If you want an idea of how hard it initially can be for a star offensive player to switch to defense, look no further than Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

When Rhodes came out of Miami Norland High School in 2009, where he played running back and wide receiver, he was ranked as the 75th-best offensive athlete in the country by Rivals.com and had offers from Auburn and West Virginia but he committed to Florida State.

Rhodes was recruited and signed by longtime Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden, who wanted to convert him from an offensive player to a defensive back.

“I wanted to catch the ball, to be honest. I was more of a receiver than a running back. I was an athlete in high school. My first year in college [I switched positions],” Rhodes recalled. “The adjustment was pretty tough. At first I didn’t want it, and I wanted to leave Florida State and transfer, because I thought I was going there to play receiver. But it has panned out. You know a couple of players and my mentor helped me out with the position, and I became good within a couple of months.”

Rhodes’ freshman season was derailed after two games because of a hand injury, but in his redshirt freshman season he finished seventh on the team in tackles with 49, tied for the team lead with four interceptions and had the most interception return yards with 40. His 16 passes defended were the second most on the team.

He was named a consensus freshman All-America and the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Rhodes’ junior year was his breakout season. He made 39 tackles, intercepted three passes and had 10 pass breakups, helping him become a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist for best defensive back in the country. He also earned first-team All-ACC honors and third-team Phil Steele All-America accolades.

Finds success in pros

Rhodes generally was considered the second-best cornerback in the 2013 NFL draft behind Alabama’s Dee Milliner, who went No. 9 overall to the Jets. The Vikings selected Rhodes with the No. 25 overall pick that was acquired in a trade with Seattle.

In his first season, Rhodes set the Vikings record for passes defensed by a rookie with 23 and finished with 48 tackles in 13 games along with a forced fumble. Last season he improved in every category with 49 tackles, 18 passes defended and also grabbed his first career interception.

This year, Rhodes continues to be one of the Vikings’ best tacklers, with 48 on the season to go along with eight passes defended.

“It’s still the same, corner is corner, it’s not really different,” Rhodes said about playing in the pros compared with playing at Florida State. “The only difference is you know the scheme of things, the different schemes and different defenses. I played at Florida State where I was playing more man-to-man, press-man, and here in the NFL it’s more zone than what I was used to playing at Florida State. But I still play my man-to-man pressure.”

Defending the best

In college Rhodes got to go up against some of the best receivers in the country, many of whom are now among the best receivers in the NFL. Who were his toughest challenges?

“In college, oh, I would say more of [Houston’s DeAndre] Hopkins, who was at Clemson, me and Hopkins went at it a little bit, and [Buffalo’s] Sammy [Watkins, who was also at Clemson],” Rhodes said.

What about in the pros?

“Toughest so far, it has always been a fight with me and [Detroit’s] Calvin [Johnson],” he said. “It has always been a big fight between me and him. Every year I go against him it has always been a battle.”

Rhodes, who stands at 6-1, consistently has to cover receivers like Johnson, who is 6-5, or the Bears’ Alshon Jeffery, who he will face this weekend and stands at 6-3.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “You know receivers nowadays they’re not small anymore, they’re big and fast and can get out of breaks. Also they have big bodies so it’s hard to get to the ball when they can you shield you off of the ball.”

After becoming a first-round pick, winning accolades at Florida State, and now being a key contributor to one of the best defenses in football, Rhodes says he’s happy his coaches made him switch positions back in 2009.

“I still get glory on defense, I’m happy on the defensive side of the ball,” he said.

Top recruiters

With Jerry Kill having to resign as Gophers football coach because of health reasons, I was convinced that the recruiting would suffer. But apparently Kill had hired a staff that excelled in selling the program, and the result is this: Kill’s prediction that this would be the best recruiting class since he took the job still has come true despite the coaching change.

Last week was a banner week for the Gophers when they received verbal commitments from former East Ridge standout Seth Green, who is ranked among the top quarterbacks in the country, and cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr., the son of the former standout Vikings defensive back.

But Wednesday might have brought the best news of all, because the Gophers were desperate for some talent on the offensive line, one of their weaknesses.

Vincent Calhoun, a second team All-America from Southwest Mississippi Community College, passed up a chance to go to Mississippi State to sign with the Gophers. Calhoun is 6-5, 335 pounds and a great blocker.

One recruiting service described Calhoun as a big, athletic offensive lineman with great size and strength. He is reported to be an immediate impact player and can play both guard and tackle.

The other offensive lineman signing with the Gophers was Garrison Wright of Butler (Kan.) Community College, a 6-3, 310-pounder who was a first-team All-Jayhawk Conference player.

Both Calhoun and Wright can enroll in school in January and take part in spring practice.

Lost local players

Meanwhile the Gophers lost two local players, though neither would have had a chance to play next year.

Chaska offensive lineman Matt Kegel decommited and will attend Oklahoma State instead of Minnesota. The Gophers replaced Kegel with the players signed Wednesday.

The other one leaving is former Minneapolis Washburn all-state running back Jeff Jones, who is transferring to Iowa Western Community College because of academic issues. Jones was expected to start this year after being ineligible his freshman season but played only three games, mostly on special teams.

Friends of Jones believe it might be to Jones’ advantage to go to Iowa Western and then come back to Minnesota, where he would have two years of eligibility remaining.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com