After his junior season at Sprayberry High School in suburban Atlanta was cut short by a back injury, Trey Sermon began rehabilitating with a local speed coach.
“When I first met him, Trey was walking like an old man, which caught me off-guard,” said Charles “Tuna” Burhanan, whose brother-in-law was the Sprayberry track coach. “He’d gone through rehab and was walking like nothing had been fixed.”
So they trained carefully. By the spring, Sermon was healthy enough to run track, though he did so gingerly. Burhanan has other clients, and one of them was a quarterback at Harrison High School named Justin Fields. Fields and Sermon would work with a group of about 10 football players.
Once Sermon was fully healthy, something became clear to Burhanan: “I always thought that Trey and Justin were just at a different level than a lot of kids that I worked with.”
It wasn’t just raw talent. Like Fields, Sermon has a laid-back personality that belies a deep competitive streak and a strong work ethic.
“They’re very wise and mature for their age,” Burhanan said.
Now Fields and Sermon will be college teammates, after Sermon announced Sunday that he would enroll at Ohio State as a graduate transfer from Oklahoma.
Just as Fields’ transfer from Georgia last January was crucial in the Buckeyes’ run to the College Football Playoff, the arrival of Sermon could prove pivotal to the 2020 team.
Master Teague III, the heir apparent to 2,000-yard runner J.K. Dobbins, suffered an Achilles injury on the first day of OSU’s spring practice. Marcus Crowley, who was the third-string running back as a freshman last year, is rehabbing from a knee injury that cut short his season.
If there’s a void – and even if Teague and Crowley are healthy – the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Sermon has the ability to fill it. As a role player in his three seasons at Oklahoma, Sermon averaged 6.1 yards per carry while rushing for 2,076 yards and 22 touchdowns. He added 36 receptions for 391 yards and three touchdowns.
Sermon combined vision with speed and showed the power to gain tough yards.
But the belief by those close to him is that Sermon is poised to do more. Part of it is that Ohio State was Sermon’s first choice out of high school. But after his back injury, the Buckeyes’ interest cooled.
“He was a little disappointed, but we moved on,” said his mother, Natoshia Mitchell. “He did the best that he could do at Oklahoma, and then he wanted to grow more.”
Sermon’s junior season at Oklahoma was cut short by what Mitchell said was a lateral collateral ligament injury to his left knee.
“It wasn't torn or anything,” she said. “It was just pulled.”
It required surgery, which was performed by the same doctor who operated on former Sooners running back DeMarco Murray two years earlier.
“He told us that Trey’s injury was not bad at all, that he’s seen worse, that Trey will bounce back within a couple months,” Mitchell said.
She said her son was considering a transfer before the injury. After it, Mitchell said, he decided that he would indeed enter the transfer portal. Once he did, there was no doubt where he would land, she said.
“He didn’t want to hear from any other school,” Mitchell said. “He was like, ‘Ma, do not talk to anyone else. Ohio State reached out. That’s where I’m going.’ ”
She said Sermon is training in Houston and will graduate from Oklahoma in May and then head to Columbus.
“I think we will see the Trey Sermon that has not been seen yet,” Mitchell said.
Burhanan and Sermon’s high school coach, Billy Shackelford, share that opinion.
“I used to always get on Trey about his sense of urgency when he was playing,” Burhanan said. “Trey is very intense and very emotional. Sometimes it’ll help him and sometimes it can hinder him. I saw a lot of times the frustration he was going through, it was hindering him, so to me it seemed he was functioning at only 75% or 80%.
“Going to Ohio State, you’re going to see Trey functioning at 100%, and it’s going to be a whole different sense of urgency. Everything’s going to be at a high level. I don’t think that’s going to happen — I know that’s going to happen.”
Shackelford believes Sermon has 2,000-yard potential.
“I know that he wants to be the marquee guy,” he said. “I know that he’s a great teammate. He’s an easy kid to coach. He’s a true blessing, man.
“He’s got a great mama, comes from a good home. If somebody told me they’d give me 100 bucks to say one bad thing about him, I’d be out the money because he’s just really a true character kid and a helluva talent.”
If he’s as good as advertised, one of the most glaring question marks about the 2020 Buckeyes could be answered as definitively as Fields solved the quarterback issue a year ago.