Whatever It Takes
Oct. 9, 2009
By Michelle Smith
STANFORD, Calif. - It started with a text message.
'It said, `Coach, I want to try (defensive back) and try to help the team',' Sherman said.
And then he waited for the response. A little while later, it came.
'We'll give you a try.'
But Harbaugh confesses that he was skeptical when he first heard from Sherman last winter. For three years, Sherman, the senior from Compton, had been a wide receiver at Stanford, one of its best during his time on The Farm.
He led the team in receiving yards in 2006 and 2007 before an injury shortened his junior season in 2008. It was a tough time in a career to make such a big move.
But Sherman has erased the doubts of his head coach, earning the starting spot at left corner.
'To make that switch this late in his college career, in that short a time, to be as effective as he's been...' Harbaugh said. 'I was skeptical.'
Sherman said he offered to make the change in the interest of team success.
'I'll do whatever to help the team win, to get to the Rose Bowl,' Sherman said. 'If they want me back at receiver, I'll go. Whatever it takes.'
But he also understood that he was going to have to prove himself to Harbaugh, the defensive coaches and his fellow players.
'Coach Harbaugh wasn't the one who recruited me. He didn't know I played corner in high school,' Sherman said. 'I'm sure a lot of people thought it was a wild move.'
But if Harbaugh had his doubts, if Sherman's teammates had theirs, defensive backs coach Clayton White admitted he was excited about the possibility. The Cardinal needed depth in the secondary and an athlete of Sherman's caliber, regardless of his experience, was worth a look.
'I didn't know what to expect,' White said. 'Richard is a great athlete, he's fast and long and I wanted to see what was going to happen at the end of the day. I wanted to know if he had the skills and I knew by the end of the spring he had a chance to be pretty good.'
Sherman moved to the defense at the start of spring camp. He was not listed on the depth chart when the 15-practice session began.
'I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off,' Sherman said.
For the first few days, he got precious few repetitions. But as opportunities arose, Sherman began to make an impression with his athleticism and instincts.
'I remember that he made a couple of plays and thinking, `those are some pretty good defensive back plays',' White said. 'He had no fear in tackling, he just needed work on his technique. We've talked about angles and approach. But he knows how to run and catch, he knows how to read routes.'
Sherman became a factor on the depth chart after the spring game. By the end of fall camp, he became a starter.
Sherman said he was surprised he ended up No. 1 at left corner. After impressing coaches at spring practice, he spent the summer conditioning, learning the defensive playbook, honing his footwork and bulking up.
'I didn't really know I'd be starting until before the (Washington State) game,' Sherman said. 'I spent the whole camp waiting for them to tell me I was not the starter. I worked the whole camp, and I had a pretty good camp, but so did the rest of the defensive backs and you never want to assume you are better than anybody.
'It was a huge deal, a tremendous boost of confidence.'
Sherman's defensive teammates are sold.
'He's got a lot of pride and anything he does he is going to be totally invested in,' said Cardinal linebacker Clinton Snyder. 'I didn't have any doubt that he would do it to the best of his ability. He's been playing his butt off the whole camp, doing everything he can to win that job.'
On the butterflies scale, he said his first start in Pullman as a defensive back was not even as nerve-wracking as his first start as a freshman back in 2006. Sherman said his years as a receiver have given him a leg-up on the other side of the ball, easing the transition.
'You know a lot of the tricks of the trade,' Sherman said. 'When a guy lines up, I know what I'm looking at.'
But Sherman is learning as he goes, and demonstrating what Harbaugh calls 'a consistent focus and a relentless approach.'
'Defense is a very technical side of the ball,' White said. 'You have to be detailed and precise in what you are doing. I think as an offensive player, I don't think that he knew that, that you have to be locked in all the time, on your assignment, on your technique. I think what he's learned most is that good defense isn't about finding the ball, it's about covering your guy. And he's getting better at that every day.'
He's also learning the art of the short memory, which he applied after the Week Two defeat against Wake Forest.
'Throw it out, it's a new day, a new opportunity,' Sherman said. 'Win or lose, you have to have a new mentality for the next game.'