”
So Rhodes went back to work, refining his technique, studying the position and spending more time with Buckley.
A month later, he found himself across from Reed once again. And this time, Rhodes was ready.
“I came back, Bert lined up, I jammed the crap out of Bert,” Rhodes said. “Bert didn’t even get an inch off the line. And everybody else that came up, I jammed them. Ever since then, I gained confidence.”
Rhodes went on to earn freshman All-America and ACC Rookie of the Year honors in 2010 and was one of Florida State's top defenders in 2011.
Rhodes has a team-high two interceptions through seven games this season.
He entered his redshirt junior season on the watch lists for the Bednarik, Nagurski and Thorpe Awards, and is off to a fine start with a team-leading two interceptions, five pass break-ups and 22 tackles.
And it all could've been much different had Rhodes just answered that question – what position do you want to play? – with a little more transparency. And he's awfully thankful now that he didn't.
“They fooled me. It was my fault. I should've just said I wanted to play receiver,” Rhodes said with a laugh. “But thank God I didn't say receiver because now, as you see, I'm a great corner.”