Florida State Seminoles football wide receiver Deonte Sheffield proving his worth

Florida State wide receiver Deonte Sheffield

TALLAHASSEE — To Florida State wide receiver Deonte Sheffield, it felt like second nature.

To his father, Donnie Sheffield, it felt like he was back watching his son in middle school.

For both of them, it felt like both validation and a sign that a risk was beginning to pay off.

Deonte Sheffield turned in one of the best performances of any player on Florida State’s roster during last month’s spring game, producing 117 receiving yards and a touchdown on nine receptions. The top play for the 5-foot-9 running back turned slot receiver was on a 65-yard reception down the sideline in which he shook off safety Hamsah Nasirildeen after making a catch downfield and spun away for a score.

Not a bad day, especially for a walk-on who only started playing the position a few weeks earlier.

Perhaps Sheffield’s breakout performance in the glorified scrimmage surprised the crowd of 53,974. But for those who watched him closely throughout the spring, and for those who’ve seen him play since he was a prep standout in Niceville, Fla., it was only a matter of time before Sheffield started producing on the college level.

“Deonte is one of the hardest-working players I’ve ever seen. He works his butt off every day in practice, the weight room, the classroom, so I did expect him to have a big game,” FSU quarterback James Blackman said after the scrimmage. “A lot of people don’t know how talented he is and he was able to show it.”

The Sheffields hope that more opportunities, and possibly a scholarship, are coming.

The Hard Way

Deonte Sheffield at Niceville High (Photo: Scout.com)

Deonte Sheffield always had speed.

Sure, he was probably smaller than most his age, but he was tough to catch ever since he played youth football in various leagues throughout Florida’s Panhandle.

“He would break away from everybody else, and it seemed a whole lot easier for him than it was a lot of other kids,” Donnie Sheffield recalled.

Playing football in college appeared to be an option for Sheffield as he got older, even if he became a tad less dominant in high school as other players caught up to him athletically. Sheffield emerged as a starting running back as a junior at Niceville High, racking up 1,822 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on 300 carries.

During his time in high school, Sheffield would often go over to the middle school by his house on weekends or in the offseason and train. He’d run around and would always try to bring his dad over with him to throw the ball.

Donnie Sheffield admittedly isn’t a football expert and was hands-off as he let coaches develop his son, but he was always available to throw the ball and offer whatever pointers he could.

“I don’t know nothing about football, but I coached him just like I knew what I was talking about,” Donnie Sheffield said.

Eventually, Deonte Sheffield started receiving college interest. Troy, Southern Miss and Georgia State were among the dozen or so schools to offer Sheffield a scholarship before UConn came through as his biggest offer in the final month of the recruiting process (Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee took the same position at UConn and thought Sheffield’s skill set would be perfect in his spread offense).

Sheffield had options, but FSU remained a possibility. The Seminoles’ class was full and a scholarship was not available to use on Sheffield since two five-star running backs (Cam Akers and Khalan Laborn) as well as a highly-rated four-star (Zaquandre White) were already in the 2017 recruiting class.

FSU is about 150 miles east of Niceville, and Sheffield was familiar with the program after having camped there over the summer. At the end of the recruiting cycle, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher offered Sheffield an opportunity to come to the program on a blueshirt scholarship. Since Sheffield didn’t take an official visit to FSU, he was eligible for a blueshirt. That meant he could practice and go on scholarship, but couldn’t play as a freshman.

“We shed tears that morning when Jimbo Fisher called him and told him that he recruited him to come down there and offered him a blueshirt as a scholarship,” Donnie Sheffield said. “He wanted to be at Florida State and I’m happier than he was.”

Working Out

The agreement Sheffield had with Fisher was that he’d be placed on scholarship after the 2017 season. However, Fisher departed for a job at Texas A&M at the end of the 2017 campaign.

“Now that the regime has changed, I’m not sure how this is going to pan out,” Donnie Sheffield said. “I’m confident that it’s going to work out in our favor with the scholarship, because he’s putting in the hard work and I think he’s talented enough to be on that field.”

Head coach Willie Taggart said earlier this week that walk-ons will “have an opportunity to earn a scholarship, but we’re not going to give anybody anything.

“They have to earn it and [Sheffield will] have an opportunity to earn one as well,” Taggart said.

So Sheffield is in the process of trying to prove his worth. He’s earned the respect of teammates and the coaching staff, proving that he’s as diligent a worker as there is on the roster.

For example, the long score in the spring game came as a result of spending about 30 minutes after practice with quarterback Deondre Francois. Together, they worked on running the same vertical pattern that Francois hit receiver Nyqwan Murray on for a 92-yard touchdown in the 2016 Orange Bowl against Michigan. Francois shared pointers on how to beat single coverage, and Sheffield could barely contain himself when he saw the play developing during the spring game.

“That’s what Deondre just taught me and it was crazy,” Sheffield said. “Then I stiff-armed him for about five yards and went in the end zone.”

Said Donnie Sheffield: “That play, I have watched him do that coming all the way up. Ever since he started playing tackle football, that’s what he’s done. I promise you.”

Taggart praised Sheffield’s commitment to the program, noting his flexibility in moving from running back to slot receiver, as well as his involvement in other areas.

“From Day One, he’s been one of those guys who’s clinged to me,” Taggart said. “He’s always shooting me a text or something, not only when it comes to football. When it comes to recruiting, he tells me ‘Coach, you need to look at this guy. This guy is interested.’ Which is pretty cool, I’ve never had a player who’s so into recruiting like that.

“You can tell he really cares about the school and loves being here.”

Next Step

Deonte Sheffield enters spring practice (Photo: Christopher Nee, 247Sports)

Taggart called Sheffield last semester, asking him to stop into his office after class.

The Seminoles were entering spring ball heavy on running backs but light on receivers. Sheffield’s quickness and experience playing in the slot during seven-on-seven camps in high school made him an intriguing option to move to receiver full-time.

“[Taggart] said ‘the skills you have playing running back, if I can put you out there in the slot,’ and do all the stuff he does with his fast-paced offense, ‘you can be crazy out there,’” Sheffield recalled. “‘Unstoppable.’ And then he said I can really help the team, so I did it for the team.”

Sheffield has a ways to go in becoming a more polished receiver, but he certainly flashed natural skills during the spring. The Seminoles are due to bring in five scholarship freshmen at receiver this summer to bolster depth, but Sheffield has done enough so far to put himself in position to vie for reps in the fall.

“He’s athletic enough to go over there and do some things for us,” Taggart said. “He jumped over there and was having fun, competing and making plays. He had a good spring.”

Teammates complimented Sheffield on his work ethic throughout the spring, with Sheffield sharing a text message he received from receiver D.J. Matthews that stated the team was feeding off Sheffield’s energy in practice.

Crediting his father for teaching him the importance of effort, Sheffield wants to make sure he meets his dad’s “standards and work as hard as he works.” That is ultimately what Sheffield needs to do in order to distinguish himself and put himself in position to earn a scholarship.

Between the end of spring practice and the start of the summer semester, Sheffield returned home to Niceville. During the day, he would make his way over to the middle school where he used to practice.

One morning, he decided to text his dad and ask him to come by to throw the ball like they used to do together.

“I was like ‘I can’t do this no more. He’s too big, too strong, too fast,’” said Donnie Sheffield said. “At the end of the drill, he had me throw a couple bombs. ‘Dad, just throw it as far as you can throw it.’”

To Donnie Sheffield, watching his son develop his faith and continually handle himself with maturity has been heartwarming. It’s what gives him the confidence to believe Deonte Sheffield will eventually earn a scholarship at FSU.

“I believe wholeheartedly it will work out,” Donnie Sheffield said. “If any evidence of this spring game is what’s going to determine it, it should happen pretty fast.”

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