French an instant success on gridiron

When he was younger, the sport of basketball applauded Christian French's (Cedar Rapids, Iowa/Kennedy) size.

On the other hand, football wasn't so nice to him.

Always one of the taller kids, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound French grew up playing linebacker during his youth football days, not allowed to touch the ball other than a trick play here or there.

"As a kid you get frustrated, wondering why they wouldn't they let me play this position or that position," French said. "I didn't understand it because at the time I was the fastest player on the team and they wouldn't let me play anything but linebacker. I wanted to score touchdowns and all of that, and that was one of the things that made me mad about it, and eventually I stopped focusing on it and stopped playing."

French hung up his football cleats after fifth grade in favor of basketball, and he likely wouldn't have returned to the gridiron if it weren't for the coaches and his friends on the football team at Kennedy High.

Without football, French was pouring most of his time into hoops, playing AAU during the summer and for his school in the winter. He declined to play football his freshman year despite constant peer pressure from his buddies.

"I kept saying I was going to go out but I didn't," French said. "I was lazy."

Kennedy head coach Tim Lewis thought it was something else.

"He was kind of brainwashed thinking he was going to be the next LeBron James," Lewis said.

"We talked him into coming out, saying that we'd put him at free safety and just let him run around out there and break on footballs, and he kind of bit on that. We knew he was fast. In eighth grade he was city champion in the 100 or 60 or whatever they run. His height was around the same size that he is now, and he was very athletic."

French's outstanding athleticism had him quickly promoted to varsity, and he ended up starting every game at free safety.

"We didn't have anyone in the junior or senior class we felt comfortable with at that position," Lewis said. "We told him if you come out, you'll start varsity. Between those couple things, we got him to come out and play."

Good thing they did.

Still a little raw, the four-star French is arguably the top prospect in the state of Iowa. As a junior, Lewis still lined him at free safety, but also gave him time at linebacker and on offense. French now holds scholarship offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri. Nebraska, Oregon, Texas A&M and Wisconsin. USC could be the next school to offer. The Trojans staff says they want to see him at camp.

Every program is liking what it sees on film. As a junior, French had 54 tackles and seven forced fumbles. On offense, he averaged 25 yards per touch on 11 carries and two receptions, and scored two touchdowns. French also returned a punt back for a score.

"We brought him a little bit more [on the blitz], and I think that's the thing on video that coaches were impressed with the most," Lewis said. "Him coming off the edge or hitting the A or B gap, and they see just how aggressive he is, or how fast he is able to run people down. We did put him in on offense some, more or less as a decoy. We gave him the ball some mostly on reverses."

Some college programs are saying they want to give French the ball a lot at the receiver position. A few other schools are recruiting him as an athlete. A lot of coaches are saying outside linebacker. Lewis agrees with that, and this coming season will move French around to various linebacker positions in his 3-5 scheme.

"He is as aggressive as any football player I've ever coached," Lewis stated. "He can knock down anyone on our football team, the biggest O-lineman, the wrestler, it doesn't matter. He can run them over if he wants to. He'll come flying in there and absolutely clean someone up."

This past track season, French clocked a 10.68 in the 100-meter dash before a hamstring injury ended his season. He reports no favorites early in the recruiting process, and plans to use his five official visits before deciding.

Two years ago, he certainly didn't envision this much attention for his football exploits.

"I was like, wow," French said. "My dad was like that, too. A lot of people wouldn't have thought I'd get these offers for football, but I love the sport, and I'm here for the long run."

Instead of spending his summer playing AAU basketball, French will focus on getting better for his senior football season, and taking recruiting visits. Five schools are standing out with the attention they're showing him.

"Obviously the schools that are close to home, Iowa and Iowa State, because they're down the road," French began. "I get the most contact from Iowa and Notre Dame and Texas A&M, and Oregon, I'm getting a lot of stuff from them. I'm not ready to single out any schools, and I'm getting a lot of looks from all of them."

French got his first look at Notre Dame when he visited for junior day March 20. During the recent spring evaluation period, Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and assistant coach Chuck Martin visited Kennedy High.

"The kind of people there," French said of what he likes about the school. "From talking to them, Chuck Martin and [coach Diaco], they came and visited me in school and I talked to them when I went down there. In-your-face type guys. They're motivational, get to the point, tell you what they're looking at you as. They make you want to play football."

French wants to see South Bend again, where they're recruiting him as an outside linebacker. He also plans to see several other schools during the coming months.

"This summer, I definitely want to take a visit back to Notre Dame," he said. "Of course Iowa and Iowa State with them being right down the road. I'm pretty sure I'll make it to Missouri, probably Wisconsin and Nebraska, and I might fly out to Oregon or USC depending on my schedule. Maybe Texas A&M, but you have to hit the ones that are closest to you like Kansas and Kansas State. That's only like a seven- or eight-hour drive, so I'm pretty sure I can make those."

French said he was sure about what he's looking for in a school.

"A place I can be comfortable, and once I get a chance to visit either all or most of these places, I'll get another chance to look at the people face-to-face and see what kind of people they are and see if I can stay there the next four or five years of my life," he said.

"What do you see when you're on campus," French continued. "How do the coaches interact with the players? What do the players say about the coaches when they're not around? Those are the things I think are important. You have to be in tune with the coaches and know everything that they're about, before you decide to go to that school."

One thing is for sure. French is now completely in tune with football.

Steve Wiltfong is a writer for ESPN affiliate and Notre Dame fan site IrishSportsDaily.com.