TALLAHASSEE — As a youngster just learning the basics of the game, Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes would get out on the field and try to emulate the play of his favorite pro.
Nothing unusual about that, except the guy he breathlessly watched on television and zealously mimicked was the ferocious, powerful wrestler, Goldberg.
"I was like body-slamming my teammates at practice," Rhodes said with a laugh, recalling his preteen days. "I wasn't tackling. I was doing wrestling moves."
Now, a decade or so later, Rhodes has long lost interest in the wrestling game, but the promising and improving redshirt freshman is still trying to bring a Goldberg-like approach to the football field as he prepares for his fourth college start, today against Wake Forest.
"He's extremely physical," coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I mean, he's a physical guy. He hits you like a linebacker. Some of the best hits we had in our preseason scrimmages were by him."
"I just like running into people," Rhodes added.
But until he came to FSU, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound former Miami Norland High player used to run away from people; he was a standout receiver and running back. He played in the secondary only if one of his teammates had just been beaten badly through the air, and his stint was short before he went back to offense. Still, he didn't shy away from moving permanently to defense last year.
"I was a receiver who loved to hit," he said with a broadening smile, "and on defense, you're hitting every play."
Not that he found the move simple. He struggled to master the new moves needed to stay with a receiver and break up a pass as opposed to creating space with a defender.
"It was difficult. It was very difficult," he said. "It was also very frustrating because I'm a very competitive person and to get beat all the time would frustrate me. I didn't like that at all."
His health compounded the problem. A thumb injury hampered him much of last season and required offseason surgery; he appeared in just two games on special teams. But he spent his time watching and studying the play of standout Patrick Robinson, who became a first-round draft pick of the Super Bowl champion Saints in April.
It paid off nicely as Rhodes showed marked improvement during spring practices — the coaches named him the defense's top newcomer — and he has continued to show increased comfort and confidence. And some bone-jarring slams, er, hits.
"I joke with him that he hits us harder than he hits the other team," redshirt junior receiver Bert Reed said.
"We always knew Xavier was a great player," junior linebacker Nigel Bradham added. "He's got the size and speed to do anything he wants. We just see him as a beast out there."
Reed, a preseason candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver, said Rhodes makes it difficult for receivers to get off the line, using his size, athletic ability and his knowledge as a former receiver to his advantage. For example, he'll often slap the hands of the receivers as they break, which not only disrupts their timing but affects their focus.
"You should be thinking about catching the ball, but you're thinking, 'How is this not holding?' " Reed said. "But he's doing it legit."
Although Rhodes showed his inexperience in FSU's first two games, especially when he bit on a double move by Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles for an 18-yard touchdown in the 47-17 rout, he has been playing well. He had eight tackles and one pass breakup against the Sooners. Last week against Brigham Young, he had a tackle for a loss, broke up a pass and grabbed his first career interception. He sat out the second half as a precaution after slightly straining a hip flexor but has been full speed during practices this week.
"He has a lot of talent, that's for starters," Robinson said. "He reminds me a lot of myself in the fact that he's getting an opportunity to play quite a bit early in his career, and that's always going to help out in the long run. There are going to be some bumps in the road, and while it's never easy, the game will start to slow down for him sooner rather than later. I think he has a really bright future, and I'm excited for him. He listens well, and I know he's excited for the opportunity he's earned. I believe he certainly has the talent to keep playing the game for a long time, and I think he's only going to continue to get better and better."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347. Check his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/seminoles.