“If you could have a super power, what would it be?”
Gets you thinking, doesn’t it? No matter what age you are, it’s a question you’re inclined to examine in detail. The ability to fly could take you anywhere in the world, and theoretically so could invisibility as far as sneaking onto a plane is concerned; super speed is always a fun option, super strength is a little mundane and telekinesis could certainly be helpful for retrieving the TV remote while sitting on the couch.
The question was put to Trey Sermon during an interview with an NFL team. His answer?
“I told them I wish I could teleport, I hate traffic and I wish I could just pop up at a place,” he tells Sky Sports.
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It’s an intriguing answer, glossed by the brilliantly-ordinary reality of bypassing traffic being Sermon’s primary reasoning ahead of teleporting to his dream holiday destination, a practice he is running late for or, you know, the end zone. Boy, wouldn’t that make football easier?
It’s also an answer accompanied by a flicker of an all-too-familiar smirk, a smirk we’ve seen before, the viral smirk Sermon gifted to television cameras during Ohio State’s playoff semi-final victory over Clemson.
The running back breaks into a ‘this again?’ chuckle as he remembers his phone buzzing with social media notifications and text messages throughout the night after the game.
“Everybody was laughing at me,” he says. “The camera caught me a couple of times. They caught me when I was putting confetti in my pants after the game but it was funny, a lot of my friends gave me jokes about it.”
“I could barely walk”
The moment that prompted the grin arrived in the third quarter as Sermon waited on a review that eventually overturned a long touchdown run due to his elbow being ruled down, the cheeky look on his face reflective of a man who knew what decision should be coming but wasn’t sure whether he had somehow got away with one.
He can now look back and smile about the smile that was plastered across the internet, for it embodies the sense of joy and relief generated by a memorable individual effort down the stretch in 2020. Though called back, the play in question did actually amount to a key first down amid a drive ending with Chris Olave reeling in a 56-yard touchdown to earn the Buckeyes a 42-21 lead.
Sermon finished the game with 193 yards rushing and a touchdown from 31 carries, contributing towards season totals of 870 yards on the ground for four scores from 116 carries in eight games following his transfer from Oklahoma.
“I knew I was going to have a big game just for how well I prepared,” he said. “During the whole game I was just anticipating, I was able to play fast and I was definitely expecting to have a big game.”
This was Sermon venting any frustration pent up over a gruelling 2019 campaign, and doing so with a smile.
“Just being able to make the transition and develop a relationship with my new teammates, it was awesome, even though it was during COVID where everything was a lot different,” he said.
“The season was great, I learned a lot from the guys I played with and definitely had a tonne of fun making it to the National Championship. I wish things would have worked out a little different but overall it was a great experience.”
His Clemson demolition job had been preceded by Ohio State’s win over Northwestern in the Big 10 Championship game, during which Sermon had jinked and hurdled and slalomed his way to a school-record 331 rushing yards for two touchdowns from 29 carries.
“Whatever it took I was just trying to take care of business and by the end of the game my legs were so sore I could barely walk,” he jokes. “I felt good just knowing we were holding up the trophy at the end.”
If only he could teleport…
Here he was reminding potential NFL suitors unequivocally that he was back to his best following the known series of setbacks, only for a dose of the latter to inflict another cruel twist.
Ohio State have possession to start the National Championship game against Alabama, the first play of which sees Justin Fields hand the ball off to his running back, who is instantly stuffed and tossed to the ground by three defenders. Oh boy.
One play in and Sermon’s night was over, the hit knocking him out of the game and to the hospital with a shoulder injury.
“It definitely did leave a sour taste, just knowing how well I prepared going into that game,” he said. “It was a whole reason why I transferred to Ohio State to win a National Championship so to get to that point and get hurt was tough for me but I know everything happens for a reason and I just tried to stay positive.
“It was devastating just walking back to the locker room, heading to the hospital, it was hard for me. Knowing I couldn’t be out there with my teammates just trying to win the biggest game of our lives.”
Sermon on his injury in the National Championship game
Five Mac Jones touchdown passes and two Najee Harris rushing scores later and Alabama were national champions having toppled the Sermon-less Buckeyes 52-24.
‘It was meant to be!’
Despite the latest sucker-punch, it would take a lot more to wipe the smile from Sermon’s face in the wake of him re-vitalising his Draft stock and, perhaps more importantly, visibly enjoying his football.
Sermon entered the transfer portal on the back of a 2019 season cut short with Oklahoma after just nine games due to a knee injury. The 22-year-old had been limited to 385 rushing yards for four touchdowns from 54 carries, his absence paving the way for Kennedy Brooks to take the lead out of the backfield.
He eventually landed with a running back-needy Ohio State outfit looking for reinforcements following the departure of now-Baltimore Ravens back J.K. Dobbins and with Master Teague III nursing an Achilles problem and Marcus Crowley still recovering from a knee injury.
“It was something I thought about over a period of time,” he said. “At the end of my junior year I had got hurt and I just felt like it was best for me to enter the transfer portal and I knew Ohio State would be a good fit for me.
“I already had a previous relationship with Justin (Fields) just because we had the same trainer, I played against him at high school so we’d worked with each other for a while. And Ohio State recruited me out of high school so I had that relationship with my running back coach and I just knew it would be a good fit.
“It was still hard to leave some of my brothers that I’ve known since my freshman year in college that I spent the last three and a half years with, it was hard for me just because I was so close with them but again they all supported me and they wanted what was best for me.”
A notion of familiarity was coincided by a notion of irony, Sermon’s first career college touchdown having notably come against Ohio State on his Oklahoma debut as a true freshman.
“I definitely thought about it,” he says. “As soon as I got there and talked to my running back coach he kind of brought it up and was like ‘man you did score your first TD here, it was meant to be!’ and I was like ‘you’re right about that one’.”
I guess they forgot what time it is⌚️ pic.twitter.com/Pzx57ZHVQN
Upon arriving out of Sprayberry High School, Sermon rushed for 710 yards and five touchdowns from 119 carries for the Sooners in 2017. As starting back the following year he managed 947 yards rushing for 13 touchdowns from 164 attempts while sharing the workload with Brooks, the pair understandably also having to surrender touches in order to accommodate the ground threat of quarterback Kyler Murray.
It was a similar case in 2019 when Sermon found himself not only competing with Brooks and Rhamondre Stevenson but also the athleticism of Jalen Hurts, who led the team with 1,298 rushing yards from 233 carries. Regardless of the challenges he faced, he reflects on his time there fondly.
“It was great, I know I was able to develop a lot,” he said. “Just transitioning from my freshman to my sophomore year I showed a lot of improvement. Even my sophomore year to my junior year I showed a lot of improvement, I’d grown as a person and I felt like everything happened for a reason.
“I made a good decision going there. It was a great experience and I was able to grow as a player and a person.”
Sermon admits his season-ending injury in 2019 marked “the worst case scenario” as he fought to make his mark, although now deems his success since then as a testament to his strength of mind.
“Every team I’ve met with have asked me about it because I know battling through adversity shows the type of person you are and teams just want to know what type of person you are and how you respond to things,” he explained. “That’s how they figure out what they’re getting.”
“I’m an every down back”
Weaved in and around the rocky patches throughout Sermon’s college career are nuggets of excellence in their numbers, be it his maiden 100-yard rushing game against Baylor in 2017, his 206 rushing yards for three touchdowns against Texas Tech in 2018 or the Northwestern and Clemson gold mines.
His upright and gliding running style became distinctive, as did the intentional patience in the backfield, the vision to first identify the hole and then the intelligence to time his moment of attack.
What he might have relinquished in show reel moments alongside Murray and Hurts he compensated for with valuable blocking assignments, while his agility and toughness in tight windows exhibited an ideal candidate for inside zone schemes.
“I’m a playmaker and I’m versatile,” he says. “With me being a big running back I still make guys miss. I’m pretty elusive, I can catch out of the backfield and I can line up at receiver and run receiver routes and I protect the quarterback. I feel like I’m an every down back.
“Definitely with me being a running back pretty much all my life it’s that instinct you have, but my preparation going into each game I feel like that just adds on to it and I feel like that’s what makes me great at being patient, letting things develop and having the right vision and anticipation as well.”
At six foot, his long strides make for a slick and deceptive acceleration, as well as helping him breach would-be tacklers and hurdle defenders as he did against Northwestern and Clemson.
His four catches for 61 yards against the latter last season meanwhile underlined an attribute he believes he only scratched the surface of in college.
“I feel like that’s such a big part of my game, as big a running back I am, I’m really versatile,” he said. “I can line up at receiver and run routes. I know I didn’t get to showcase it that much just because we had so much talent at the receiver position but it’s definitely something that’s a part of my game that I know that will really separate me at the next level.”
Sermon, who finished with a career 48 catches for 486 yards and three touchdowns at college, had spent time honing his route-running with quarterback Fields prior to the start of last season.
A smile creeps through as he touches on the torrent of scouting profiles and evaluations across the internet at this time of year. While he tends to steer clear of most, he has found himself raising his eyebrows at enough to consider his ability as a receiving back one of the most prominent misconceptions surrounding what he offers on the field.
“There have been a few where I’m like ‘man, you obviously wasn’t watching any of my college film’ but again I just try not to look at that stuff because at the end of the day they aren’t making decisions,” he says.
“People don’t really think I’m athletic, that I can’t catch out of the backfield when I feel like they haven’t watched film, being able to hurdle guys, you have to be elusive to make guys miss and I feel like I am one of the most elusive running backs, especially for my size.
“I feel like it’s a bit different from shedding tackles and breaking down defenders and making guys miss with my size. I’ve made catches out of the backfield at Oklahoma and Ohio State so I feel like that’s probably one of the things a lot of people don’t recognise.”
A post shared by Trey Sermon (@tserm_)
It was Sermon’s mother Natoshia Mitchell who relaxed concerns the day after his injury against Alabama in the National Championship game as she dismissed fears that her son’s injury was serious.
Besides and perhaps even beyond his love of the game, it’s his mother who Sermon puts his body on the line for out there and his mother who he strives to reward for her extraordinary resilience as somebody who has been through the unimaginable and endured more heartbreak than one should ever have to in their lifetime.
She has had to deal with the loss of both brothers, as well as her mother and father. Having experienced an abusive childhood she was then abused by the man who would later take the life of her two-year-old son, before tragically losing her daughter at birth.
Help raise awareness and support victims of domestic violence https://t.co/nQBOW6sdzX
“She’s the strongest person I know and again all the adversity she’s been through that’s kind of what keeps me going,” said Sermon. “Just knowing everything she’s been through and how she is now and how she’s able to help others and how strong she is, that’s the influence she had on me.
“It helped me get through all the adversity I went through at college up until now and I feel like without her being there I wouldn’t be where I am.”
Sermon sought to raise support for victims of domestic violence at his pro day by taking pledges based on his vertical leap performance and allowing people to make a donation to Arise by Faith, a non-profit organisation set up by his mother to address the issue.
“I know it’s crazy times now and I’m just bringing awareness to the whole situation and sharing my mum’s story,” he explained. “Just knowing what she’s been through and how she’s still able to help others coming out of a similar situation and I’m just using my platform to help her out and get everybody involved the best way I can.”
His ‘why’ is a very easy one.
“Just being able to take care of my family, they mean so much to me and just knowing the adversity they’ve been through it motivates me and that’s really kind of my why, just so I can be able to take care of them.”
Sermon is a gentleman, a role model, a fighter, a leader and one hell of a football player. He’ll embrace the challenges of the NFL like that of college and high school and everyday life, with a smile.
“It’s going to be very special,” he says. “I’ve been working so hard all my life. My family have been supporting me along the way so it’s definitely going to be a special moment for me and I’m just looking forward to it and I’m very excited.”
Watch all three days of the 2021 NFL Draft live on Sky Sports NFL, beginning with a three-hour build-up show from 8pm-11pm ahead of Thursday’s first round.
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