Never mind that he hadn‚Äôt seen the kid make a tackle. During a recruiting stop in May 2002 coach Nick Saban quickly concluded that 17-year-old LaRon Landry could become LSU‚Äôs next great defensive player. The 6'2", 185-pound junior was a starting quarterback and part-time defensive back for 5A power Hahnville High, in Boutte, La. After watching Landry run through some offensive drills, Saban pulled him aside, gestured toward Hahnville‚Äôs speediest receiver and asked, ‚ÄúCould you cover that guy?‚Äù * Landry didn‚Äôt miss a beat. ‚ÄúCover him?‚Äù the player responded. ‚ÄúI‚Äôd kill him.‚Äù Saban, satisfied, soon offered him a scholarship. * As a senior the following fall, Landry threw for 1,639 yards and 16 touchdowns for the 11‚Äì2 Hahnville Tigers. The next season he had a team-leading 80 tackles as a freshman free safety for the co-national-champion LSU Tigers. Reflecting on that day in Boutte recently, Saban leaned back in his office chair and recalled what he had seen. ‚ÄúLaRon had the size, the speed and the competitiveness to be an in-the-box safety with the attitude of a linebacker, or a roving safety with ball skills, which is how we pictured him,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúHe could probably even play some wide receiver for us. Truly great players do it all.‚Äù
Highly adaptable athletes such as Landry, who are often denoted by the shorthand ATH on recruiting websites and college coaches‚Äô whiteboards, are the hottest commodity in football. Of the 16 ATHs listed among Rivals.com‚Äôs top 250 high school prospects on signing day last February, the first four were snapped up by top programs Georgia, Florida, USC and LSU, respectively. ‚ÄúThere is no question that we‚Äôve seen more and better players coming out as multiskilled athletes over the past few years, and the schools that are winning with athleticism and speed--the Florida States, the Miamis, the LSUs and the USCs of the world--are going after them,‚Äù says Rivals recruiting expert Jeremy Crabtree. ‚ÄúCoaches like Saban rely on their ability to evaluate talent, and then they coach these big, fast, strong guys into position players.‚Äù
The concept has been around for years, but until recently it was the rare athlete who could fill the bill. Typically the best athletes on their high school teams, quarterbacks have long been recruited and turned into running backs, wide receivers, defensive backs or even, like Florida sophomore standout Earl Everett, linebackers. (What‚Äôs more, for decades after major college programs were integrated, black high school quarterbacks were still discriminated against when they were automatically switched to another skill position.)
Now the concept has spread throughout the lineup. High school tight ends are bulking up to fill holes on the interior line--or on the defensive line--in college. That was the case with LSU‚Äôs Marcus Spears, who developed into an All-SEC defensive end as a junior last year, and Miami‚Äôs Eric Winston, who became an All‚ÄìBig East tackle as a junior in 2003. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre thinking of creating a new category just called Linemen,‚Äù says Allen Wallace, publisher of SuperPrep magazine, which also rates blue-chip prospects, ‚Äúbecause you just don‚Äôt know [at what positions] some of these guys are going to land.‚Äù
Another phase in the emergence of the ATH was the reappearance of the two-way player. Cornerback Deion Sanders‚Äôs experience as a part-time receiver in the NFL paved the way for college DB-WRs such as Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson of Michigan, All-America Champ Bailey of Georgia and All-America Chris Gamble of Ohio State.
Why are more players so easily able to change positions? The most obvious answer is that today‚Äôs blue-chippers are better conditioned than ever. ‚ÄúHigh school kids all over the field are eating better and training better than they did even five years ago,‚Äù says recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. ‚ÄúThey go to college in shape and ready to contribute, and coaches want to get them on the field one way or another.‚Äù
LSU is a prime example: Of the 22 starters for the Tigers‚Äô young Sugar Bowl team last January, nine had played different positions in high school. ‚ÄúA decade ago, having these players was considered a luxury,‚Äù says Wallace. ‚ÄúNow colleges consider them a necessity.‚Äù
Scholarship limits also compelled coaches to start looking for more versatile athletes. In the ‚Äô90s the NCAA dropped that limit from 95 per team to 85. That put pressure on programs to find imaginative ways to ration scholarships, and all-purpose athletes offer more bang for the buck. ‚ÄúIf they‚Äôre talented enough, you‚Äôll find a spot for them, and often it‚Äôs like you‚Äôre signing two players,‚Äù says Miami coach Larry Coker, who estimates that a third of his recruits have wound up in a different position from the one they were projected to play. ‚ÄúYou have to make sure you have a signing class that has at least five guys who are versatile players. It gives you flexibility.‚Äù
And, by extension, a means to be more creative with a game plan. ‚ÄúThere is less of a discrepancy between good and bad teams, and coaches talk about being pressed to become more creative in order to win,‚Äù says Wallace. ‚ÄúAthletes who can catch, run, throw and hit allow you to make use of things like trick plays.‚Äù
To execute his multiple offensive and defensive schemes, Saban is constantly on the lookout for players with the tools to contribute immediately. ‚ÄúOne reason there are more ‚Äòathletes‚Äô factoring into our system is because the game is changing,‚Äù says Saban. ‚ÄúNobody used to play four wideouts. Nobody used to play empty--no backs in the backfield. We use both of those sets and many more.‚Äù
In a single game, Saban says, there are about two dozen distinct offensive roles that require players with specific body types and skill sets. When he visits as many as six schools in a day in the speed-rich Southeast, Saban looks past a prospect‚Äôs statistics and focuses on how the youngster‚Äôs height, weight, basic abilities and growth potential match up with carefully thought-out ideals for offensive and defensive roles. It‚Äôs a process Saban learned from coach Bill Belichick, for whom he served as the Cleveland Browns‚Äô defensive coordinator in the early 1990s and who has stocked his Super Bowl‚Äìchampion New England Patriots with versatile role players. ‚ÄúWe couldn‚Äôt care less what our guys played in high school,‚Äù says LSU assistant head coach Derek Dooley, who also directs special teams and running backs. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôll move them all until we find a fit.‚Äù
Spring practice was, as usual, a position carousel for Saban‚Äôs players. Reserve tailback Joseph Addai (a quarterback in high school), strong safety Ronnie Prude and cornerback Corey Webster all worked out at wide receiver. Senior corner Travis Daniels played strong safety and free safety as well as corner in four-man, nickel and dime situations. Meanwhile, various tackles, guards and centers were scooted up and down the line. Says Dooley, ‚ÄúI think we all have ADD from all of the switching going on.‚Äù
Though he‚Äôs joking, Dooley does raise an important question: How does all this shuffling affect the players? After all, the more versatile the athlete, the more inclined a coach will be to use him to fill a new hole. Multiple position changes limit a young player‚Äôs development at any one spot.
Consider Louisville sophomore Michael Bush, a consensus top five ‚Äúathlete‚Äù during the 2003 recruiting season. At Louisville‚Äôs Male High, Bush played six positions over his first three seasons but spent his senior year exclusively at quarterback and was named Kentucky‚Äôs Mr. Football. He signed with the Cardinals expecting to remain a passer, but the surprise success of starter Stefan LeFors last year limited Bush to spot duty under center. Instead, he saw most of his time at running back (81 carries for 503 yards) and wideout (17 catches for 240 yards). With LeFors back for his senior year and highly rated quarterback recruit Brian Brohm arriving this summer, Bush has been asked to work out at running back and safety in preparation for this fall.
‚ÄúWhereas other guys can concentrate on one thing in drills, the whistle blows and I have to run as far as 60 yards across the field to switch groups and switch modes,‚Äù says Bush, who nevertheless feels lucky that his skills allow him to escape the glut at his preferred position. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôve got to make the best of what you can do and think about the next level.‚Äù
Most players with NFL aspirations understand that they‚Äôre better off being anywhere on the field than on the bench. And coaches can sell the idea of a position change by pointing to recent success stories, such as those of two high picks in the draft last spring. As a redshirt freshman at Iowa in 2000, tight end Robert Gallery had three catches for 52 yards in his first four games before being switched to tackle for the Hawkeyes‚Äô Big Ten opener; he went on to win the 2003 Outland Trophy and become the No. 2 pick in the draft, by the Oakland Raiders. At Miami, Sean Taylor went from a lightly recruited running back to the nation‚Äôs best free safety and was drafted fifth, by the Washington Redskins.
New converts include Clemson‚Äôs Tye Hill, who as a sophomore last year switched from reserve running back to starting cornerback partly because he was having difficulty adding weight to his 180-pound frame. ‚ÄúI have a chance to play for the [NFL] now,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúEverything I wanted to do in college I‚Äôm doing now. It‚Äôs just that I didn‚Äôt think I would be doing it at cornerback.‚Äù
That feeling is echoed by Corey Webster, LaRon Landry‚Äôs teammate in the LSU secondary and arguably the best pure athlete in college football. Long before he became an All-America cornerback, Webster won 32 of 40 games as a three-year starting quarterback at St. James (La.) High. After he was moved to wideout by Saban and caught seven passes for 74 yards as a freshman in 2001, Webster was approached by the coach about playing defense. ‚ÄúMy response was, ‚ÄòNah, don‚Äôt think so,‚Äô‚Äù Webster says. ‚ÄúI hated the idea.‚Äù But when Saban broached the subject again midway through the ‚Äô02 season--going so far as to suggest that Webster could become an All-SEC defensive back if he were to make the leap--Webster warmed to the idea. ‚ÄúI made a couple plays at cornerback in practice and started feeling comfortable,‚Äù says Webster, who‚Äôll play a little wide receiver this fall. ‚ÄúA year later I was all-conference. It proves that Coach knows what he‚Äôs doing.‚Äù
What switcheroos does Saban have in store for this season? He‚Äôs keeping his wild cards close to the vest, but don‚Äôt be shocked to see old and new faces--including freshman athletes Early Doucet and Lavelle Hawkins--in surprising places. Asked his thoughts on his coach‚Äôs suggestion that he might chip in at wideout if needed, Landry laughs. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve got enough to worry about with making defensive calls at safety this year,‚Äù he says. But after a pause Landry admits he ‚Äúwouldn‚Äôt mind catching a few passes.‚Äù
Saban wouldn‚Äôt have his players thinking any other way. ‚ñ†