When Richard Sherman made the move from receiver to cornerback at Stanford, even his teammates had their doubts.
"When he made the transition to corner at Stanford, there were times we were worried if he was going to be able to be successful at it," said receiver Doug Baldwin, Sherman's teammate then and now. "But he told me in college that he was going to be one of the best corners to ever play. I doubted him then, but there's no argument now."
Last week, Sherman made another transition, though a more subtle one, playing part of Seattle's season opener not at his usual position of left cornerback, but as the nickel corner when the Seahawks had three cornerbacks on the field. Sherman said he only found out the Monday before the game that he was taking on a dual role in Seattle's opener.
"Whatever my coach asks me to do, is what's going to be done," Sherman said. "If they ask me to go inside, I'll go inside. If they ask me to go outside, I'll go outside."
The change was a way for the Seahawks to get what they felt was their best combination of defensive backs onto the field for that particular game, with DeShawn Shead coming in as the third corner and playing on the left side of the defense, and to use Sherman on talented Rams receiver Tavon Austin. It's not necessarily something they'll do every week, but Sherman showing his versatility gives the Seahawks that much more flexibility depending on matchups.
"It presented us with an option that we can matchup according to the players that we're going against however we feel we need to, and that's a real good positive for us," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Putting Richard inside it allows him to use all of the savvy and the instincts that he has. He's a marvelous player in terms of awareness, and vision, and anticipation and all of that, and that position in there does call for those opportunities in zones and all kinds of different things that you do there. He has jumped at the opportunity. He likes it, there's a lot going on, there's a lot to learn for him in there as well, and we're going to use it as it fits, and each week if you ask me I'm not going to tell you, you know. But I think it's a real positive for us, and we'll investigate it every week and see how it goes, how it fits, and see where we want to use it."
Sherman has primarily been a left cornerback only for the Seahawks, though at times he has moved around to match up with a particular receiver. And despite being recognized as one of the best in the game at his position, and despite the success Seattle has had defensively, Sherman's critics have used the fact that he often stays on one side of the field as a knock against him, even though it sometimes can mean taking away a third of the field, such as in last year's opener against Green Bay in which Aaron Rodgers never targeted a receiver covered by Sherman. So in addition to helping give the Seahawks more flexibility in their secondary, Sherman adding the ability to cover slot receivers might also take away a little bit of ammunition from his doubters.
"I think there's always a lot of debate about playing the left side or playing here, but at the end of the day, I've never heard of anybody telling a guy to not do what his coach is telling him to do," Sherman said. "That's when you get a lot of these armchair coaches and stuff like that. You never tell a guy to be selfish, you always tell a guy to be unselfish, then you tell a guy 'well you should be doing this.' Well, if my coach doesn't call that play, you do the play that is called, and that's what I did."
Carroll and defensive coordinator Kris Richard praised Sherman's debut as a nickel corner, and the reasons he should excel in that spot if and when he plays it again going forward are a lot of the same reasons he has turned himself into one of the league's best cornerbacks after being a fifth-round pick in 2011. Sherman is a great athlete, to be sure, but what allowed him to change positions in college, and to pick up a new role in a week, and to be one of the very best at his craft goes well beyond his physical ability.
"There are very few guys who have his athleticism mixed with his intelligence and his self-awareness of what he's capable of doing to be able to put it all together and go out there and be successful," Baldwin said. "Anything he has been asked to do, whether it was at Stanford or here in Seattle, he's always done it at a high level and been very successful at it."
Adds Richard, who was previously Seattle's defensive backs coach before being promoted in the offseason: "He's a technician, you know and it's nothing that he hasn't always been able to do. It's just he's done whatever we've asked him to do, and for this defense here in order for us to be our best, again we needed him sitting right there hunkered down at the left corner position. So he's always been able to do whatever we need him to do out there, and for the most part we needed him to be at left corner."
After practices last week, Sherman and Baldwin spent time going over some of the nuances of playing closer to the middle of the field. Baldwin has spent a lot of his career playing as a slot receiver, though he plays all over as a starter in Seattle's offense, so he had a few pointers for his old friend.
"We were talking about releases," Baldwin said. "The slot receiver has multiple ways to go, and he has to be more aggressive sometimes, but he also has to switch it up. He can't allow the slot receiver to get comfortable and dictate where he's going to go. We talked more so about the releases and his press coverage; he's got everything else after that."
Depending on the personnel available on Seattle's roster and the matchups with an opposing offense, it's entirely possible Sherman will stick to the left side on any given week, but now that he has added to his repertoire, it makes one of the NFL's best defensive players even more valuable and gives the Seahawks another option when it comes to configuring its secondary.
"It's absolutely valuable," Richard said. "Again, it's the old adage, the more you can do, and he's able to do a lot."