When Rayshaud Shields chose to leave a small Division II school in West Virginia to take his chances walking on to the football team at Coastal Carolina, he did so brimming with confidence that he could be an impact player at the FCS level.
And that’s exactly what the Chanticleers are counting on now as well, with the graduation of defensive leader Quinn Backus and productive veteran Brett Johnson leaving gaping holes at the linebacker position this year.
With their departure comes the opportunity Shields has been waiting for and working toward all along, and as much as anything it seems, it’s the patience of that process that makes this coming season especially rewarding for the senior.
“I’m very, very, very excited. Words can’t even explain, from walking on to this program to now where I’m at – starting – I came a long way,” Shields said after practice Wednesday morning. “The coaches will tell you I was kind of a knucklehead when I first got here, I thought I was better than what I was, so it feels good to finally [be] humbled up and [to have] gotten where I am now.”
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Because it didn’t happen overnight.
After spending his freshman year at West Virginia Wesleyan, Shields decided he wanted more. A friend mentioned that his brother went to Coastal Carolina and suggested the linebacker look into the program. So Shields, who is from Maryland but says he has family down this way, looked online for information about the Chants’ walk-on tryouts and started from the bottom.
That was about three years ago.
First, he said, he had to make it through a tryout camp prior to the 2012 season. He remembers showing up and seeing more than 100 other hopefuls before the group eventually got whittled almost in half with guys not having their necessary paperwork and NCAA prerequisites taken care of in time.
Still, he realized the challenge ahead of him.
“I was scared I wasn’t going to make it because everybody [was] big,” he recalled.
Shields, listed now at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, did make it through the cuts, but he was still a long way from playing the kind of role he envisioned for himself.
Gaining that perspective, though, was the next step for the headstrong young player, who admits he sometimes stood out on the scout team for the wrong reasons back then.
“I was just vocal. They wanted me to do something and I was like, ‘No, I think it’s this way, I think it’s this way.’ [They said], ‘If you want to be great or you want to go to the next level, you have to be coachable,’” Shields said, looking back on his growth these last few years.
“… Ever since then, I’m like, ‘All right, I’m going to listen to what these coaches are telling me.’ And when coach [Ryan] Goodman became my linebacker coach, that’s all he does is talk, talk – he’s always in my head. So I know if I keep listening to him and do exactly what he’s telling me to do, him and [defensive coordinator Clayton Carlin], then I can take this talent and go as far as I want to.”
That talent was on full display last Oct. 11 at Presbyterian when Shields made his first start for the Chants, filling in as Backus missed a game. He seized that opportunity while totaling a team-high 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and a pass break-up to earn Big South Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Overall, he finished with 32 tackles over 12 games last season in a mostly limited role.
Now, though, the linebacker says he’s ready to show what he can do in full-time duty while assuming a leadership role within a very young corps of linebackers.
“The expectation I have of myself is pretty high. I don’t want to fail this team. I want to lead them,” Shields said. “I learned a lot from Quinn and Brett from playing behind them, so I expect to lead and take control. They’ve got to have somebody to believe in.”
Backus finished as the program’s all-time leader with 441 career tackles and became the first three-time winner of the Big South Defensive Player of the Year award. Johnson, meanwhile, ranked second on the team with 84 tackles last season.
Replacing that production will be no small task for the Chants, but the coaches like what they see from Shields – both from that extended opportunity against Presbyterian last year and through spring and summer workouts.
“He does have experience, which is nice,” Carlin said. “He didn’t play hundreds of snaps last year, but he did a great job in the Presbyterian game and what he brings to the table, he’s very smart and he can probably play the Mike spot, the Will spot. He brings intelligence and versatility to the table. ...
“I think we’ll lean on him. You never try to compare him to anybody else, but I think he definitely brings the leadership qualities to the table.”
As for the rest of the unit, well, that’s more of an unknown at this point.
Junior Alex Scearce, senior Western Michigan transfer Devon Brant (with 13 career starts on his resume), true freshman Fitz Wattley and sophomore Shane Johnson are all in the mix for the other starting linebacker spot.
Shields says Brant has impressed his new teammates with his knowledge of the game and abilities while Wattley has turned heads on the field as well.
The competition is still very much open, though, as it also is at safety – another unit looking to retool after the loss of key veterans.
That said, Carlin doesn’t see any of this as an excuse for the defense to take a step back.
“We’ll be fine,” he said. “We’ve got guys. I just don’t know how [the depth chart] is going to shake out.”
But having Shields emerge as leader in the middle of it all would sure be a nice starting point.
It’s a role he always felt he had the ability for – and after a few valuable seasons of development, now he’s confident that he is ready for it, too.
“I came a long way,” he said. “I went from being a big fish in the pond to [suddenly] I’m just a little fish again to now, [with] time, consistency, just working, it all paid off. Now I feel like I’m becoming that bigger fish in the pond that everybody’s looking to to lead and take control.”