The spark of recognition came suddenly for Sam Shields. It was a single play in a scrimmage that is, perhaps, memorable to very few, and in an instant he felt transformed into a defensive back rather than just a jumble of speed and talent trying to figure out where to go.
It was at the 2010 “Family Night” scrimmage. Shields was still an unknown quantity, an undrafted rookie from the University of Miami just trying to make the team. He was a raw prospect, and he had also shown some promise in offseason drills as a kick-returner. In the scrimmage, the cornerback stepped in front of a pass by quarterback Matt Flynn and raced 97 yards for a touchdown.
It was all unofficial, basically just a play in a glorified practice, but Shields did a high strut for the last few yards into the end zone while nearly 50,000 fans that night at Lambeau Field cheered. For the first time since being moved to cornerback before his senior season at Miami, after playing wide receiver for his entire football career, Shields immediately felt like someone with true cover skills.
“That was the first time I thought I could play the position,” he said. “That’s when I knew I was finally getting used to it. I had an interception and I got to run with the ball. I knew then I could play cornerback. I had never been comfortable before.”
Shields hadn’t touched a ball in what felt like real action since as a junior with the Hurricanes in 2008, when he had 11 receptions for 124 yards as a wide receiver but spent the majority of the season as a gunner on special teams. He was switched to cornerback prior to his senior season, and it all happened by chance. During drills when the coaching staff decided to have wide receivers and defensive backs switch assignments one afternoon, Shields looked like a natural on defense.
“We were just playing around and the coaches watched it on film and one of them told me, ‘You are a defensive back,’” Shields said. “I started off unsure. I kept telling them I’d never played the position.”
Miami secondary coach Wes McGriff stayed on Shields, who called his high school coach and others for advice before making the switch. Shields, the fastest player at Miami, defected to the defense a few days later, but the transition wasn’t seamless. It was also less than a month before the season started.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I didn’t know how to backpedal. I kept working at it, every day after practice, running backwards. It was tough. Basically I was just out there, running around.”
While starting 10 of 12 games as a senior and notching 41 tackles, Shields was good enough to catch the eye of NFL scouts based on his potential, and though he had several offers after going undrafted, his agent steered him toward Green Bay.
Shields came under the tutelage of position coach Joe Whitt Jr. and a veteran group of teammates, including Pro Bowl cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. All took to Shields and his confident play, but not to his mistakes, whether by inexperience or not.
“They were tough on me and I was trying to figure out what I was doing. I was scared I was going to mess up and I couldn’t play fast at first,” Shields said. “I was thrown right in the fire. Each game, though, I got a little better. Joe, Charles and Tramon were on me, and they expected a lot from me.”
Against Philadelphia in the 2010 opener, Shields started his first NFL game at nickel cornerback, teaming with safety Morgan Burnett to become the first rookie duo at defensive back to open a season for the Packers since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970. He played in 14 games with six starts, missing two contests with a calf injury, and recorded 27 tackles, two interceptions and nine passes-defensed.
In the postseason, Shields added 13 stops with two interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble and five passes-defensed.
He made his first interception a leaping, one-handed catch against Dallas, but his best performance of the season came at Chicago, in the NFC Championship, when he had a pair of interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble. His second pick, with 37 seconds remaining, clinched the victory.
In his second season, Shields is now an established member of the club’s secondary. With Williams sidelined last week at Carolina with an injured shoulder, Shields started at right cornerback.
His tackling against the Panthers was not as physical as it had been in the past. Shields continues to be a work in progress in year three of his transition from wide receiver to defensive back. Whitt said before the season that his young cornerback’s eagerness to learn and ability to put the lessons from the classroom to the field are among Shields’ greatest virtues.
For the second-year veteran, the journey from swapping sides of the ball at the end of a practice one afternoon at Miami to starting for the Packers at cornerback has been a rapid transition.
“It’s a crazy story,” Shields said. “It’s worked out though.” Additional coverage - Sept. 22