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Two-Sport Athletes To Watch As College Football Returns

Image credit: Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray was drafted by the A's in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft. Photos by Matthew Stockman (left) and Thearon W. Henderson (right)/Getty Images)

The college football season gets underway in earnest this weekend, with the games stretching all the way through Monday night. The college baseball season is still nearly six months away, but a handful of baseball stars will also be playing on the gridiron this fall.

Multi-sport athletes are rare in the college ranks, but as the draft showed in June, they can still make a big impact. The Athletics surprised the industry when they made Oklahoma outfielder/quarterback Kyler Murray the ninth overall pick in the draft and signed him to a deal worth almost $5 million that also allowed him to return to Norman for one more season of football. He will open the season as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback against Florida Atlantic.

Murray wasn’t the only prominent football-baseball star to be drafted in the top 10 rounds. The Padres selected Rutgers outfielder/defensive back Jawuan Harris in the seventh round. Unlike Murray, Harris’ football career came to an end after the draft and he hit .225/.360/.375 with 14 stolen bases in 49 games in the Rookie-level Arizona League.

Beyond those two, there are still some exciting two-sport athletes to keep an eye on this fall.

Brandon McIlwain, OF/QB, California

Murray last year set a high standard for two-sport players, and expecting anyone pulling the football-baseball double to match his success is unrealistic. But there are many similarities between McIlwain and Murray.

Like Murray, McIlwain was a high-profile recruit in both sports. Murray likely would have been a high-round draft pick out of high school had he not opted out of the draft. McIlwain took it a step further and graduated high school a semester early and enrolled at South Carolina. Both saw some action on the gridiron as freshmen but ultimately transferred. Both have electric tools and offer a lot of upside but have missed a lot of time on the baseball field due to football and their transfers.

McIlwain will now hope the parallel to Murray continues as he gets back in action this year following his transfer to Cal. He enters the fall No. 2 on the depth chart behind Ross Bowers, who started for the Golden Bears last year. While he isn’t starting, McIlwain may see some action as a change-of-pace quarterback thanks to his running ability.

Meanwhile, Cal baseball coach Mike Neu is excited to have McIlwain eligible this spring. McIlwain had to sit out last season after transferring, but the Golden Bears kept him on the roster so that he could practice with the team and be in the dugout during home games.

“He was as into the game as anybody we had on the team and he had no chance to go in,” Neu said. “It was fun having him for the home games. He was into every pitch and was really about us being successful.”

McIlwain’s plus speed and athleticism give him a chance to play center field, and he last spring got practice at all three outfield spots. In high school, he showed an impressive feel to hit, especially for a two-sport star from the Northeast, and he has some power in his wiry, 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame.

McIlwain, a redshirt sophomore, could potentially add another impactful bat into a Cal lineup that returns first baseman Andrew Vaughn, the Golden Spikes Award winner, but lost three starters to the draft.

“Anybody that’s seen him play knows his upside is so big and he really enjoys playing baseball and working at it,” Neu said. “There’s definitely some excitement about what he could do. At the same time, you have to be realistic. He’s been very limited on the baseball field the last three years. Hopefully he can make up some ground when he starts to play some games with us after football.”

Justin Fitzpatrick, OF/DB, Western Illinois and Steve McShane, OF/RB, Western Illinois

Fitzpatrick and McShane are the rare pair of classmates to pull double duty. The seniors have been key contributors for the Leathernecks both on the gridiron and diamond throughout their college careers.

McShane last season earned all-conference honors in both sports. He hit .317/.359/.394 to lead Western Illinois in batting. In the fall, he ranked fifth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference with 103.82 all-purpose yards per game and scored 11 touchdowns.

McShane, listed at 5-foot-8, 185 pounds, last year told the Freeport Journal Standard that his approach at the plate is simple.

“It’s basic: See ball, hit ball,” McShane said. “I only have four walks, so I’m swinging. I’m going in there thinking I’m going to hit this ball.”

Fitzpatrick last year was all-conference in football after recording five interceptions and 57 tackles. He had a tough year at the plate, batting .178/.211/.247, but did hit his first career home run.

Fitzpatrick this fall has big expectations on the football field. He was selected to the preseason all-conference team and voted a captain.

Cody Williams, OF/WR, Stephen F. Austin State

After not playing baseball in his freshman year at SFA, Williams last spring joined the team as a sophomore. He hit .235/.395/.265 in 31 games, mostly coming in as a pinch runner or defensive replacement. Last year on the football field, he caught 15 passes for 162 yards and was named to the Southland Conference all-academic team. Williams is also aiming to attend medical school in the future, adding a heavy academic load to his busy schedule.

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