Xavier Rhodes had a passion for football while growing up in Miami. Catching and running with the football, that is, not trying to keep it away from the kind of game-breaking receiver he envisioned becoming one day.
But after Florida State signed Rhodes in 2009 out of Norland High School, coach Jimbo Fisher approached him about a position change.
“I talked him into (moving to cornerback),” Fisher said. “We needed help over there. I thought he had a great future there.
“He was mad at me for a year. We laugh about it now.”
And why not laugh? The once reluctant Rhodes, a red-shirt junior, is rising as an NFL prospect, projected as a first-round pick and ranked No. 2 among cornerbacks by many services. Rhodes’ size (6-foot-2) is especially appealing to scouts who are looking for corners to cover the big, physical receivers who dominate in the NFL.
Rhodes has gotten used to punishing receivers instead of taking the punishment.
“When I first played corner, I didn’t want to accept the role,” said Rhodes, who leads No. 9 Florida State with two interceptions and six pass breakups. “I just said I would give it a chance. I learned the techniques, I grew to love it. Once I grew to love it, that’s when I got better.”
Nigel Dunn, Rhodes’ coach at Norland, took advantage of Rhodes’ skills, using him at receiver and running back, and occasionally in the secondary.
“Xavier made some sacrifices for us,” Dunn said. “I thought he would be a better defender but Xavier always wanted to play wide receiver.”
Rhodes led Norland in rushing and receiving as a senior, despite sharing the backfield with emerging freshman Duke Johnson, now the star freshman running back at the University of Miami.
Rhodes was pursued as a receiver out of high school but became suspicious when the Seminoles asked if he’d like to play corner.
“It was my fault,” said Rhodes, who chose FSU over West Virginia and Auburn. “They fooled me. I should have just said I wanted to play receiver.”
Rhodes then figured, why fight it? He made the switch while redshirting and finally made his bones as a corner after being embarrassed by former FSU receiver Bert Reed, who was abusing Rhodes during one practice and kept reminding the young freshman about it.
“He wasn’t quiet about it,” Rhodes said. “The last time, Bert said, ‘Get out. I need a real corner.’ When he said that, it hit me in my heart. I took that very seriously.
“A month (later), I came back and I jammed the crap out of Bert. 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.”
Enough confidence that he was named the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year in 2010 and has started 33 of the 36 games during his career.
And now Rhodes, a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist, has become the definition of a shutdown corner.
No receiver has gained 90 yards on FSU this season. Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins came closest with five catches for 88 yards. But Rhodes limited Tigers All-American Sammy Watkins to just 24 yards in that crucial ACC Atlantic Division win.
The top three receivers in the ACC — Boston College’s Alex Amidon, Hopkins and Duke’s Conner Vernon — combined for 124 yards against Florida State, an average of 41.3 yards per game.
In all other games, the trio has a combined average of 113.1 receiving yards per game.
Florida State has the sixth-ranked pass defense nationally, allowing 154.2 yards per game.
“People say I’m the best and I feel like I’m the best because I work hard for it,” Rhodes said. “I go into every game thinking they are going to throw my way nine times and they are only going to catch one of them and it’s going to be for 5 yards. And if they do catch it I’m not going to let that get me down.”