FIVE SUMMERS AGO or so, there was this tall guy from Compton, Calif., who played wide receiver at Stanford, and he took to showing up at USC's player-organized informal throwing sessions.
"He knew some of the guys on our team," then-USC quarterback Matt Barkley recalled yesterday. "He was watching a lot; I think he got in there for a couple reps . . . He was quiet; he was at someone else's school, he didn't know a whole lot of guys. Wasn't rude or anything. Nice guy."
The nice guy from Stanford eventually converted to cornerback. On Oct. 9, 2010, he and the Cardinal defeated Barkley's Trojans, 37-35, but the wideout-turned-corner didn't exactly dominate. He had to cover wide receiver Robert Woods, now of the Bills, and Woods caught 12 Barkley passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns.
"I don't even remember circling him on our game plan, or anything like that," Barkley said. "He made some plays, he definitely did, but nothing that kind of wows you, like what he does now. I think his history of playing receiver has helped him understand routes and how receivers come in and out of breaks, and whatnot. That's helped him become a better player."
The wideout-turned-corner got drafted in the fifth round in 2011 by the Seattle Seahawks. This Sunday, Richard Sherman, 6-3, 195, will definitely be circled on the Eagles' game plan. Sherman is the face of the Seattle "Legion of Boom" defense that dominated the NFL and the Super Bowl last season, a defense that has worked its way back to the top of the 2014 yardage ranking after a brief lull. As Eagles coach Chip Kelly noted on Monday, Sherman's 23 interceptions since he entered the league are eight more than any other NFL player has managed in that span.
"There's a reason for that," Kelly said. "He's a smart player . . . he's big, he's physical, and he's got great ball skills."
Yesterday, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was asked about the fact that lots of teams just stay away from Sherman, sacrifice the mid-to-deep right side of the field. Shurmur said he's made that sort of concession only once, for Deion Sanders, and he indicated he isn't likely to do it this week - because, Shurmur said, there's little point, given that there isn't much skill dropoff in the remainder of the Seattle secondary.
"We're going to run our offense," Shurmur said. "We have a healthy respect for who he is as a player. That whole secondary is outstanding. So if you think of it that way, then we're not going to throw the ball anywhere.
"We just have to run our offense. If we call a progression that happens to be over to the right, then we have to read it out properly and get it to the open guy. Same can be said if we call one to the left or one in the middle of the field . . . We've got some good receivers that can match up."
Shurmur was asked whether Sherman is comparable to Sanders, the only man ever to play in a World Series and a Super Bowl. He didn't quite make that leap.
"He's an outstanding player. He's certainly one of the best corners in the league," Shurmur said. "The effect he has on the offenses he plays is pretty obvious."
Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, was the fifth overall pick in the 1989 draft, by Atlanta. Most dominant corners are high picks. But Sherman, despite being what Kelly termed "the prototype that everybody wants," going back to the Steel Curtain and Mel Blount, was drafted 154th overall (a mere 64 spots after the Eagles took a corner, Curtis Marsh).
Part of the legend of the intense Seahawks-49ers rivalry is that Sherman thinks 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, his Stanford coach, undersold him to scouts. There have been suggestions that Sherman switched from offense to defense essentially to get away from Harbaugh. Both possess strong personalities.
Eagles tight end Zach Ertz played with Sherman and for Harbaugh at Stanford; in fact, Ertz played in the 37-35 game against Barkley and USC. He suggested yesterday that the tape of Sherman covering Woods that day might have had as big an impact on the draft as anything Harbaugh might have said.
"He'd just switched to defense when I got there. We didn't use him, necessarily, to the strengths that he's playing with now - we didn't [put him in press coverage] too often," Ertz said. "We knew he had the skills to be a top-level corner. But I don't know if everybody saw this coming. I know he saw it for himself; he works very hard at it."
Ertz said that in the game against Woods and USC, "they just got after him a little bit. We were playing off coverage, which probably isn't his strong point."
So was the Richard Sherman Ertz knew the quiet guy Barkley threw passes to, or was he the wild-haired dude who startled America by woofing insults into Erin Andrews' microphone, insults aimed at 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree, following the Seahawks' 23-17 victory in the NFC Championship Game last January?
"He's very confident in himself, which I think he has to be, to be an elite player at this level," Ertz said. "We knew there was something kind of iffy in his head. He always talked . . . He would get into it with some of the players, just like he does now, talk a lot of smack, but it was all fun and games. He was going to be down to business once the lights came on.
"He's a great player . . . We knew he had the talent, but it takes a lot of things to go right, and things have clicked for him, right when they needed to.
"They have him in press coverage, which is great. That's his thing. He's so long, and he used to play wide receiver, so he knows the route concepts. He's very smart; he's got great ball skills. If his head's turned with the ball in the air, he doesn't play it like a corner, he plays it like a wide receiver."