Seattle Seahawks

Who is the most athletic of the Seahawks? Try former decathlete DeShawn Shead

Seattle Seahawks cornerback DeShawn Shead leaps for the ball during drills on the opening day of training camp July 30.
Seattle Seahawks cornerback DeShawn Shead leaps for the ball during drills on the opening day of training camp July 30.

How athletic are these Seahawks?

They had not one but two decathletes on their field during the first week of training camp.

One was Jeremy Taiwo. In Pete Carroll’s latest surprise guest for his team, the coach invited the former Washington Huskies track star to stop by the Seahawks’ third camp practice on his way to Rio de Janeiro. That’s where Taiwo is representing the United States at the Olympic Games. Just one of many reasons Taiwo is remarkable: In 2011 he won UW’s first conference championship in decathalon in 25 years — with one arm. He had to throw the javelin with his off, left arm because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Last week Taiwo walked on the Seahawks’ field at the end of practice wearing a white, Russell Wilson, Pro Bowl jersey. The players encircled Taiwo, who attended Newport High School mintues from Seahawks quarters, to “break down” the team. That is, to lead it in its rousing, daily adjournment from practice.

Taiwo beamed. He bent at the waist, clapped and barked like … a former Dawg. The Seahawks echoed him, then roared.

“Thank you @seahawks for the Send-off!” Taiwo posted on his Instagram account. “It was so incredible meeting you all, and I'm proud to represent Renton with you guys!

The other decathlete at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center last week? He appears to have the inside track to be Seattle’s new, full-time starter at right cornerback.

Entering Monday’s players day off, DeShawn Shead had been the No. 1 right cornerback for almost all of the first eight practices.

Carroll has stockpiled his roster with athleticism. It’s the trait, along with competitiveness, he covets most on these Seahawks.

Shead may be the most accomplished athletically of them all.

In addition to playing football, he was a hurdler his freshman year at Highland High School in Palmdale, California.

“But I was a little bit of a daredevil growing up,” he says. “So I decided I wanted to do the pole vault.”

When Shead was 14, his coach turned his two track events into 10.

“I was already a pole vaulter and I was a pretty good hurdler, and my coach goes, ‘You can already do the two hardest events. You can pole vault. You can hurdle. Why not throw all the other events together?’” Shead said.

“So he threw me into decathlon, and that became my thing.”

That thing was running, jumping, throwing, sprinting, hurdling and vaulting. He finished fourth in the decathlon for Portland State at the Big Sky Conference track championships in 2009.

That makes him one of the most athletic players in the NFL.

Put another way: How many track events has Aaron Rodgers competed in?

“I’m blessed to be able to have the ability to do all those things,” Shead said. “I think it transfers to the football field, because I don’t think everyone could go out and be strong safety at the line of scrimmage, hit 300-pound linemen – then go line up against a 180-pound wide receiver and run with them down the field. So I think it takes a lot of skill and lot of responsibility.”

Carroll calls Shead a “great story for us in our program.” Plus, as the coach noted, “he has had a fantastic offseason this year, the best by far he has ever had."

Indeed. Shead got married. His wife Jessica Martinez had a childhood dream to have her wedding at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Seattle. So last month that’s were Shead was wed.

Now he is manhandling opposing receivers at the line for the Seahawks. Shead primarily played as an extra safety and special-teams mainstay from his arrival with Seattle in 2012 as an undrafted rookie free agent.

He plays cornerback like a safety, a blend he says is easier for him because of his career as a decathlete. At safety, he said he has to know “the whole picture”: formations, plus the gaps and blocking schemes of offensive linemen in the run and pass games. As a cornerback, his job is narrower: Stop the guy he is guarding from catching the ball.

Last season, cornerback Cary Williams failed to master that job, or the Seahawks’ step-kick technique of jamming receivers at the line. Strong safety Kam Chancellor missed the first two games holding out then was injured for others. Free safety Earl Thomas was never fully healthy because of a shoulder injury.

So Shead made five starts at cornerback and one at strong safety. Sometimes, he would play one series at strong safety, another at free safety and then the next series at right cornerback. You can count on one hand – or finger — how many players in the league do that.

Then again, few if any NFL players have been a competitive decathlete.

“It helps a lot, just in the transition,” Shead said. “In decathlon you have to transition from one event to the next event within 30 minutes in a competition. Just the transition and changing of mindsets, techniques and abilities, I think it transfers on the field.”

This month, the Seahawks are considering Shead, often-injured fourth-year veteran Tharold Simon and Lane for the job when the games get real starting Sept. 11 against Miami.

If the first week of practices are any indication, coaches would prefer to have Shead outside at cornerback with Lane inside in the nickel back position where he’s thrived for years for Seattle. Thursday, the first day Simon and not Shead was the No. 1 cornerback, Simon mauled wide receiver Jermaine Kearse in the end zone for a familiar pass-interference penalty on the first play of a red-zone scrimmage.

How often might Shead or Simon outside and Lane inside play together? In many games last season, the Seahawks were in nickel, five-defensive back alignments for 60 percent or more of the plays.

Shead has shown the ability to effectively jam receivers and knock them off their routes way before the ball is in the air — within 5 yards of the line, the zone in which the NFL allows such contact.

Wide receiver Doug Baldwin noted how physical the 6-foot-2, 212-pound Shead is against him in practices.

“The one thing that really stands out to me is his strength at the line of scrimmage. His upper-body strength is unparalleled,” Baldwin said. “The closest replication I can think of is Brandon Browner when he first came in.

“If Shead gets his hands on you, it is pretty much over for you. So you have to be very quick at the line of scrimmage, and you have to be very cognizant of his hand placement.”

As for Taiwo, his decathlon competition in the Rio Olympics begins Aug. 17 with the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400 meters. And that’s just day one.

Shead will be watching.

“I’m a big track guy,” he said. “I was watching Jeremy, Ashton Eaton and all those guys at the (U.S. Olympic) Trials. That was really cool having him out here.

“That’s one thing that I appreciate about Pete, having different people come out from different sports, whether it’s basketball or track. Just having them come out here and talk to us, to learn a different perspective.”