On Campus: Managing The Multi-Sport Balance

Football’s signing day was Wednesday, and high school seniors around the country made their college commitments official by signing their National Letter of Intent. While baseball’s version of signing day was in November, several programs around the country picked up additional recruits Wednesday with the commitment of athletes who intend to play both football and baseball in college.

Dual-sport athletes are rare in college due to the time commitment required to play even one sport at such a high level. But that didn’t deter athletes such as Mississippi prep wide receiver/outfielder A.J. Brown, one of two athletes to play in both the baseball and football Under Armour All-America games, and Louisiana prep running back/outfielder Tre Turner from committing to play both football and baseball this week. Brown announced his choice of Mississippi on signing day, while Turner made his commitment to Arizona State official.

South Carolina quarterback/outfielder Brandon McIlwain would have joined them in signing Wednesday had he not decided to graduate high school a semester early and enroll in college in January. Had he stayed in high school, McIlwain might have been a first-round pick in June. Instead, he will pull double-duty for the Gamecocks, playing center field in baseball and quarterback in football.

Playing two sports won’t be easy, but coach Chad Holbrook said McIlwain is up to the challenge.

“Brandon is a very focused kid,” Holbrook said. “For someone to excel at this level, it takes great discipline and responsibility. If anyone can do it, it’s Brandon.”

NCAA rules stipulate that any dual-sport athlete playing football must receive a scholarship that counts toward the football team’s maximum of 85. That frees up a scholarship for baseball programs, which only have 11.7 to spread around, but also typically means that the baseball program must be deferential to the football program.

Holbrook said McIlwain is a football player first for the Gamecocks and will be with the football team whenever football coach Will Muschamp needs him there. But with football teams limited to 15 practices in the spring, Holbrook doesn’t expect too many conflicts this season.

“They don’t practice for a long period of time, and some of their practices are on days when we don’t have games,” Holbrook said. “I don’t think the conflict is tough for the coaching staffs. The challenge is with Brandon. He plays a position (in football) where he requires a lot of study, a lot of interaction with the coaches. The easy part is both coaching staffs working together.”

Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri has proven to be adept at working with football/baseball players throughout his storied career. At LSU, he won a national title in 2009 with football players Chad Jones and Jared Mitchell playing key roles. At Notre Dame, he coached Jeff Samardzija, who was a two-time Biletnikoff Award finalist (given to the best wide receiver in the country) and an all-Big East pitcher. Even going back to his days at Air Force, where he started his Division I coaching career, Mainieri said he was using two-sport players.

While every situation is unique, Mainieri said the common thread to making the arrangement work has always been the cooperation of the football coach. During his career, he has worked in conjunction with football coaches such as Lou Holtz, Les Miles, Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham.

“The only way it works is if you have the full cooperation of the football coach,” Mainieri said. “Fortunately for me, the coaches I have dealt with through years were men of integrity.”

Several other coaches who have had two-sport players at schools of various sizes agreed with Mainieri. Without the football coach being on board, there is little chance of an arrangement working.

The cooperation starts in recruiting, Mainieri said. While he likes having baseball players who played football, especially quarterback, in high school, he won’t start recruiting a player who intends to play football in college.

Instead, Mainieri waits until the football staff is recruiting a player who also is interested in playing baseball. Then he is happy to help with recruiting, as long as they’re upfront with the player about expectations.

“Generally, if a guy is good enough to be recruited (for football) at the schools I’ve been at, he is a good athlete and good enough to play baseball,” Mainieri said. “I just do whatever (the football staff asks) me to do. I rarely go into the homes of football players, but when they come into campus, I’ll spend time with them.”

Jameis Winston is the most prominent two-sport college athlete in recent years. He led Florida State to a national championship on the football field and won the Heisman Trophy in the fall of 2013, then earned Preseason All-American honors that spring for baseball and went 1-0, 1.08 with seven saves in 24 appearances. After another successful football season that culminated with an appearance in the College Football Playoff, he entered the NFL draft and ended his baseball career.

That kind of impact is rare. The year after Winston graduated from high school and was drafted in the 15th round by the Rangers, Texas prep quarterback/outfielder Cody Thomas was drafted in the 30th round by the Yankees. He chose to continue on to Oklahoma, where he would play both sports. After redshirting in his freshman year on the football field, he appeared in just 14 games on the diamond and went 1-for-12. He opted to focus on football the following year in an attempt to win the starting quarterback job. But after appearing in just 10 football games (three starts) over the last two years, he is back with the baseball team this spring, attempting to make his mark on the diamond.

McIlwain is just at the beginning of his college career. He hasn’t yet put on his pads for a football practice, but he has started working out with the baseball team. Last Saturday, in one of his first college intersquad games, he hit two home runs.

Holbrook is wary of putting too much pressure on McIlwain, who could still be a senior in high school. But the talent is already obvious.

“He has a gift,” Holbrook said. “He looks like he can be a big contributor to our team. His early work has been very encouraging.”

Holbrook has had dual-sport athletes before at South Carolina and he knows the kinds of challenges that await McIlwain. But Holbrook said McIlwain has the mindset necessary to continue to have success on the diamond.

“A lot of people in the baseball industry have told him he can play the game a long time,” Holbrook said. “He knows he has a bright future playing baseball. It’s not just a hobby for him. It’s a sport he has great passion for and that he knows he’s good at.”

News and Notes

Atlantic Coast Conference: Clemson opened a new addition this fall at Doug Kingsmore Stadium, including a new players’ lounge. A ping-pong table was installed, and with it came some custom paddles.

Big 12 Conference: Texas went on a run to win the Big 12 Tournament last year and salvage what had been a disappointing season that saw the Longhorns go 11-13 in conference play. The Longhorns are hoping to bounce back this season, and will look to their 18th-ranked recruiting class for immediate help. About half a dozen freshmen may end up in key roles for Texas this spring.

Big Ten Conference: On signing day, Michigan hosted “Signing of the Stars,” an extravaganza that brought several celebrities and star athletes to campus, including Tom Brady, Ric Flair and Derek Jeter. Rangers lefthander Derek Holland was also in town for the event Wednesday, and spoke to the Wolverines and threw a bullpen. “He was the best player on the field,” coach Erik Bakich said. In addition to creating significant buzz around Michigan’s incoming football class, the event also raised $110,000 for the ChadTough Foundation, which funds research and raises awareness for pediatric brain cancer. The foundation is named for Chad Carr, the grandson of former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr. Chad Carr died last fall at the age of 5 after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and his struggle with his illness galvanized the Michigan community. “Our program is certainly going to do all we can to support the ChadTough Foundation in the same way,” Bakich said. “I was super excited to see it was not just about the ‘Signing of the Stars,’ but also a vehicle of promoting and supporting the ChadTough Foundation.”

Pacific-12 Conference: Arizona State enters the season unranked in the Top 25 for just the fourth time since Baseball America’s rankings began in 1981. The Sun Devils appear to be embracing the rare chance to play the role of the underdog. A video titled “Arizona State Baseball—What I Am,” directed by Casey Smith, the son of coach Tracy Smith, and featuring senior infielder/righthander Jordan Aboites was published to YouTube last week. The video follows the 5-foot-6 Aboites as he works out, while hip-hop artist Parish Carter, wearing an Arizona State jacket, provides a motivational voice-over. “They said I wasn’t big enough. They said I wasn’t strong enough,” Carter says at the beginning of the video.

Southeastern Conference: South Carolina has a few options behind the plate, with sophomores John Jones and Hunter Taylor, and freshman Chris Cullen all in the mix. Although he is known for his receiving ability, Cullen has the versatility to play elsewhere on the diamond, which may be asked to do to allow help the Gamecocks get Jones in the lineup at catcher. He hit .340/.439/.490 last season at the State JC of Florida … Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs worked out with the baseball team last Friday, the first official day of practice. While Dobbs was a talented prep baseball player in Georgia, coach Dave Serrano has not said whether the junior will join the baseball team this year. The Volunteers roster currently lists 34 players … LSU freshman O’Neal Lochridge has begun working out at second base after struggling defensively at third base. Lochridge, who ranked No. 280 on the BA 500, was a shortstop in high school and still profiles best at third base if he can get his glove back on track.

Other conferences: Snow and bad weather has forced Brigham Young to begin practice indoors this season. But this weekend, the Cougars will escape the poor weather and head a few hours south to St. George, Utah, for a pair of scrimmages. BYU is a sleeper in what looks to be a competitive West Coast Conference this season … Ohio won the Mid-American Conference Tournament last year for the first time since 1997. The Bobcats return MAC player of the year Mitch Longo, but will have to replace a few key pieces on the mound, including All-American closer Logan Cozart. Righthander Jake Miller could return to the bullpen, where he would likely take on Cozart’s relief ace role. The Bobcats also have high hopes for righthander/first baseman Michael Kelin, a junior college transfer who will factor in more on the mound early in the season … The NCAA Board of Governors unanimously voted Monday to extend president Mark Emmert’s contract by three years, through 2020, which an option for a fourth year. Emmert has led the NCAA since October 2010.

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