Clemson's Parker Combines Quarterbacking And Power hitting

CLEMSON, S.C.—Compared to some of his days last spring, Clemson's April 9-11 series at Duke was a vacation for Kyle Parker.

Ride with the team to Durham, N.C., on Thursday, play the opener Friday night. Fly back to Clemson at 10 a.m. the next morning in order to serve as the first-string quarterback in the afternoon spring game. Then fly back to Duke that night so as to arrive with time to spare for Sunday's pre-game routine.

Unable to sleep this flight, he spent his time on the return trip texting baseball assistant coach Tom Riginos for tidbits on Saturday's outcome—and for his own comfort.

"I really don't like small planes," Parker said. "I was just happy it wasn't windy outside."

The question creating substantial disturbance in these parts has been whether Parker will be on the football team's charter plane this fall—or gearing up to ride buses to minor league burgs the following summer.

Parker has dispelled skepticism of whether he would even face such a dilemma this summer, rebounding from a late 2009 slump to become one of the premium power-hitting prospects for the 2010 draft.

He leads the ACC in home runs (16), while ranking in the top five in slugging (.764), on-base percentage (.506) and top 10 in batting (.386) out of the cleanup spot.

Last week, Parker became the first athlete in NCAA history to tally 20 touchdown passes and 15 homers in the same academic season. Only Southern California's Rodney Peete (1987-88) and Oklahoma State's Josh Fields (2003-04) had come close, each eclipsing 10 homers.

"The big question with him," an AL crosschecker said, "is how much does it cost to buy him out?"

The one concrete answer: A lot more than folks might have presumed before spring football began last year.

Making A Name For Himself

Parker enrolled in college a semester early in January 2008, in part to expedite the football learning curve as a four-star quarterback out of Bartram Trail High in Jacksonville, Fla.

While there had been some speculation he could have gone late in the top 10 rounds of that year's baseball draft, he nonetheless caught everyone by surprise by posting a first-team freshman All-America campaign, hitting .303/.400/.559 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs. It should be noted that former Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden largely excused Parker from all football responsibilities because Parker was slated to redshirt.

Parker arrived as an afterthought to ballyhooed quarterback Willy Korn, who wound up separated from Parker by only one year of eligibility.

But when Bowden preemptively resigned in midseason 2008, Parker turned heads in limited practice snaps under new coach Dabo Swinney, who opened the competition for the 2009 quarterback vacancy entering spring practice.

Toggling football practices and baseball games daily last spring, Parker distanced himself from Korn in the final two weeks of workouts, ultimately landing the job.

But the demands took their toll on the baseball side. While his strongest stretch came when he first juggled the two-sport duties, the drain of going full bore from 5:30 a.m. quarterback meetings to 11 p.m. baseball finishes wore him down.

Parker struck out a whopping 52 times in 231 at-bats, winding down last season in an 11-for-67 (.164) funk that led to his benching for parts of the Clemson Regional.

"When I was out there (with football) last year, there was not only the pressure of having to learn, but also the pressure of wanting to win and be the guy," Parker said. "The biggest thing that was frustrating was I knew I wasn't really playing up to my potential (in baseball), but there really wasn't much I could do about it because this was my second focus.

"I'm not over there now having to worry about whether I'm going to be on the field next year. If I come back, I'm going to play, and I think I've earned that."

And how.

After a spotty first five football games, the cannon-armed 6-foot, 200-pounder broke out over the final nine contests to guide Clemson to a 9-5 record and its first ACC title game berth, which the Tigers lost when unable to produce a defensive stop in the final two minutes.

Parker threw 20 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman and has three years of football eligibility remaining.

The NFL likes its quarterbacks to be 6-foot-4. But his combination of arm strength, mobility, vision and improvisational (and often daring) playmaking made observers wonder whether he could have a pro future melding a Brett Favre style into a Drew Brees body.

That, of course, remains to be seen. But the promise has done wonders for his leverage.

"If you look at it, everything's on my side right now, and it's only getting better as I play well," Parker said. "I think I'm in a pretty good situation."

Looming Choices

Baseball coach Jack Leggett said Parker never established a comfort zone at the plate in 2009 because of his minimal practice time, and it showed in his hands and balance. As a result, Parker succumbed to a steady diet of inside fastballs and outside changeups and had excessive trouble with lefties.

So this year, Parker set out to correct how he prepared for the baseball season. He took one day off after the football season and then planted in the batting cages.

By midseason, Parker has surpassed last year's total of 30 walks. He also has struck out just 25 times, marking a significant improvement in his contact rate.

"This year I got myself ready," Parker said. "The biggest thing is preparing yourself for failure. So I've prepared myself for no matter what happens, you have to stick with it and carry confidence to the plate.

"I think I've shown I can make adjustments, and guys don't really know what to throw at me right now."

From the pro perspective, there were also concerns about Parker's defensive position.

Parker has spent the majority of the last 1 1/2 seasons as the starting right fielder, logging a few games at first base this season out of necessity. He played middle infield and dabbled at catcher in high school but was unable to stick at third base during a nine-game trial in his freshman season.

Leggett recalls his surprise that Parker's arm and running ability didn't initially translate on the baseball field. But he believes Parker has made significant strides in those two departments as well as in tracking fly balls, and some scouts have suggested Parker could have a home as a left fielder. Others remain interested in experimenting with Parker in the infield.

"I've talked with some other guys about it," the crosschecker said. "Look at a lot of guys that have played QB (a list that includes Adam Dunn and Todd Helton). There's not too many that can throw a baseball like they can throw a football.

"He was bad for me last year. The approach wasn't there, and it affected his defense. This year I've seen a more mature player, a guy who's shown the ability to be a little more selective. I would say he's got a chance to be a left-field power bat with a chance to hit—I could see 20-25 home runs, hitting between .250 and .270, .280. The approach is there. I've seen him make adjustments to breaking balls. He's strong as an ox. You look at the fact that he's never had a summer or fall to concentrate on baseball."

Nor will he while at Clemson.

Parker is a junior in terms of baseball eligibility, rapidly approaching his first career crossroads. His father, former NFL receiver Carl Parker, elected to give up baseball early at Vanderbilt in the 1980s because of coaching pressure Kyle has not endured from either side.

Both Swinney and Leggett firmly believe Parker loves Clemson and stands a favorable chance of donning a Tigers uniform all of next school year. Swinney says he will be shocked if Parker turns pro this summer—but admits he has been shocked before.

Parker patiently has handled the weekly deluge of fan and media inquiries on the subject, trying otherwise to block it out so it does not detrimentally affect his performance.

"The biggest thing is I really don't know what's going to happen," Parker said. "I've always thought I wanted to play a professional sport and didn't care which one. Obviously that opportunity is going to happen. What I have to decide is whether it's worth it to me and my family, and we'll see when we get there.

"I'm going to have to choose this summer, but depending on what I choose, I could choose again next summer. But I'll definitely have some choices to make coming up the next two years."