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Bo Jackson. Herschel Walker. Jalen Ramsey.
Whether those three names belong together in football is something we'll find out over the next several years. But they might already belong together in terms of athletic talent.
"He's very much like Herschel," says Ramsey's Florida State track coach, Bob Braman. "He's a Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson type."
Ramsey was hardly a mythical figure in college the way those others were. He excelled at Florida State from the moment he got on the field as a freshman. But he seemed to receive as much attention for his mid-game jersey switch to honor Charlie Ward's No. 17 as he did for game-altering plays like a fourth-quarter interception against Miami in 2014. To those who know him and have seen him play often, however, Ramsey inspires the kind of praise few get.
And the praise could have been even greater. One track coach says Ramsey could have made a run at the Rio Olympics if he concentrated on the long jump. "He would be a consistent challenger to make the national team," says his jumps coach at FSU, Dennis Nobles. "He'd probably challenge for medals." Ramsey barely qualified for indoor championships last year, and still bested his personal record by a foot. "I was not surprised at all," he said last Monday by phone. "The way I was training, I really turned it up to a new level." He finished fourth in the nation.
Ramsey will spend August in an NFL training camp rather than in the Southern Hemisphere, but his potential is going to be a story all summer. Tennessee needs an offensive lineman (or several) to protect Marcus Mariota and new running back DeMarco Murray, yet Ramsey's 4.42 40 and his vertical jump of 41.5 sound like the ingredients for defending Andrew Luck, who is in Tennessee's division.
That might be tough for the Titans to overlook next month.
Since the inception of the NFL draft in 1936, only once has a defensive back been chosen first overall (Gary Glick in 1956). But while offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil will be enticing for the Titans, in this pass-happy era Ramsey's athleticism will be tough to overlook.
In fact, it's been tough for anyone to overlook Ramsey's talent. Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher remembers seeing him for the first time on film, when he was a prep star in Tennessee, and doing a double take at his dimensions.
"They'd give you the size," Fisher says, "and it's: 'You sure about that now?' "
That's where the Walker and Jackson comparisons arise. Obviously Ramsey isn't as fast as either rusher was, but all three excelled in track in high school. Ramsey, like Jackson, won a state title in the decathlon. "I think he still could be a decathlete," Braman says, "though he'd hurt in the 1500 meters."
Distance running isn't an issue in football anyway. Ramsey plays a speedster's position – defensive back – with a 6-1, 209-pound frame. Think Patrick Peterson, who is a bit bigger but not as tall.
Ramsey was the first corner to start as a true freshman at FSU since Deion Sanders (another track star), he made an interception in his first game, and then switched to safety a few weeks later as an injury replacement. The next season, after a national title, he took over at the "star" position (basically a nickel) after Lamarcus Joyner turned pro.
Then last year he went back to corner and even returned some kicks.
"I prefer corner," he said. "I'm a natural at that position. Corner is my type – a bigger guy who can run."
Says Fisher: "When you play a nickel position, most of the time guys are smaller. You play against littler, quicker body types. Sometimes it's a hard matchup against a [Wes] Welker or a [Julian] Edelman. They're harder to cover. He can do it. And he had the size to match a bigger receiver."
He also has the gumption. The best track stars are often the most … chatty. (Track athletes can make wide receivers look unassuming.) Ramsey is a serious trash-talker who said he began his verbal jousting when he was 4 years old. "I would always talk trash to my brother and my cousin," he said. "I would tell them, ‘I'm already better than you!' " As a freshman, Ramsey was often heard giving it to Kelvin Benjamin and Jameis Winston in Seminoles practice.
"Jameis used to needle him a little bit," Fisher says. "Jameis and Kelvin. When they were one-on-one, every play was contested, every play was like the national championship."
Ramsey said he's still undefeated: "[Winston] would always try to trash-talk me, but it didn't work."
That's another aspect of the track athlete: a one-on-one competitiveness that spills over to team sports. Fisher calls Ramsey one of the most driven athletes he's ever coached. Yet that has been clear since before he even arrived at Florida State. Ramsey said he had knee surgery to repair an "OCD" (basically a cartilage injury) in high school, and recovery from that took him off the football field for the first time. The rehab "put a super huge chip on my shoulder," he said. Ramsey aced it, and was back in less than six months.
Now he's less than six months away from his first NFL game. No one will blame the Titans for going with an offensive lineman with the first pick, but if that's how his home state's team decides to go, Ramsey is unlikely to let them forget their choice.
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