RENTON Shaquill Griffin started a competitive track club for young kids through teenagers in his native Florida. When he was 14.
A couple years later Griffin started telling major-college football programs if they wanted to sign him to a scholarship they had to sign his twin brother Shaquem, too, or else he wasn’t coming.
So of course the precocious Shaq Griffin, just 12 practices into his first NFL training camp, is starting Sunday opposite Richard Sherman at right cornerback for the Seahawks.
If the rookie third-round draft choice does in Seattle’s preseason opener here at the Los Angeles Chargers as he’s done with all his other chances so far, he’ll seize this one, too.
"I’m a rookie, but I’m not here to act like a rookie," said Griffin, who turned 22 three weeks ago. "I’m going to continue to mature and let everyone know they can count on me. If I do get a chance to run with them in a game, that’s perfect. I’m here and I’m ready for it whenever they need me.
"I’m going to continue to express that. I’m here to learn and continue to work my craft so if that situation comes up, I’m ready to play."
For now, since this is, after all, his first NFL game, the Seahawks are saying Griffin is starting because veteran Jeremy Lane is injured and not going to play against the Chargers. Lane has had a "soft-tissue injury" for more than a week.
But reality is Seattle didn’t draft the big (6 feet, 198 pounds), fast, ball-snatching Griffin with their third of 11 picks this spring to sit on its bench. He entered training camp as the rookie with the best chance to start this season. Now he has a chance to win the right-cornerback job for the opener Sept. 10 at Green Bay. That would put Lane in the place where he’s played and excelled the most for the Seahawks: inside, as the nickel back in the five-defensive-back sets. Seattle has played nickel nearly two-thirds of the time over the previous two seasons, so it’s becoming increasingly likely it will be Lane inside and Griffin outside for most of games this season.
Sherman, Seattle’s three-time All-Pro cornerback, raves about how smart his newest pupil is.
Griffin is way too smart not to know the chance he has and the faith the Seahawks already are gaining in him.
"They are expecting a lot from me. And I’m just taking it one day at a time," he said. "I continue to work hard. I want everyone to know they can count on me."
Most of Griffin’s work right now is on his newest task: the step-kick technique. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll demands his cornerbacks master it. It requires the cover man to get up in the face of the opposing receiver at the line. At the snap, the cornerback does not backpedal or give any ground. Patience is the key. The Seahawk moves only after the receiver moves, then steps sideways, across the line of scrimmage, in the same direction as the receiver. When the opponent begins to run his route, the Seahawks cornerback kicks his leg back in the direction the receiver has moved to begin his run with the route.
This kick is to keep the cornerback in front of the receiver, to prevent him from getting beaten deep "over the top." Seattle’s single-high safety coverage ("over the top") crumbles when cornerbacks can’t keep their receivers in front of them beyond the line of scrimmage—think Cary Williams, 2015. When the corners stay over the top, single-high safety Earl Thomas can roam more freely to make huge hits and plays on the ball as a second, helping cover man. Thomas has been an All-Pro and the preeminent man at his position for a half-dozen years doing that. And strong safety Kam Chancellor can be in his most lethal role when the cornerbacks stay over the top and allow him to play closer to the line as a hulking hunter.
“I am pretty excited about him. ... There is just nothing but positives,” Carroll said of Griffin.
“We have never had a guy that runs this fast that is this big. So right now it is all about technique, and he has no problem with it.”
Sherman’s a master of the step-kick, having done it now in Carroll’s system since 2011. He’s trying to make it for Griffin what it is for him, ingrained as "muscle memory," as the rookie put it.
Central Florida didn’t use much press coverage. In any form of it there Griffin used his hands more to jam receivers. Most people think of hand jamming as press coverage. But not the Seahawks..
"You step, and you kick, and (then) you use hands," Griffin said. "And the most important thing is you can’t use hands first, because your hips will lock and that’s how receivers will get behind you. It’s very important to move your feet first before hands.
"I was so used to being so aggressive and as soon as the receiver moved I put my hands on first and my hips lock. Sometimes, when I was back in college, that’s how receivers got behind me. Now that I’m starting to learn, it’s easy for me to stay over to the top and guarding receivers is a lot easier."
How often does Sherman, Carroll, defensive coordinator Kris Richard – heck, probably the chef in the team’s dining room – drill into Griffin the demand to "stay on top" of receivers?
"Every, single day," he said. "That’s the main thing as a corner you have to stay over top because you can’t get beat deep. Every now and again, they’re going to catch a short route, but, you know, a 2- or 3-yard route is not going to win a game. So, they continue to express that to us.
"I’m continuing to learn and I’m just happy to be here."
It’s a role reversal for Griffin, a student rather than a teacher and mentor.
He’s been an inspiration for his twin brother – and vice versa – ever since Shaquem had to have his left hand amputated when they was 4 years old, because of a congenital disorder known as amniotic band syndrome. It occurs in about one out of every 1,200 births. The twins played sports together throughout growing up in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. So Shaquill told college recruiters, such as from his dream school, Miami, if they wanted him to sign for a scholarship, that program would have to sign his twin brother, too.
Then-Central Florida coach George O’Leary was one who said he wanted them both. So the brothers went to UCF. Shaquem redshirted and has one more season there this fall.
Throughout that experience Shaquill realized he should mentor and motivate kids. That’s why when he was 14 he began the St. Pete Nitro track team for kids aged 4 to 18. He still has the club in St. Petersburg, his birthplace, though he has surrogates coaching for him now that he’s in Seattle.
"I feel like the situations that we have to overcome that me and my brother go through, I felt like I was in a position to try to reach kids," Griffin said. "I have my own track team and I have a lot of kids who look up to me and I feel like I found a way to reach out to people. People tend to listen to me, so I feel like it’s easy for me to be a motivational speaker. I always feel like I want to give back. I was just raised that way. I want the team to do that and use this platform to reach everybody that I can."
Back in Seattle, how is rookie doing as a student?
"He’s sharp. He’s mentally sharp," Sherman said. "That’s really, really unique for a rookie to be that mentally sharp and mentally on it. He’s incredibly coachable. He does a great job of just being coachable, and when they correct a mistake then he makes sure he makes the corrections. He’s great in the run game. He’s not scared to throw it up in there and that’s what…they’re looking for."
Sherman said Griffin’s been so quick to learn, he’s planning for a deeper dive into how to play individual receivers and the tricks and nuances that make a starting cornerback an All-Pro one.
"I told him that I would take him to deeper water if he continues to advance as he is," Sherman said. "But right now we’re keeping him really shallow because we don’t want to overwhelm him too quick and thinking about too much. As we get into the season if he’s out there, he’s got to deal with it.
"He’s gotten patient. He’s trusting himself more. He’s not biting on the receivers’ first moves like he was in OTAs (this spring). He had a susceptibility to the inside release that he doesn’t have as much as often anymore. He’s not relying on his athleticism as much as he was at first. He’s playing smarter.
"All those things are coming into fruition."
The Seahawks entered camp wanting to see Griffin make plays on the ball. He couldn’t do that in organized team activities or minicamp because of NFL rules prohibiting contact and one-on-one play during the offseason. Through a dozen training-camp practices through Saturday’s walk-through before the team’s flight to Los Angeles, Griffin has shown almost ridiculous hands. He’s come out of breaks and grabbed throws that are almost past him, using lightning reflexes.
The Seahawks enter the exhibition games wanting to see Griffin and their rookies tackle for the first time, especially Griffin against slithery receivers in the open field. The team doesn’t tackle in practices.
"Well, this is a big deal," Carroll said. "The preseason (games) to me is huge because we hold off on practice and full-speed hitting it and tackling. This is what the games are for. They’re crucial for us, for our development, getting through camp, getting ready for the opener a month from now.
"They’re a big deal to us and obviously this is where we get the best information about where our players are, where we are schematically, how we’re progressing and so much about the new guys, the younger guys that are here. It’s really a big deal to us."
And the biggest deal among those younger guys right now is Griffin.
"I’m definitely staying humble about everything and I’m taking it one day at a time," Griffin said. "I’m going to continue trying to perfect my technique. And I feel like that will take me a long way."