Earlier this week ESPN.com took a look at the most versatile players on each roster for the top 25 teams. The list featured players like Christian McCaffrey, Jabrill Peppers, Adoree' Jackson and Desmond King, but it started a debate amongst Pac-12 writers: Is it a good thing to have college football players put in as many positions as possible? Or is it better to have them specialize at a single position?
Ted Miller and Chantel Jennings decided to take this battle to the blogs.
Miller: College football’s most versatile player? Bollocks. While being a "jack of all trades" is a nice angle for sports writers, there’s a reason the hackneyed phrase is followed by “master of none.”
As in, "Marcus Mariota is tall and fast -- why not play him at safety?" Or, “You can’t tell me that J.J. Watt shouldn’t also see 20 or so plays a game at tight end!”
Now, we aren't ranting against having diverse skills and a coach taking advantage of that. McCaffrey is a perfect example. McCaffrey is dynamic with the ball in his hands, so getting the ball into his hands in a variety of ways is smart and effective.
The mistake would be to then experiment with him on defense, thinking his superior athleticism would make him, say, an ideal situational cover corner. Such a move may yield a spectacular highlight or two, but it would reduce McCaffrey’s overall effectiveness and dilute the value of his specific talents.
How many players truly thrive in the NFL going both ways? So what benefit is it to a young man to do so in college?
The over-celebration of versatility extends beyond going both ways on the gridiron. It includes playing multiple sports. While it was undeniably impressive that Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders played in the NFL and Major League Baseball, their baseball hobbies reduced their football greatness.
We may be seeing that with USC’s Jackson. Jackson is among the most talented athletes in Power 5 football, perhaps the most talented. He should be entering the 2016 preseason as the most feared cover corner in college football. But he’s not, in large part because of his undeniable “versatility."
If Jackson asked me for advice, I’d tell him: “No track. No wide receiver. Cornerback and punt returns. The NFL awaits its next Darrelle Revis.”
While it’s wonderful to celebrate the Renaissance men and women of the world with a diversity of skills, that doesn’t extend to sports. We don’t need Stephen Curry to go all Michael Jordan and decide he wants to take a stab at hitting a curveball, just as we don’t need the best college football players to never leave the field in order to show their “versatility."
Jennings: Shocking to see Miller go all negative Nancy on this one, right?
I think it’s good for college players to be versatile. Who is going to tell Jackson or Peppers, “Well, we would’ve thought you were a talented player that we wanted to draft but you played too many different positions, so we really can’t get a read on you ...”
Now, those are two of the most ridiculously athletic guys in college sports. I get that. And not everyone is as versatile as them and some college football players are considered versatile only because their teams are depleted enough that the coach needs bodies at multiple positions.
But those aren’t the guys we’re debating. We’re talking about Power 5 guys who are so absurdly talented that they have the athletic and mental capacity to play several positions at a high level. Maybe there are players on that list like Charles Nelson who might ultimately be too small to play at the next level. But it will be because of his size, not because he played too many positions and wasn’t able to excel as just a corner or just a slot receiver.
Please take a moment and go through that top 25 list and tell me which of those players won’t be playing on Sundays. I can’t find many (and yes, I realize I gave you Nelson in the previous paragraph as one ...).
Now, look at the past few Paul Hornung Award winners. You think any of those guys are bemoaning the fact they were so versatile in college? No. For top-end players, being versatile on the field only makes them more attractive to scouts. And no, they won’t play both ways on Sundays, but doing so on Saturdays makes them more fit for wherever they do end up on Sundays.
And ultimately, this debate doesn’t even necessarily have to be about the NFL, because at the end of the day most college players won’t play in the league. Most of these guys who are playing multiple positions are going to get four years of eligibility in college and that’s it. So if a player wants to and can get in more snaps by playing offense and defense or defense and kick returner -- who are we to say that it’s a bad thing?
And besides, like most things, this is a case-by-case thing. We can debate a wide-ranging topic like versatility and whether or not that serves players well or not, but we both know for some players it does, and other it does not. And for the some that it does serve well, maybe it serves them well now, maybe it serves them well later.