Hybrid players star in SEC

Hybrid players have become the rage in college football, and the SEC seems to have cornered the market on them.

What exactly is a hybrid player?

Think Dexter McCluster at Ole Miss, Jeff Demps at Florida, Randall Cobb at Kentucky, Russell Shepard at LSU and Mario Fannin at Auburn.

It's not just confined to running back/receiver types, either.

Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams, who caught 61 passes a year ago, hopes to see all sides of the Hogs' offense this season.

"Look at what the Colts have done with Dallas Clark," Williams said. "It's hard for a defense to get the right personnel in the game when you've got a guy who might be on the line for one play and out at receiver the next play.

"It's a cool little thing we've got going on right now."

Williams says the essence of a hybrid player is the ability to be so versatile the coach isn't quite sure where to play him.

"He's big enough to do this or fast enough to do that, so you create that hybrid spot for him," Williams said.

Percy Harvin set the standard for that role in the SEC the past couple of seasons. The former Florida star was fast enough to play receiver and tough enough and explosive enough to play running back.

In Gainesville, they referred to his spot simply as the "Percy position." But then, they tend to name positions after you when you score touchdowns in 15 consecutive games.

Sophomore speedster Demps, who's even faster than Harvin, will get first crack at stepping into that role this season. Demps rushed for 605 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He also caught a touchdown pass. Five of his seven rushing touchdowns were 36 yards or longer. His receiving touchdown was a 61-yarder.

In a word, he's a blur.

But it takes more than just speed to survive in today's hybrid world.

"They don't recruit just fast guys here, but fast, tough guys who can play any role," said Demps, who also blocked two punts last season. "You never know where you might be taking snaps. It's sort of like when you were growing up and playing. You play everything."

If McCluster has his way this season at Ole Miss, they'll have to drag him off the field.

He's the SEC's most accomplished hybrid player on the offensive side of the ball, and one of the most exciting players in all of college football.

"It's called being a football player. If you're a baller, you can play anywhere," said McCluster, who rushed for 655 yards and also had 625 yards in receptions last season.

His goal is to get at least 20 touches a game this season. The way he breaks it down is eight as a receiver, six as a running back and six more in the "Wild Rebel" formation.

The 5-foot-8 McCluster played at 162 pounds last season, but he's up to 170 pounds entering this season. He's incredibly strong for his size and bench-presses 340 pounds and squats more than 400 pounds.

"I lot of people look at me and say, 'I'll have to see it to believe it,'" McCluster said. "I enjoy showing 'em."

Everybody, it seems, has a player or two designated to run the Wildcat formation, which is a lot like the modern-day version of the single wing.

When you can legitimately pass out of that formation, though … that's when it really gives defenses fits. Kentucky coach Rich Brooks thinks Randall Cobb, a quarterback in high school, will provide that dimension for the Wildcats.

"That's where we're a little different. Our guy can throw it," Brooks said.

Occasionally, defensive players even get into the act. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier wants to give freshman cornerback Stephon Gilmore a shot on offense, and Florida cornerback Joe Haden has worked some in the direct-snap package this preseason.

Both Gilmore and Haden were high school quarterbacks. Haden threw for more than 7,300 yards and 80 touchdowns during a prolific prep career in Maryland.

"I was an offensive player my whole life until I got here," Haden said. "Throwing the ball brings back memories."

Dan Mullen, who was at Florida for four years before landing the Mississippi State head coaching job, puts a star beside the names of those prospects in recruiting that bounce around and play different positions.

Harvin was like that in high school. He played quarterback, running back, receiver and safety. Mississippi State freshman Chad Bumphis was the same way.

"Some people say Chad Bumphis might have been the best quarterback in the state last year," Mullen said. "They moved him to quarterback when [LSU freshman Chris Garrett] got hurt, and he started dominating games. They moved him back out to receiver, then to tailback. He also returned punts. Those type of things are what you want to see, because it shows they're great football players.

"And if you have a great football player, you can do a lot of different things with them."

McCluster's plan is to never sit down this season. He's even pushing to get some chances as a punt returner.

"Coach has told me to be ready for anything … and I will," he said.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. He covered Tennessee from 1997 to 2006. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.