Back in the fast lane

Tim May
[Eric Albrecht/Dispatch]

Kendall Sheffield wasn’t just born to run, he was born to run fast.

He found that out as soon as he stared playing with kids in the neighborhood in Missouri City, Texas. The Ohio State junior cornerback laughed as he thought back to those days when, all else being equal, he could just pull away.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Sheffield, who won two Texas state championships in the 110-meter high hurdles and one in the 300-meter hurdles while in high school. “I knew that at any point, I could just outrun everybody else.”

But when the time came to decide whether to pursue big-time football or big-time track, he went with football because it meant being part of a pack.

“It’s just something about the team atmosphere and the bonding that I like about it,” Sheffield said. “I love track, too, but I just love football before track.”

One thing he definitely is not fond of is doing interviews. Though personable and polite, Sheffield has shied away from the media spotlight and microphones since transferring to OSU in the winter of 2017 from Blinn Junior College in Brenham, Texas. He would rather not do interviews, though he stood still for this one.

As for his story, he was the definition of a prep athlete superstar at Thurgood Marshall High School in Missouri City. As a senior, he won the 110 high hurdles title in 13.44 seconds, just .04 of a second off the state record. He was considered among the elite high hurdlers in the nation.

But he already had decided that football was his future. Rated as a five-star cornerback prospect by the major recruiting services, he had been sought by Ohio State and almost every other major school in the country before he made his choice of Alabama known during a high school all-star game in January 2015.

It appeared his path was set. He would play for coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, who were coming off a loss to Ohio State in the semifinals of the first College Football Playoff that year and stockpiling talent for the future.

Things didn’t go as Sheffield expected with the Crimson Tide, however. He didn’t go into detail, but after redshirting his freshman year of 2015 and not rising to bona fide starter status on the depth chart headed into the 2016 season, he opted out.

He transferred to Blinn, about 60 miles from his hometown, and started anew.

“Through that whole process I was just trying to stay focused, trying to find the right school for me, just trying to find the people who wanted to elevate my game,” Sheffield said. “I found it here at Ohio State.”

OSU cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs, who has since departed for the NFL, had been after Sheffield since high school, and he renewed his pursuit of the 6-foot cornerback once he wound up at Blinn. Head coach Urban Meyer also was involved the second time around, Sheffield said.

“Coach Coombs and coach Meyer, they are both great coaches, and at that time Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore were going to the NFL,” Sheffield said of the Buckeyes’ two starting corners from the 2016 season who became first-round draft picks. “So I knew those two spots were open. I also knew that coach Coombs liked to rotate his corners,” moving at least three through the two spots to gain depth and experience.

“He told me if I come here and was able to play at a certain level, that I would be able to be in that rotation. That’s what I did.”

He rolled into the rotation last year, recording nine pass breakups and 40 tackles in 14 games. He emerged as a starter this year as current cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson continues to use a rotation, this one featuring Sheffield, Damon Arnette and Jeffrey Okudah. Sheffield has one interception, six pass breakups and 12 tackles as the third-ranked Buckeyes have started 6-0.

Sheffield is the first to admit he still has plenty to learn. Technique becomes as important as speed the higher players rise through the levels. Small things, such as getting one’s head around to look for the ball at the last second while playing press man-to-man coverage, are what he and his fellow OSU corners are still trying to master.

Arnette took stock this week of Sheffield and the raw material he brings to table.

“He’s going to be great. He’s got it all,” Arnette said. “He’s got the quickness, the aggressiveness, the speed — just those ‘it’ factors of God-given ability.”

Of Sheffield’s raw speed, Arnette noted, “You can definitely see it, those quick, short-space bursts.”

It’s similar to what Sheffield showed in those gaps between the hurdles in high school, and again this past winter when he scratched that itch by briefly running for the Ohio State indoor track team. He set the school indoor record of 6.663 second in the 60-meter dash.

Karen Dennis, the OSU men’s and women’s track and field director, saw enough of Sheffield to say “he has the potential” to be world-class if he pursued track in general, and the high hurdles in particular.

But Sheffield sees his raw talent as the vehicle for getting him to his desired destination, the NFL.

“As I converted from track to football, my speed has been a blessing to me, because everybody loves speed,” he said. “And you can’t really coach speed.”

As for his moves from high school in Texas to the University of Alabama, back to junior college in Texas, then to Ohio State, that’s just the journey he has had to take.

“I look back at it sometimes, and it has been a good process to experience,” Sheffield said. “I’m just living life right now.”


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