The reluctant corner

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In high school, Xavier Rhodes played just one game at cornerback, and he hated every second of it.

His Norland (Fla.) High team was playing North Miami Beach, and the matchup was a problem. North Miami Beach had a star receiver, and Norland's top corner was out with an injury. The job fell to Rhodes.

The first play of the game was directed at Rhodes. It was a fade pattern, and Rhodes was burned badly. The next day, a photo of Rhodes' blown coverage was plastered across the front of the sports section of the Miami newspaper.

"I was embarrassed, man," Rhodes said. "I didn't like it."

It has been more than four years since Rhodes' first dalliance with the defensive backfield, and he returns to his hometown this weekend as one of the ACC's top cornerbacks, a unique blend of size and speed widely considered a potential first-round selection in the NFL draft should he decide to go pro after this season.

It's not how Rhodes had envisioned his career unfolding, but it's a journey he is glad he has endured.

"I never looked in the future and ever thought I would ever play any kind of defense," Rhodes said. "I didn't want to go to it … but I learned the techniques of it, and I grew to love it, and as I grew to love it, I got better at it. And I took off from there."

Rhodes came to Florida State expecting to play receiver. In high school, he'd excelled on offense, both at running back and wide receiver, and he loved having the ball in his hands.

After his senior season at Norland, Rhodes worked with a track coach to increase his speed, and he made the rounds at football camps, even impressing future Florida State teammate Rodney Smith.

"He was pretty good," Smith said. "I was better, but he was pretty good."

When he got to Florida State, however, Jimbo Fisher had other plans.

Fisher looked at Rhodes' size -- now 6-foot-2, 217 pounds -- and athletic ability and thought he'd be a natural fit at cornerback. At the time, the team had a need for depth in the secondary, and Fisher pushed Rhodes to make the move, which he did -- reluctantly.

"He was mad at me for a year," Fisher said. "We laugh about that now."

Rhodes' transition wasn't easy. Early on, he was lost. He struggled to get acclimated, and after appearing in two games -- largely on special teams -- a hand injury forced a medical redshirt.

As it turned out, Rhodes said the injury was a blessing.

The season spent on the sideline provided ample time to refine technique and grow comfortable in his new role, but more than anything, Rhodes needed to embrace the challenge mentally.

He was helped in the process by former FSU cornerback Terrell Buckley, who was working with the Seminoles coaching staff. He pushed Rhodes to move beyond his preconceived notions of offensive stardom and embrace the possibilities of become an elite defender.

"He had to get me out of that phase," Rhodes said. "He's like, 'You're a corner now. Forget that receiver thing you did in high school. You're in college, and you play corner. You have to accept it.' "

The words carried weight for Rhodes, but it wasn't until a teammate challenged his pride that the new role was solidified.

In practice, Rhodes made a point of working against Florida State's top receivers. He wanted to test his mettle, but he often came up lacking.

Former FSU receiver Bert Reed provided a particularly daunting task. Reed wore out Rhodes in practice, and eventually, the veteran grew tired of beating his freshman teammate so often.

"Kid, get out," Reed said. "I need a real corner."

Rhodes was devastated.

"It hit me in my heart," Rhodes said. "I took that seriously."

It was a challenge, and Rhodes set about finding a way to earn Reed's respect, and having played receiver so much in high school, Rhodes knew just how to get under his teammates skin.

The next time the two players faced off, Rhodes met Reed at the line of scrimmage, jamming the veteran receiver with a previously untapped reservoir of intensity. Reed was stunned, and Rhodes had found his inspiration.

"I gained confidence, and once I gained confidence, it was a wrap," Rhodes said. "I was good ever since."

Rhodes' numbers this season aren't eye-popping. He has picked off just two passes and made only 22 tackles. He has broken up five passes and defended seven more. His biggest adversary is his reputation.

"He's playing very good football," Fisher said. "Sometimes with DBs, you say, 'I don't hear enough about him.' Well that's good. If you're not hearing anything about him, that means he's not giving up plays. He's battling, and I think he's had a very fine year."

With two inexperienced corners sharing time on the opposite side of the field, Rhodes is in an interesting situation. He has blossomed into more of a vocal leader in the secondary -- another role that doesn't come naturally, but one has embraced nonetheless -- and he has found fewer teams are willing to challenge him in the passing game.

That's a mind-set he doesn't quite understand.

"I go into every game thinking there's a big target on my back," Rhodes said. "How can people get their name out? It's going after a person whose name is already up to the top. If you do that, that's how you get your name out and how you get better, going against the best. People say I'm the best, and I feel like I'm the best because I've worked so hard for it. So I got out there every game saying they're fixing to throw at me."

He'll take the field Saturday in front of his hometown fans thinking the same thing, and this time, he might be right. Miami ranks third in the ACC in passing offense, averaging nearly 300 yards per game. Its receiving corps racked up five touchdowns against NC State three weeks ago, beating All-American David Amerson each time.

In his first game at cornerback, Rhodes was embarrassed, but a lot has changed since that photo graced his hometown newspaper. He's not a reluctant participant anymore. He's eager for the challenge.

"I'm trying to be the best college player right now," Rhodes said. "The best corner."