EAST LANSING, Mich.—Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio figures that Tony Lippett's ability to flip between wide receiver and cornerback starts with one key element.
"He's got pretty good ball skills, if I had to pick out one thing that stands out about him. It's being able to judge the ball in the deep part of the field, to play the ball and have the poise while the ball is in the air."
And ... wait. Scratch that. Those words are not Dantonio's.
They actually came from Mel Tucker, back in 2002 when he was the defensive backs coach for the soon-to-be national champion Ohio State Buckeyes. Specifically, Tucker made those comments about Chris Gamble, following a win over Cincinnati in which Gamble caught three passes on offense, intercepted one on defense and piled up 90 yards as a return man.
From there Gamble began a rather quick metamorphosis from talented wide receiver to future NFL cornerback. He would go on to start five games on both sides of the football during the '02 season, then set himself up for early entry into the draft by excelling as a full-time corner the following year.
Dantonio held the defensive coordinator role on both of those Jim Tressel-led Buckeyes teams. He and Tucker oversaw Gamble's exceptionally rare shift from offense to defense—prior to Gamble splitting time, no Buckeye had started on both sides of the football in a single game since the legendary Paul Warfield pulled the trick in 1963, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
The roll of the dice on Gamble played an instrumental role in Ohio State's run to the national championship. It took more than a decade for Dantonio to find another player capable of a similar assignment.
Enter Lippett. How did it all work out so well again? Well, see if this explanation from Dantonio (it's really him this time) rings any bells ...
"He’s not going to get beat deep because he’s got two or three inches on most people, very long arms, and he’s got great deep ball judgment," Dantonio said following the Spartans' recent pro day. "I would equate that with Darqueze [Dennard] and the only other guy, because he was a wideout, was maybe Chris Gamble. He [Lippett] has that kind of size and that kind of ball awareness."
Lippett's two-way career began earlier than did Gamble's; he started five games as a cornerback back during his 2011 redshirt freshman season, while hauling in four receptions. His experience actually differed from Gamble's over the next few years, as Lippett worked his way up the ladder on offense as a sophomore and junior, pushing his defensive duties to the side.
[daily_cut.nfl]Lippett entered his senior year with the expectation that he would pace Michigan State's passing attack. He did just that, leading the team with 65 receptions. No other Spartan finished with more than 29 grabs.
Prior to a late November game last season against Rutgers, though, Dantonio decided the Spartans' pass defense needed a little boost. So he asked Lippett to pick up a handful of snaps back at his old cornerback position, on top of continuing to start at receiver. Lippett responded with a tackle and two pass break-ups in limited snaps.
The win over Rutgers happened to fall on the Spartans' senior day—Lippett's final home game in East Lansing. Afterward, Dantonio made clear that he had not thrown Lippett on the field simply for old time's sake.
"It is not a tribute. You have got to earn your way into that," he said. "We are not just playing him to play him. ... He could start for us on either side and I have always maintained that it is possible to do that. When I say to a guy that he has a chance to start on both sides of the ball, I mean that."
The excellent work Lippett did at corner against Rutgers, then subsequently versus Penn State and Baylor, opened up a new world of NFL possibilities for him. A 6'3", 195-pound receiver with 149 career catches and 15 touchdowns, Lippett always had a shot of making it to the pros on offense. His speed and length, similar to Gamble, immediately turned him into a fascinating prospect for teams needing defensive help.
"A lot of teams like me as a corner. A lot of teams like me as a receiver," Lippett said. "It’s kind of like 50-50."
The league's interest might be "50-50," but Lippett placed his preference for playing WR over CB at "60-40." While he never balked at Dantonio's orders, Lippett initially was hesitant to embrace fully the idea of becoming a full-time cornerback in the NFL.
His stance softened some between the combine and pro day. Lippett took part in pro-day drills at both receiver and cornerback. A majority of the crowd, heavy with NFL personnel, was more curious to see how he'd do with the latter. The verdict: pretty well. Working alongside projected first-round cornerback Trae Waynes, Lippett certainly never appeared out of place with the DB group.
"I think people have a pretty good idea about where [Lippett] is at as a wide receiver and have a good feel for him," Dantonio said. "A lot of people are talking to me about defensive back and corner in particular, because that’s an unknown a little bit. When there’s things that are unknown, in this day and age ... there’s very few of those diamonds in the rough so people are starting to say, 'Well, he may be [one].'"
Perhaps. But where does Lippett's value lie?
Lippett was asked at the conclusion of his pro day if he was concerned at all about spreading himself too thin, if trying to split his focus between receiver and cornerback could somehow leave him scrambling at both spots.
"A couple years ago I would have been but now, no," he said. "I grew as a receiver and I kind of know a lot of things about that—still more things to learn. This is a good time for me to embrace corrnerback as well. I can learn a lot on that side, too, and be one of the dominant ones on either side of the ball."
His former Michigan State teammate Keith Mumphery, a draft hopeful himself at wide receiver, agreed.
"That’s my guy," said Mumphrey of Lippett. "He’s versatile and he can do so many things. He’s an athlete. He plays fast, that’s one of the main things that is going to help him."
Two-way players are prevalent up through the prep ranks. The practice is far less common at the college level, though it does occur sporadically. This year's draft class alone includes Washington's Shaq Thompson, who saw time at linebacker and running back and may wind up as an NFL safety; and Florida State's Cameron Erving, who completed a common-by-comparison move from defensive tackle to the offensive line.
At the next level it's even more of a novelty, though it does happen. More than one team has flipped a receiver to cornerback in a pinch (New England used to employ Troy Brown as such), while CBs like Deion Sanders and Charles Woodson had brief forays to the offensive side.
There is not, however, any NFL player who sees extended time on both sides of the football simultaneously. Doing so would be an extremely tall, grueling task, especially for a rookie who is attempting to learn a playbook and scheme.
Could Lippett be that groundbreaking prospect?
"I haven’t had a team that says play both sides, I haven’t had one," Lippett said. "I didn’t think—well, I did kind of—didn’t think it was realistic this year. But with the game evolving, you never know. ...
"I feel like [the possibility] plays into it. ... I can fill a void on offense or defense. I just try to embrace it, have fun with it."
Once Gamble landed in the pros (No. 28 overall, 2004 draft), his days as a wide receiver ended. He did continue to see time as a punt returner, finishing his career with 412 yards over his nine seasons with the Panthers. But Gamble never caught an NFL pass.
Lippett's new team could harness him, as well, locking him in to one position or the other. The Michigan State star is fine with that, so long as he gets a chance.
"I just love the game of football, and I just want to be on the field as I much as I can."
And ... sorry. Scratch that one, too. Gamble made that comment, prior to Ohio State's title game against Miami.
Here is Lippett:
"I just try to show them that I’m versatile," he said, "and that I can go out here and make plays on either side of the ball."
Thus far, Lippett has done so—just as Gamble did, under Dantonio's watch, en route to a lengthy NFL career.