College football's triple threats excel anywhere on the field

ByDan Murphy ESPN logo
Monday, August 22, 2016

Jabrill Peppers lined up in the slot for Michigan's offense on a cold day in early November last year. He started in motion before the snap, running behind his quarterback and bubbling toward the sideline. After catching a lateral pass, the freshman cut upfield around one Rutgers defender, plowed through a pair of arm tackles and outraced the Scarlet Knights' secondary to the corner of the Big House end zone.

It wasn't so much the score -- or the fact that Peppers is ostensibly a defensive player -- that led coach Jim Harbaugh to pull his most dangerous and versatile athlete over to the sideline to tell him, "Man, you're really good."

It was effortless. It was graceful. It was smooth, the type of rhythm usually achieved only after countless reps and reviews. It was the second time Peppers had ever run the play. The first came in practice earlier that week; the second was an 18-yard sprint for his second career touchdown.

"It's just football, man," says Peppers about his ability to play at least a half-dozen positions across all three phases of the game during his first season at Michigan. "I personally don't know how to explain it to you guys. I'm just playing football."

Earlier that same afternoon, Pittsburgh's Jordan Whitehead, also a freshman defensive back, ran for two touchdowns against Notre Dame on the first four offensive carries of his career as a Panther. Maryland'sWilliam Likelystarted on both offense and defense for the first time against Wisconsin thatday, leading the Terps in rushing yards.

On the West Coast, Oregon's Charles Nelson caught a touchdown pass for the Ducks' offense and also started at cornerback, and USC's Adoree' Jackson picked up 130 all-purpose yards for the Trojans -- 131 in net gain if you want to tack on the yard he supplied via a tackle for loss on defense. All of them made it look easier than it should.

Meet college football's new burgeoning breed of weapons, versatile players who can change a game on a single play no matter which team has the football. They are dazzling athletes, making life equally miserable for opposing teams and the poor souls who have to try to pin down their position on the depth charts each week.

The main trait that seems to link them all and allows them to contribute in so many ways -- besides their obvious athleticism -- is what scouts like to call FBI: football intelligence. FBI is the sport-specific intuition that allows players like Peppers to carve up an opposing defense the first time he tries something new. Like Mozart and Beethoven on the piano or Will Hunting with organic chemistry, when it comes to football, these guys can just play.

"They're artists," said John Baxter, who coached Peppers as a punt returner at Michigan last season and is now at USC with Jackson. "Look at it like it's a guitar. Most of us can go to a guitar lesson and they'll teach us where to put our fingers on the fret and how to pull the string and then we can play a chord. Those guys hear it and play it."

This current wave of three-phase players is far from the first to bounce from one side of the ball to the other since Fritz Crisler christened "two-platoon" football in Ann Arbor. Peppers' mentor, for example, is Michigan Heisman winner and its most accomplished three-way athlete, Charles Woodson. This rising crop of football maestros, though, is pushing the idea of players undefined by position to new heights. They are taking advantage of a faster paced game, better fitness technology and a changing mentality about how to use your best athletes. And they are making a strong case that every program in college football should be searching for their own jacks-of-all-trades.

The letters "ATH" were printed beside Jackson's name the first time he saw his USC locker. Jackson was surprised and a little confused. He wasn't quite sure what they meant at the time. Everyone else in the room had a designated position stamped onto their placards. Two years later, Jackson says there are three or four other Trojans who now have the ATH suffix: Athlete.

"It's evolution," Jackson said. "A lot of people see that a guy can affect a game and they think, 'Man, if I could have my best player affect the game in all those ways I want to do that.' I think that starts to spread to everybody in the country."

Players, as much as anyone, have helped preach the gospel of versatility. Jackson made sure Lane Kiffin knew that he wanted to play both ways the first time USC's former coach came to recruit him. The only schools he took seriously during the recruiting process, he said, were those that could show him a package for how they planned to use him on offense.

Michigan's all-conference cornerback Jourdan Lewis waited until this summer to make his plea for some offensive touches. The senior saw Peppers with the ball in his hands and decided he was good enough to do the same. At Big Ten media days, Lewis said he was "putting it out there" that he wanted to run some routes as a receiver in 2016. A week later, without having a formal discussion between them, Harbaugh said Lewis would get a shot on offense.

Maryland's old coaching staff joked with Likely, the team's punt returner and interception specialist, about playing on offense during September last year. In October, he told them he seriously wanted to give it a try, and by the first week of November he was starting on all three units.

Likely got his own locker room surprise when he showed up for his first practice of the season under new head coach D.J. Durkin earlier this month. Maryland's defensive players had red jerseys hanging below their helmets. The offensive players had white jerseys. Likely and the quarterbacks would be wearing gold.

"It was a no-brainer for them," Likely said. "Before I could even say a word [Durkin] said it for me. I would be playing offense defense and special teams. I didn't have to say too much."

Durkin, of course, saw firsthand the benefits of sharing your best athletes while coordinating Michigan's defense last season. His track record with playing guys both ways dates to his days with Harbaugh at Stanford where linebacker/fullback Owen Marecic once scored a rushing touchdown and a pick-six on back-to-back plays. Marecic was the first winner of the Paul Hornung Award, given to the country's most versatile player starting in 2010. The competition for that trophy gets more crowded each year.

"Once someone does something and is successful with it, others are going to fall in line," Durkin said.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi learned how to manage a multiuse player during his long stint as defensive coordinator at Michigan State. So when Whitehead showed himself to be up to the task, Narduzzi had a place in place.

Whitehead had to master Pitt's defense before he could think about expanding to offense, a common requirement for coaches that have been down this road before. When the freshman safety (who led Pitt's defense with 109 tackles) was ready, the coaching staff installed the "Whitehead package" to ease their new weapon into his role.

The staff also closely monitored Whitehead's workload using the Catapult GPS system that many college sports teams now use to track how hard their athletes are working. The data collected from Whitehead's GPS unit allowed coaches to hold him back and keep him fresh as they continued to ask for more from him on game day.

Coaches have traditionally held two main fears that keep them from putting their most capable athletes on the field as much as possible. The first is the concern about watering down a player's ability to understand one position by taxing him mentally to learn many. The second is the potential wear and tear that could lead to injuries by taxing him physically.

"It's really about being smart with them and make sure you're not wearing them out," Narduzzi said. "It's one thing to have a guy play both ways, but if you wear him out and get him hurt and he's not playing as well because of that, you've got a problem. If he gets knocked out of a game, then how dumb am I?"

Today's technology makes the physical side easier than ever to track. More sophisticated coaching in high school and earlier access to film also produces more prospects that show up on campus ready to grasp some higher-level concepts. Custom-made packages also give athletes a chance to learn the playbook in digestible bites while transitioning to a new phase of the game.

These guys aren't turning back the clock on specialization in football, they're taking the next step forward. Peppers isn't filling in a spot where any running back or slot receiver would otherwise be doing the same thing. He's lining up at a position and running plays that have been specially created for him and his unique ability to slice through a defense the way he did in the first week of November last fall.

Improvements in training and coaching help get the most out of top-notch athletes and keep them safe as they press to do more. Players are more likely to speak up and ask for opportunities. All of this adds up to proliferation of some of football's most electric athletes shining in all phases of the game. The mystery that remains lies in how these guys develop the football intelligence -- that play-it-by-ear ability -- to do so many different things in the first place. It's uncoachable, and it's impossible to pin down even for the veteran assistants who have worked side-by-side with special athletes for their whole careers. "What is it?" Baxter asks rhetorically. "Who knows? Who cares? If you've got Beethoven, just enjoy it and let him play."

More and more coaches are starting to agree. Let them play, and let them play in as many places as possible.