RENTON – Running cone drills and expertly skirting hula hoops.
Ask Seattle Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice how he became one of the more explosive receivers in the league, and he’ll point to his daily regimen – hours of work spent polishing his route running through cone drills and around hula hoops to gain the precise footwork needed to create separation from NFL cornerbacks.
“I don’t know where I would be without those cone drills and that hula hoop,” Rice said. “It was rough when I first got in. I went back last year and I watched the film of when I first came in and how I was running routes, to how I had progressed my next couple of years, and it’s just like night and day. It’s totally different. But it’s still something I work on.”
Of course, Rice’s natural talent can’t be overlooked – and there’s plenty of it packed in his 6-foot-4, 202-pound frame. The former South Carolina player has the speed to run by defenders and the springs to jump over them to go get the ball.
His rare combination of size, speed, strength and smarts is something not often seen around these parts since the franchise’s beginnings in 1976.
“We haven’t,” said Sam Adkins, a quarterback for the Seahawks from 1977-81 who now works as a radio broadcaster for the team. “His glide, just the way he moves, is so smooth. When you look at how he kind of prances around, it’s like watching a thoroughbred that’s hardly touching the ground.
“Now, the key is how to use him effectively.”
Yes, Steve Largent is in the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest wide receivers to play the game, but the Oklahoma native used underrated speed, precise timing and craftiness to get open.
However, Rice is the type of athlete who can overpower his defender.
Just ask his quarterback and good friend Tarvaris Jackson.
“Oh, yeah, the first day we practiced, I threw him a high ball and he – we called him ‘Long Man’ in Minnesota because he’s kind of tall – stretched out pretty far and made a great catch,” Jackson said. “You’ve seen the catches he made the other day; diving catches and guys all over him. He makes the hard catch so that makes it a lot easier for a quarterback.”
Rice’s athleticism was evident early in the small town of Gaffney, S.C. – a 25-minute drive southwest of Charlotte, N.C. – according to his high school basketball coach at Gaffney High, Mark Huff.
Huff said that Rice helped lead his school to back-to-back state titles his junior and senior seasons in basketball, along with a state football title his senior year. Gaffney lost only two basketball games Rice’s final two years there.
“He could jump,” Huff said. “He had tremendous body control and great hand-eye coordination. He had everything you look for in an athlete. Nobody on our team could stop him. He was head-and-shoulders athletically better than everybody.”
Huff remembered a time during Rice’s senior year nervously awaiting a playoff game against rival Lower Richland High, when his assistant coach offered some comforting words.
“He said to me, ‘What are you worried for, you got No. 15 (Rice) and they don’t,’ ” Huff said. “And after I thought about it for a minute, he was right. (We’ve) got Sidney and they don’t. After he said that to me, I kind of relaxed and felt better about it.”
Gaffney went on to win that game and the state championship.
Rice said he learned the ability to get the ball at its highest point from rebounding drills in basketball.
“Just attacking the ball, basically, the same way you go up to get a rebound,” he said. “You know if somebody else is going to be jumping, you attack the ball and snatch it out of the air. So you’ve just got to attack it, grab it at its highest point and get it to your body as soon as you can to prevent the defense from knocking it out.”
Rice had scholarship offers from South Carolina and Syracuse for basketball, along with several offers from top football schools. He settled on staying home to play for the Gamecocks.
Rice said initially he had plans to play basketball there as well but suffered a knee injury his freshman year, and once South Carolina changed football coaches from Lou Holtz to Steve Spurrier, his new coach put a halt to any basketball aspirations Rice had.
And Rice produced for South Carolina, setting a school record with 23 career touchdowns and earning first-team, All-Southeastern Conference honors his sophomore year. Rice also set a South Carolina record by becoming the only Gamecocks player to break 1,000 receiving yards two straight seasons.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll had been seeking a big-time playmaking receiver to pair with Mike Williams. The Sea-hawks went after Brandon Marshall in free agency last year but lost out to Miami. And they talked with San Diego to try to secure the services of Vincent Jackson, but to no avail.
But by signing Rice to five-year, $41 million deal, Seattle seems to have gotten its man. Rice fits the type of young, up-and-coming player mold the Seahawks want. Rice, who turned 25 on Sept. 1, still should have some productive seasons ahead. And if everything goes well, he could conceivably sign another big deal to stay in Seattle.
“Having Sidney helps everybody – he helps me, he helps the wife and kids,” Carroll joked. “He’s a marvelous competitor. Give him enough time where we’re really ready to work him and really put the ball his way and it’s a real game and all that, he should just be a fantastic factor.
“You have to cover him and then make plays because he’s going to make plays on you if you don’t. The ball’s going to go that way a lot, so that’s going to help everybody. He’s just hopefully a very positive factor. I can’t imagine him not being.”
Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said Rice and Williams on the outside should create nightmarish matchups for opposing teams, along with helping Seattle’s run game.
“Obviously with both (Rice) and Mike on the sides, you’d have to play a lot of split safety,” Bradley said. “And that means you’re taking a guy out of the box for the run because if you go single safety and leave those guys one-on-one, they’re going to win a lot of times.
“So it doesn’t go unnoticed.”
The key for Rice will be staying healthy. He missed 10 games last season because of microfracture hip surgery. In four years, he has played a full 16-game season only once. The year was 2009, and it also was his best as a pro. He finished with 83 catches for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns, and made his first and only Pro Bowl appearance.
Rice already could miss Seattle’s opener at San Francisco because of a sore shoulder. One reason Minnesota chose not to bring him back in free agency was that the Vikings had concerns about his durability. But Rice says the injuries are behind him.
“The hip thing is over,” he said. “I feel comfortable here, comfortable with the guys around me. We have a solid offense, and I’m excited to see what we can do.
“This is a new year. I know how to play football. I know what I’m capable of doing. We all know that injuries (are) part of the game. You just can’t let something like that keep you down. You’ve got to keep grinding.”
Eric D. Williams: 253-597-8437 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/seahawks