When Levonte “Kermit” Whitfield was a freshman at Jones High School in Orlando, Fla., in the fall of 2009, he made an immediate impression on Tigers football coach Kenard Lang.
“Fast,” Lang told FOXSports.com Tuesday morning when asked to describe the 5-foot-7, 180-pound wide receiver. “He was fast, fast, fast — as soon as he stepped on campus he was the fastest kid around.”
Whitfield’s wheels also elicited a similar reaction from Jones track coach Fred Ray and sprint coach Zzream Walden.
“I remember from Day One of track, Coach Z coming to me and saying, ‘This kid’s going to be special,’” Ray said. “I told him, ‘Well, let’s see how special.’”
Four years later, the world knows exactly how special Whitfield is after the Florida State freshman receiver put his speed on display in Monday night’s BCS Championship Game, returning a fourth-quarter kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown that helped the Seminoles to a 34-31 win.
“I was ecstatic,” Lang said of the return, which gave FSU a 27-24 lead with 4:31 left to play. “I think I was jumping around like a kid opening his presents on Christmas morning.
“I was happy for him that he had the opportunity and he made the most of it, and to be honest with you, it doesn’t surprise me, because every big game we had, Kermit always showed up.”
A self-described “football player who runs track,” Whitfield was a standout for Lang at Jones, where he caught 38 passes for 520 yards as a senior and was, perhaps obviously, among the state’s most dangerous kick returners.
“I remember the coaches used to ask me to get him the ball more,” said Ray, who was also the football team’s offensive coordinator. “But when we’d look at the stats at the end of the day, he’d touch the ball five times and score three. I didn’t need to get him the ball more.”
To truly understand just how quick Whitfield is, one has to look at his results on the track, where he helped lead Jones to three straight Florida Class 2A runner-up finishes under Ray.
“The common denominator was Kermit,” Ray said. “He was that guy; he was special. He led the team, and I told him, ‘I should have known you’d be playing for a championship (at Florida State) because you’re a champion,’ and that’s what he is.”
Whitfield, who has been clocked at 4.37 in the 40-yard dash, was the 2A 100-meter champion as a sophomore, beating out future Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins in the finals (though Watkins edged out Whitfield in the 200). Whitfield also won the 100- and 200-meter state titles as a junior, his 10.49 time in the 100 topping the 10.52 posted by his cousin, former FSU receiver and Class 4A state champion Marvin Bracy.
Back and hamstring injuries kept Whitfield from participating in the state championships his senior year — Jones, as a result, finished seventh in the team standings — but in March 2013, he ran a 10.15 100 at a meet in Jacksonville, Fla., the top wind-aided 100-meter dash in the country last year.
His speed, according Sean Campbell, Whitfield’s senior year track coach, is a product of hard work.
“He had incredible work ethic, not just at meets but in practice,” Campbell said. “He wanted to win more than anybody else, and he actually worked like he wanted to win, every day. He never wanted to miss a practice, he never wanted to take a day off and he always wanted to do extra. He always wanted to be the best and he worked toward that.”
A Florida State alum, himself, Campbell said it took just one move for him to know Whitfield would take that fateful Auburn kickoff to the house on Monday.
“Once he made that first cut, with that linear speed, I knew it was over,” Campbell said. “Everybody in my neighborhood heard me screaming. But I knew there was no way in the world he was going to get caught.”
“Shoot, I thought he was going to get another one, to be honest with you,” Lang added. “The (kick) before that he almost broke, and I said, ‘If they kick it to him again, they must be crazy.’ Then they kicked it to him a third time, and I think ego kicked in, and he almost took that back too.”
For Lang, who was an All-American defensive end for Miami from 1994-96 before spending 10 seasons in the NFL with Washington, Cleveland and Denver, the moment was a little bittersweet.
Lang, who is now the head coach at Wekiva High School near Orlando, said he encouraged Whitfield to play for the Hurricanes when he was at Jones, and Whitfield originally committed to UM. Whitfield later decommitted, however, and followed Bracy to Miami’s rival, FSU — a choice that stung a little for Lang, but was clearly the right one.
“I bleed orange and green, but I care about Kermit, so if he’s happy, I’m happy,” Lang said. “I was happy that he did well, and I was happy that it showed that the state of Florida has the best football and that the ACC is the better conference this year.”
Now, Lang’s main concern is Whitfield not being content with one thrilling moment in the spotlight.
“I still talk to him, and before the game I told him, ‘Hey, just go out there and play your game, let the game come to you, and you just take over when the opportunity comes,’” Lang said.
“One thing that he has to do now that he never had to do at Jones is wait his turn. There’s a lot of great athletes at Florida State, so he had to be be patient … but I knew once he got his chance, he’d make it happen, and once you get your hands on that spot, you can’t let it go.”
If the past is any indication, however, that won’t be a problem for Whitfield.
“I tell anyone who wants to know that that young man has a blessing,” Ray said. “He has a talent. He’s just special.”