Versatility, of course, is passe, long since sucked into the
machinery of progress. Specialization is the ticket. There are
cable networks devoted to food, weather, science fiction, even
golf, and Web sites for those and 10 million other topics. There
are lawyers who handle only divorces and doctors who operate
only on knees. And sports? The worst. Post-up power forwards,
middle relievers, offensive defensemen. Football? Worst of the
worst. Cover corners, rush ends, drive-blocking tackles,
pass-catching running backs. Bronko Nagurski would blanch.
What a radical occurrence took place, then, one night last
winter when Michigan coach Lloyd Carr was walking out of a
dinner for Wolverines recruits with cornerback Charles Woodson,
who was a freshman at the time. Spring practice was still
several weeks off, but Carr had been left in a bind by the
unexpected departure of star tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka to
the NFL after his junior season. As a freshman corner, Woodson
had started 12 games and played brilliantly, but Carr remembered
that Woodson had other talents. As a senior at Ross High in
Fremont, Ohio, Woodson had played defensive back and tailback;
he had rushed for 2,028 yards in 11 games.
Carr floated a suggestion. "Charles," he asked, "how would you
like to play some tailback?" Not only would such a move give
Michigan more depth at the position, Carr reasoned, but it would
put the team's best athlete on the field for a few more snaps.
Woodson, a budding star with an NFL career waiting, was
entrenched at corner; he was just a few months removed from an
impressive clampdown on Ohio State's dazzling wideout Terry
Glenn, in the Wolverines' 31-23 November upset that cost the
Buckeyes a Rose Bowl berth. He contemplated the pounding
administered to running backs and offered a compromise. "How
about wide receiver?" Woodson said.
November 18, 1996
Michigan was thin there as well, having lost senior wideouts
Amani Toomer and Mercury Hayes. Woodson is big (6'1", 192
pounds) and fast (4.4 for the 40), with terrific hands and rare
instincts. Why not? thought Carr. In the first practice of the
spring, Woodson ran crisp routes and made sensational catches.
Carr recalled the scene last week, guffawing as if he had found
money in his pocket. "I mean, it was the first day, and we all
just went, 'Wow,'" said Carr. "He is really some athlete."
Woodson has played both ways in each of the Wolverines' nine
games this fall, routinely shutting down receivers on defense
and sending ripples of anticipation through the crowd--and the
opposing defense--each time he enters the offensive huddle,
usually 10 times per game. He has caught 10 passes for 139 yards
and one touchdown and carried six times (mostly reverses) for
152 yards and another touchdown. In a 45-29 win over Michigan
State on Nov. 2, Woodson caught second-quarter passes in each
end zone at Michigan Stadium, one an interception, one a
touchdown. "He would be an exceptional player if he played only
offense or defense," says Michigan State defensive coordinator
Dean Pees. "On defense, he's just a terrific corner. On offense,
you have to adjust to him because they usually try to get the
ball to him."
"Best player in college football, bar none," adds one of
Woodson's teammates, nosetackle William Carr. "I can think of an
awful lot of teams that would love to have Charles Woodson over
somebody like Peyton Manning or Danny Wuerffel. You can just
hear it when Charles comes onto the field: 'There's number 2.'"
On offense. On defense. Imagine that. And imagine this: Woodson
Single-platoon college football died in 1965, when liberal
substitution rules were introduced and made iron men
unnecessary. There were isolated exceptions: Leroy Keyes played
running back and defensive back for Purdue in 1968 (he finished
a distant second to O.J. Simpson in the Heisman Trophy voting),
Gordie Lockbaum played tailback and cornerback for Holy Cross in
1986 and '87, and Wesley Walls played linebacker and tight end
for Mississippi in 1988. By the early '90s, however, two-way
players were as rare as wooden goalposts.
The situation has changed dramatically in the last two seasons.
A year ago at least 12 players saw time on offense and defense
in the same game; this year at least 23 have gone both ways.
It's hardly an anonymous bunch, either (box, page 50). Among the
current crop are five potential All-Americas: Woodson; Kansas
State junior defensive back-receiver Chris Canty; Louisville
senior defensive back-receiver Sam Madison; Ohio State junior
offensive-defensive tackle Orlando Pace; and Colorado senior
offensive guard-defensive tackle Chris Naeole. The two-way group
also features a key player on the No. 1-ranked team in the
country--sophomore running back-linebacker Terry Jackson of
Florida. Illinois junior Brent Taylor has played three
positions: his customary spot at offensive guard, pass-rush
defensive end and short-yardage fullback. USC redshirt freshman
Chad Morton rushed for 143 yards on 13 carries in a Sept. 14
victory over Oregon State and played a few downs at cornerback
in the same game. Trojans coach John Robinson says he expects to
use sophomore cornerback Daylon McCutcheon as a running back
from time to time next fall. "I think it's coming," Robinson
says of the trend toward two-way players.
Why now? The time commitment (double meetings, double film
sessions) and the complexity of the modern game should make it
far more difficult to go both ways than it was in the '60s.
"Offense and defense were so simple back then," says Mississippi
coach Tommy Tuberville, for whom junior Nate Wayne plays middle
linebacker and short-yardage fullback. "Now teams run every
formation in the world. I'm the head coach, and I can't figure
out what we're doing most of the time."
Two factors account for the two-way trend: smaller rosters and
the compelling talent of a few players. The NCAA-imposed
85-scholarship limit, which took effect in 1994, has forced
coaches to be creative in filling the holes left by injuries and
suspensions. Florida's Jackson, who rushed for 780 yards and
caught 20 passes a year ago, has been needed on defense two
games this season because of injuries to sophomore linebacker
Mike Peterson and redshirt freshman linebacker Jevon Kearse. In
the Gators' 47-7 win over Georgia two weeks ago, Jackson rushed
five times for 34 yards, caught two passes for 54 yards and
played 18 snaps at linebacker, with two tackles. USC's Morton
was moved to tailback because Delon Washington and Shawn
Walters, two of the team's top tailbacks, were serving
suspensions early in the season. With their return to the team,
he now plays mainly at cornerback.
Most two-way players are getting their additional minutes
because they're too good to sit for half the game. Ohio State
uses the devastating, 6'6", 320-pound Pace in its short-yardage
and goal line defenses because, just as on offense, he is
difficult to move or get past. Similarly, Colorado coach Rick
Neuheisel says he has played the 6'4", 305-pound Naeole on the
defensive line because "he gives us an aggressive, big body in
there." Canty was given a shot at wideout because Kansas State
lacked depth and experience at the position, but he's earned
himself a regular gig--41 snaps this season--by producing; each
of his four catches (18.5 yards per reception) has gone for a
first down, and three have been on touchdown drives. "Once we
put him at receiver, he proved to be as good as or better than
we anticipated," says Kansas State coach Bill Snyder. Likewise,
Woodson was moved to wideout because Carr felt short on offense,
but he's been kept there because of his breathtaking effect on
games. "If you have a talent like Charles," says Carr, "I don't
care if you have all the depth in the world. You would be
foolish not to get him as many snaps as possible."
The two-way players have injected a delicious chaos into the
customarily rigid routine of the football week. "During meetings
sometimes I forget where I am and what side of the ball I'm
supposed to be watching," says Jackson. "It's like, Whoa, I'm in
the twilight zone."
During games Naeole finds himself leaving the field with the
offense but instead of sitting on the bench with that group,
he'll hang near the field, uncertain if he'll be sent in on
defense. "If [offensive line] Coach [Terry Lewis] wants to go
over some things on the chalkboard, guys will be saying,
'Naeole, get over here,' but I'll be watching the defense, just
so I can know if I'm going to be needed." During some of
Michigan's practice periods, Woodson walks back and forth from
huddle to huddle, depending on which side needs him for a play.
Taylor does the same at Illinois, and when he leaves the
offense, junior center Chris Brown tells him, "You're going to
the dark side."
Predictably the defensive back-wide receivers idolize Mr.
Two-Way himself, Deion Sanders. Yet they do not worship Deion's
flash. Having tried to duplicate his workday, they are awed by
his energy. "His stamina is unbelievable," says Morton. "For him
to play bump-and-run cornerback and a hundred plays a game
against the athletes he's going against is simply amazing."
Woodson might soon inspire a similar reverence, for he is the
best of the current reversibles, a defensive force whose
presence on offense has so affected Michigan opponents that the
Wolverines have taken to using him as a decoy on several plays
each game. Dubious last spring about doing double duty, Woodson
soon discovered the payoff: more plays. More opportunities to
tilt a game his way. "The one thing I've never liked is sitting
on the sidelines," he says.
Woodson was hauled into the world of football while growing up
in the Delaware Acres apartment complex on the east side of
Fremont (pop. 17,648), which is situated 25 miles southeast of
Toledo--and almost halfway between Ann Arbor and Columbus. When
Charles was in grade school, his half-brother, Terry Carter,
who's four years older, dragged him into brutal touch-tackle
games. Charles became so good that Ross High coach Rex Radeloff
wanted to put him on the varsity as a freshman. "Usually we
don't even move up sophomores," says Radeloff. "But Charles was
Woodson's mother, Georgia--who was divorced from his father, a
former amateur boxer named Solomon Woodson, when Charles was a
toddler--didn't agree, and forbade Charles from playing on the
varsity because she thought he was too young. Georgia, a strong
woman who operates a forklift at the American National Can Co.
in nearby Bellevue, was not to be questioned. So Charles played
on the freshman team and then spent the next three years making
up for that one lost season, playing with a Deion-like flair
that raised the ire of many in the working-class community. "He
almost looked like he was too relaxed out there to some people,"
says Radeloff. "He was cocky. He took shots from people in town."
Virtually every major college in the country recruited him, but
for Charles the choice was easy. Terry had taught him to root
for Michigan. Charles snapped up Michigan's offer and was a
starter in the first week of practice. "You heard all about this
guy's rep," says teammate Carr. "I figured I'd wait and see.
Then the first day upperclassmen joined practice, he's out there
holding his own with Amani and Mercury. I figured, O.K., I
Confidence is the spine of Woodson's game. Challenged by
Michigan's departing seniors to hold Glenn in check in last
year's regular-season finale, he never let the Buckeyes receiver
get completely loose; Glenn caught four passes for 72 yards, but
no touchdowns after catching 17 in the first 11 games. "I just
didn't want to get beat deep, that's all," says Woodson, who
intercepted two passes, including one that killed Ohio State's
last, desperate drive. As he ran back that latter one 23 yards,
Woodson darted about the field, making tacklers miss, opening a
window to the future.
With each passing week in '96, Woodson has further recalled his
offensive skills from high school. "I remember what I can do
when I get the ball in my hands," he says. Against Indiana on
Oct. 19 he reversed field behind the line of scrimmage a la Gale
Sayers and scored on a 48-yard run. Against Michigan State he
beat coverage on a post pattern for a 26-yard touchdown pass
from sophomore quarterback Scott Dreisbach. Carr's biggest worry
is that Woodson's demanding routine will start wearing him down
or affecting his concentration. It's no small worry with
Saturday's game at Penn State and next week's game at Ohio State
determining whether Michigan lands in a big bowl or a small one,
especially after the Wolverines' 9-3 upset loss at Purdue last
Saturday. "He can't be thinking about making a great play on
offense when he's on defense," says Carr.
Woodson measures the possibility and shakes it off like a feeble
block. "I realize it's going to get tougher these last few
games," he says. "But I don't get tired." As he speaks, he
stands outside a car in the parking lot adjacent to Schembechler
Hall, which houses the Michigan football offices. He will soon
dash across the lot into the building for a film session on
Purdue. But what to study, the Boilermakers' offense or defense?
"Offense," says Woodson. Then he leans back into the car,
smiling wickedly. "Today."
The 10 double-duty college players, including Orlando Pace
(photo, below), who have had the greatest two-way impact this
Player POSITION POSITION Comment
1 Charles Woodson (Michigan) CB WR Has averaged 25.3 yards
per carry and 13.9 yards per catch. Has 44 tackles and leads the
team with four interceptions.
2 Chris Canty (Kansas State) CB WR All four of his catches
have gone for first downs; has four interceptions and two forced
fumbles. Also has returned punts and kickoffs.
3 Sam Madison (Louisville) CB WR Two catches for 122
yards against Michigan State; has intercepted six passes and
returned one for a touchdown.
4 Orlando Pace (Ohio State) OT DT Has two tackles on goal
line defense, 66 pancake blocks on offense. Buckeyes also have
considered using him as Fridge-style fullback.
5 Chris Naeole (Colorado) OG DT Made key fumble
recovery in victory over Kansas.
6 Chad Morton (USC) CB RB Freshman has 22 tackles
and a 6.6-yards-per-carry rushing average.
7 Terry Jackson (Florida) RB LB Had 88 all-purpose
yards and made two tackles in win over Georgia.
8 Brent Taylor (Illinois) OG DE Also has played
short-yardage fullback for talent-starved Illini.
9 Nate Wayne (Mississippi) LB FB Leads Rebels in
tackles; caught touchdown pass against Idaho State.
10 Jason Taylor (Akron) DE TE Only catch went for
touchdown; has 64 tackles, 18 for losses.