- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
Sure, college coaches might be comfortable with switching a signee from his lifelong playing position to something totally new. As for the players, it can be like trying to learn a new language. And can lead to some R-rated language during the transition.
"Just because I'm good at this s--- doesn't mean I should have to do it," I remember hearing Tennessee All-American Carl Pickens screaming at coaches as he stomped out of a position meeting in 1990. The wide receiver was one of the best natural athletes I've ever seen. So much so that a desperate then-Vols head coach Johnny Majors started playing him both ways in '89, at wideout on offense and cornerback on defense during his redshirt freshman season. As much as Pickens complained -- and he did a lot -- he also accomplished something that in these times would cause a Twitter meltdown. He caught a touchdown pass and hauled in an interception in the same game. Twice.
"It is hard to re-program the brain of a 19-year old," Majors says now. "They always resist. But you hope that the kid can see into the same crystal ball that you can as coach. Even if their switch to a new position is only temporary, it can make them a complete football player that they would have never been otherwise. I certainly thought it made Carl Pickens a better receiver."
Sometimes the payoff is immediate, as it was during the one-year Pickens experiment, or more recently when Ohio State moved Zach Boren from fullback to middle linebacker, which was actually his preferred position in high school. Other times, it just never seems to click. See: Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech's tight end-turned-quarterback.
But who among today's players has seen the gamble return some very nice dividends, for both the player and his team? Here are five of the best current college position switcheroos, guys who will likely make a big impact on 2013, even if from an unlikely spot on the field.
Devin Fuller, WR, UCLA Bruins: Jim Mora and his staff wanted to find a way to get their most highly-touted recruit onto the field, even if that meant breaking the freshman out of his natural position of quarterback. In the season's first seven games he recorded the exact same offensive statistics as you and me. Zero. But over the final seven games he saw plenty of action, pressed there by injuries, including two starts and two TD catches.
"A few people went down, and the coaches came to me and asked me to help at wide receiver, so it was a chance to do that and get on the field," said the true freshman. "But I still consider myself a quarterback."
Mora says he feels the same way and that Fuller will go back to working with the signal-callers this spring. However, losing his redshirt means that Fuller is now on the same eligibility schedule as current starting QB Brett Hundley. That likely means more time at wideout. Which means more and more NFL scouts will start viewing him as such.
Michael Bennett, DE, Ohio State Buckeyes: When Bennett arrived in Columbus, there were whispers that the then-6-foot-3, 280-pound manster might flip sides of the ball to bolster the Buckeyes' thinning offensive line (keep in mind that "thinning" is a relative term). Instead, he made a switch that on paper might not seem like a big deal, but in reality is a gigantic overhaul, moving out from defensive tackle to end.
"You might think, 'Well, a pass-rusher is a pass-rusher,' but that's just not the case," says Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, who made more than a few bold position switches in 2012, most notably Boren. "But it really is an entirely different mentality. You have to be very 'football smart' to make that move. If Michael can continue to progress, that will say a lot to the guys at the next level."
He's not there yet, but if Bennett can replicate his performance versus Michigan on a regular basis, he'll be there in a hurry.
Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, CB, Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Brian Kelly's Notre Dame staff have become masters of the position switch, primarily out of necessity. Running back George Atkinson was recruited as a wide receiver and tight end Troy Niklas came to South Bend as a linebacker, where he played in 2011. But nowhere did swapping spots have a bigger impact than in the secondary, where Jackson and Russell, both brought in as wide receivers, have seen their NFL stock rise (the BCS title game notwithstanding), joined by safety Matthias Farley, also originally projected as a receiver.
"It was something they came to me about," Jackson said in the days leading up to the national championship. "I liked receiver. I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands at first. I wasn't mad about [the switch] but I wasn't fond of it. But as time went on I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more and I was actually really happy with the switch."
Lawrence Thomas, All-Purpose, Michigan State Spartans: MSU head coach Mark Dantonio likes to answer any and all Lawrence Thomas questions the same way. "I don't see LT as this position or that position. I see LT's position as 'football player.'"
Recruited as a linebacker out of high school, the 6-3, 295-pound redshirt freshman put in time on defense, but also as a fullback and a pass-catcher, with seven catches for 78 yards. It is widely assumed he will move back to defense full-time in 2013, but if he has his way it won't be at linebacker. He saw time at defensive tackle in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl versus TCU and has told his coaches he'd like to be a nose tackle. But he's also offered up his services at tight end, a spot left open with the early NFL exit of Dion Sims.
"I think coach (Mark Dantonio) knows that ... he has another person that can do the exact same things," Thomas told the Detroit Free Press in late December. "If he comes up and asks me, I'll tell him I can go both ways and play tight end, also. I know the plays on both sides, so he wouldn't be too worried about it."
Neither would NFL scouts, who are already excited about the "football player," no matter where he lines up.