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  • Cornering a dream

    OSU's Reynolds delivers on high school plea, develops into shutdown cornerback
  • CORVALLIS — For more than three years, Rashaad Reynolds delivered his plea.
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  • CORVALLIS — For more than three years, Rashaad Reynolds delivered his plea.
    He pitched it during the random pockets of time prep football affords: breaks in practice, halftimes of games, quiet moments before team meetings. And when he felt especially desperate, the San Fernando (Calif.) High School quarterback resorted to late-night phone calls.
    Each appeal — all couple hundred of them — followed the same basic script.
    Please, I can do it. Put me in on defense and I'll show you.
    Not an option, Tigers coach Tom Hernandez regularly explained. Reynolds was too integral to their offense. An injury to the team's only solid option under center, Hernandez reasoned, and San Fernando's entire season would effectively end.
    These days, Hernandez ponders those repetitive exchanges from time to time. He retired from coaching last year, and spends much of his newfound free time tracking his favorite former pupil's college successes. And there are plenty to follow. Reynolds, an Oregon State senior, has emerged as one of the Pac-12's top weapons ... at cornerback.
    "Do I wish I could've had him out there on defense more?" Hernandez said last week. "Yeah, I wish I could've had him out there all the time."
    It didn't take long for Mora Pyburn to ascertain that there was "something special" about her youngest of three sons. Reynolds learned to count when he was 2; figured out how to swim when he was 3, and shuffled between wrestling matches and football games at 5.
    Around that time, Reynolds started talking about wanting to play professional football. But unlike most childhood ambitions, his older sister Rahnada said, this one seemed possible. Reynolds was a motivated kid, the kind who already showed a commitment to following through on plans.
    "He was mature beyond his years," said Pyburn, a caregiver for the elderly with six children. "He really always was. I never had to worry about him."
    That was partly a byproduct of hanging around his brother, Raphael, who is four years older. He observed how the older guys carried themselves, and watched intently as Raphael eventually starred in wrestling and football at San Fernando in the early 2000s.
    Reynolds soon followed suit. As a 5-foot-7, 125-pound freshman, he impressed Hernandez enough with his natural leadership abilities to nab the varsity starting quarterback gig about halfway through the year.
    But he wasn't satisfied. Reynolds grew infatuated with cornerback. He appreciated the one-on-one nature of the position, the pressure that comes with tackling and protecting the end zone. It was a love affair rooted in wrestling, he said. Reynolds, who won three city championships on the mat at San Fernando, felt that familiar rush of unparalleled self-reliance during the rare moments he marked a receiver in practice.
    So he peppered Hernandez often with the same four-word question: Can I play defense? And outside of a few plays in critical games, Hernandez resisted utilizing his most athletic player on both sides of the ball.
    "We had a lot of arguments about it," Reynolds said. "But at the end of the day, he made the decision that was best for the team."
    Reynolds grew a few inches, added a couple layers of muscle to his diminutive frame and developed into one of the most lethal dual-threat quarterbacks in Southern California. He led the unheralded Tigers to the playoffs the next two years, earning two All-Valley Mission League recognitions and one all-state honor in the process.
    Still, Reynolds owned no Division I scholarship offers when he entered his senior year.
    Apparently there wasn't much of a market for an undersized quarterback whose mechanics admittedly "needed work."
    Hernandez had talked with a handful of scouts who were interested in recruiting Reynolds as a defensive back, but limited video existed of him playing their desired position. So coach and player crafted a plan: Reynolds would log time with the cornerbacks in practice before ultimately playing the spot extensively during the latter part of San Fernando's season.
    Reynolds seized the opportunity, tallying an estimated five interceptions over the Tigers' final four games. But the fresh highlights hardly yielded a cavalcade of recruitment letters from big-time programs.
    With National Signing Day rapidly approaching, Reynolds donned a sweatshirt — there's little use for winter gear in the Los Angeles area, after all — and hopped a flight to the University of North Dakota. He endured the negative 10-degree weather in Grand Forks, and listened to his top suitor's pitch. Coaches offered him a full scholarship to an FCS program, immediate playing time and an indoor practice facility to escape the frigid temperatures.
    For a player eager to become the first person in his family to graduate from college, the school presented an intriguing package. But as he pondered a future on the plains, Reynolds started hearing from Oregon State.
    About a week later, Reynolds visited Corvallis. He toured the campus, dined with the Beavers' coaching staff and started to envision himself stepping into Reser Stadium on Saturdays.
    The next morning, Reynolds arrived back in San Fernando. Coaches from another Pac-12 school awaited him in the office.
    "I just told them that I found my school," Reynolds said.
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    Early in his freshman year, Reynolds often crafted grand aims for his rookie season with roommate Markus Wheaton.
    He wanted to be a starter. He wanted to be one of the best cornerbacks in the Pac-12. He wanted to be a freshman All-American.
    "I was going to come in and just control the game," Reynolds said after practice this week. "It didn't happen like that."
    While established cornerbacks James Dockery and Brandon Hardin carried much of the secondary's load, Reynolds spent a redshirt year digesting the playbook and easing into his relatively new position.
    And that proved critical in an OSU defense that leans on its cornerbacks to make tackles in open space. He regained some of the physicality he lost playing quarterback, while taking the necessary time to refine his technique.
    Reynolds played in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2010, co-leading the team with 12 tackles on special teams. He entered the following fall camp No. 3 on the Beavers' depth chart, but moved into the starting unit when Hardin suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
    First-team reps proved trying at first. Reynolds, one of three new starters in OSU's secondary, grew vexed as the Beavers struggled with coverage and slogged through an 0-4 start. There was no excuse, he reasoned. He needed to do a better job preventing the big play.
    "Rashaad hates losing more than anything," said Erin Nix, Reynolds' longtime girlfriend. "It was stressful because he felt like they shouldn't have been having a season that bad."
    So he regularly invited teammates to early morning workouts at the gym, and he developed a passion for studying video. Such habits, linebacker Michael Doctor said, helped Reynolds make notable strides throughout the year.
    But individual improvement doesn't necessitate immediate team success. The Beavers finished with just three wins, and missed a bowl game for the second straight year. After ending the season with a 28-point blowout at Oregon before a national television audience, Reynolds' frustrations reached a breaking point.
    He stepped in front of his teammates at a players-only meeting and presented the facts. OSU fans deserved better than a 3-9 record, Reynolds explained. The time had arrived for the Beavers to remind the pundits they're one of the Pac-12's most formidable programs.
    Cornerback Jordan Poyer and Wheaton echoed Reynolds' message, and players made a collective decision: They would do whatever they needed to do to never feel that disappointment again.
    The conversation became a sort of rallying point, a milestone moment the Beavers reflected on often as they entered the offseason.
    "Rashaad's a humble guy," Doctor said, "but he's a leader, man."
    Reynolds anchored a potent secondary during OSU's bounce-back campaign in 2012. While Poyer garnered most of the headlines with his highlight-caliber interceptions, the 5-foot-11, 186-pound junior consistently cloaked his man.
    He tied the Beavers record with five pass break-ups in a late September win over Arizona; finished second in the Pac-12 with 16 passes defended and ranked second on the team with 75 tackles.
    With Poyer now taking reps under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, Reynolds recognizes that he'll be in the spotlight this season. And he understands that increased attention brings added pressure. Pundits project him as a Pac-12 first team member. Coaches expect him to set a precedent for younger players. Fans want him to alleviate the loss of Poyer.
    "It's totally different when people know your name," Nix said. "They know what you can do and now you've got to get out there."
    No problem, Reynolds figures. He knew he could become of the country's top cornerbacks while he pleaded with Hernandez to play both ways in high school. At this point, it's just a matter of following through.
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