The debate regarding playing multiple sports in high school is popular as ever. Athletes, coaches and parents often weigh the pros and cons of specialization as they look for any possible advantage over the competition to land scholarships.
Results are mixed in some sports, but football is not one of those. Evidence clearly suggests there are little, if any, advantages to specialization on the gridiron. Especially for prized recruits.
Football prospects who continue competing in other sports can gain more possible scholarship opportunities, expanded competitive instincts and are likely to impress college coaches. There’s also a strong correlation between NFL draftees and former multisport athletes.
In Arkansas, the two highest-rated 2018 football recruits — Connor Noland and Gerry Bohanon Jr. — are multisport standouts. Noland and Bohanon are both 4-star quarterback prospects according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. They are examples of how playing other sports doesn’t harm the ability to garner football opportunities at the next level.
SEC Country asked both recruits and Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema, as well as gathering information from other reports, to examine the benefits of playing more than football in high school. The response was overwhelmingly against specialization.
Bielema always has enjoyed recruiting multisport athletes in his 23 years as a college coach. During his National Signing Day press conference in February, he called 2017 running back signee Chase Hayden one of “my favorite guys I’ve ever recruited.” He made the statement immediately after giddily explaining Hayden’s talents on the basketball court.
Bielema encourages parents to allow their kids to play as many sports as they wish. His idea, at least at a young age, is to give them as many chances as possible to excel.
“I think it builds confidence within the kid,” Bielema said. “If you get a kid and all you’ve trained him in is one sport and he doesn’t have the same success he wants, what would’ve happened if you provided him with the chance to play others?”
Noland doubles as a talented right-handed pitcher at Greenwood (Ark.) High School. He grew up playing baseball and has long dreamed of playing professional sports. To this point, playing Major League Baseball or in the NFL remains a realistic possibility, making it difficult for him to give one up.
He understands his situation is unique. Not every athlete, no matter how hard they may train, can develop the ability to throw a baseball 90 miles per hour. Still, he’s seen the benefits of remaining active in as many sports as possible. He’s experienced how one sport translates to the other, for himself and others.
“For other guys, it gives them a lot of options,” said Noland, who is committed to play baseball and football at Arkansas. “If something doesn’t work out, you have a secondary thing. It’s fun, obviously, but I think it also definitely adds different dimensions and depths to your athleticism.”
Bohanon was first a potential basketball prospect before he became a highly-sought football recruit. According to A.C. Coleman, his track coach at Earle (Ark.) High School, Bohanon was among the top 150 among basketball recruits for his class early in his high school career.
Some would’ve considered giving up other sports at that point, but not Bohanon. He’s remained active in basketball, football and track through his junior year. It’s paid off as his future has gone from the hardwood to the gridiron. He now has scholarship offers to play quarterback from Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, LSU and several other FBS programs.
“I’m always willing to do any sport that I enjoy doing,” Bohanon said. “You only get one shot at high school, so I’m going to do everything I can.”
The competitive advantage
Recruits like Noland and Bohanon are seemingly competing in different arenas all year. Both say the experiences in other sports have helped prepare them for what they face on the football field.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who grew up playing baseball, basketball and soccer in addition to football.
“I think [playing multiple sports] is going away a little bit, and it’s unfortunate,” Rodgers told Philly.com last January. “It definitely helped me because I learned different skills in different sports, and there are competitive things that run through all the sports.”
Bielema has seen such advantages with many he’s recruited. He witnessed former Arkansas RB Alex Collins shine in lacrosse and in track before he rushed for 3,703 yards in three seasons with the Razorbacks.
“I think teamwork in different sports is so unique,” Bielema said. “I can’t say enough about letting guys do as many sports as they can.”
The Hogs’ coach also has seen former wrestlers and basketball players benefit greatly on the football field from those past experiences.
Then there’s baseball players, particularly those playing quarterback, who Bielema holds in especially high regard.
“I love baseball guys,” Bielema said. “I had a conversation with a GM a couple of weeks before the [NFL] draft and he said, ‘If you were picking a quarterback, who would you grab?’ And I said the kid out of Texas Tech [Patrick Mahomes II] just because when we played them, he had some throws and some things that were very unique to him. I thought out of all the guys I had seen and witnessed, he had that ‘it’ factor.”
Mahomes played the outfield and pitched, with a mid-90s fastball, in addition to playing basketball in high school. He helped lead the Red Raiders to a road win over Bielema’s Razorbacks in 2015.
Bielema directly witnessed how baseball can translate to playing quarterback when he coached Seattle Seahawks starter Russell Wilson at Wisconsin. Wilson played baseball and football at North Carolina State, then had a short stint playing second base in the minor leagues prior to leading the Badgers to the 2011 Big Ten title.
“Those baseball players, they just know where the ball has got to go,” Bielema said. “They’re fluid, they think fast, they think on their feet and you could see that in him. It’s kind of fun to build those things.”
Coaches prefer multisport athletes
Bielema isn’t the only major college football coach in pursuit of multisport recruits.
Clemson’s Dabo Sweeney, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops are also a few of the many coaches with an affinity for such prospects.
“I want the multisport guy,” Swinney told the New York Times last December. “I just love that.”
In the past, Meyer has gone as far as to say he only recruits players who participate in multiple sports. In 2015, a report revealed almost 90 percent of the players Meyer had signed at Ohio State were multisport athletes.
Stoops found one of the best players in Oklahoma history after seeing him in basketball practice. The Sooners’ coach was at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas evaluating another prospect when he witnessed a young DeMarco Murray, who won the NFL rushing title in 2014, throw down a dunk so impressive he offered him a scholarship on the spot.
Perhaps no successful college coach is a better example of multisport benefits than former Florida and South Carolina head man Steve Spurrier. A three-sport athlete at Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tenn., Spurrier didn’t shine as a quarterback until he was a senior.
“Not once did any of the three coaches say, ‘Steve, you ought to stick with baseball. You ought to stick with basketball,'” Spurrier said last summer. “I’m thankful for that because I wasn’t very good at football until my senior year and we started throwing the ball a little bit. I couldn’t run very fast, wasn’t very big, but I could shoot and throw and hit and stuff like that. But I just kept playing them all, and eventually football seemed to be my sport. I’m thankful for that.”
Spurrier received an opportunity to play at Florida late in the recruiting process. He went on to win the 1966 Heisman Trophy as the Gators’ starting quarterback.
Evidence is in the NFL
Nearly every year, the NFL draft provides evidence in support of playing multiple sports. This year was no different.
In the 2017 draft, 223 of the 253 selections — and 30 of the 32 in the first round — played multiple sports in high school.
It makes sense that a professional defensive back, running back or wide receiver would have ran track in high school. But it goes beyond that, particularly with quarterbacks like Noland and Bohanon.
New England Patriots star Tom Brady played football, basketball and baseball in high school. He was drafted out of high school in the 18th round of the 1995 MLB Draft. His NFL career, with four Super Bowl MVPs and 12 Pro Bowl selections, has worked out fine.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, Brady’s counterpart in the latest Super Bowl, also played three sports in high school.
Matt Stafford, who holds several records for the Detroit Lions, was once a catcher for Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. The Los Angeles Dodgers ace has even said Stafford has the better arm between the two.
Who knows, maybe Noland or Bohanon will fill the shoes of a Brady, Ryan or Stafford one day. Regardless, the Natural State’s top recruits are prime examples of how specialization isn’t a necessity to gain immense amounts of opportunity.