Never mind that he hadn?t seen the kid make a tackle. During a recruiting stop in May 2002 coach Nick Saban quickly concluded that 17-year-old LaRon Landry could become LSU?s next great defensive player. The 6'2", 185-pound junior was a starting quarterback and part-time defensive back for 5A power Hahnville High, in Boutte, La. After watching Landry run through some offensive drills, Saban pulled him aside, gestured toward Hahnville?s speediest receiver and asked, ?Could you cover that guy?? * Landry didn?t miss a beat. ?Cover him?? the player responded. ?I?d kill him.? Saban, satisfied, soon offered him a scholarship. * As a senior the following fall, Landry threw for 1,639 yards and 16 touchdowns for the 11?2 Hahnville Tigers. The next season he had a team-leading 80 tackles as a freshman free safety for the co-national-champion LSU Tigers. Reflecting on that day in Boutte recently, Saban leaned back in his office chair and recalled what he had seen. ?LaRon had the size, the speed and the competitiveness to be an in-the-box safety with the attitude of a linebacker, or a roving safety with ball skills, which is how we pictured him,? he said. ?He could probably even play some wide receiver for us. Truly great players do it all.?
Highly adaptable athletes such as Landry, who are often denoted by the shorthand ATH on recruiting websites and college coaches? whiteboards, are the hottest commodity in football. Of the 16 ATHs listed among Rivals.com?s top 250 high school prospects on signing day last February, the first four were snapped up by top programs Georgia, Florida, USC and LSU, respectively. ?There is no question that we?ve seen more and better players coming out as multiskilled athletes over the past few years, and the schools that are winning with athleticism and speed--the Florida States, the Miamis, the LSUs and the USCs of the world--are going after them,? says Rivals recruiting expert Jeremy Crabtree. ?Coaches like Saban rely on their ability to evaluate talent, and then they coach these big, fast, strong guys into position players.?
The concept has been around for years, but until recently it was the rare athlete who could fill the bill. Typically the best athletes on their high school teams, quarterbacks have long been recruited and turned into running backs, wide receivers, defensive backs or even, like Florida sophomore standout Earl Everett, linebackers. (What?s more, for decades after major college programs were integrated, black high school quarterbacks were still discriminated against when they were automatically switched to another skill position.)
Now the concept has spread throughout the lineup. High school tight ends are bulking up to fill holes on the interior line--or on the defensive line--in college. That was the case with LSU?s Marcus Spears, who developed into an All-SEC defensive end as a junior last year, and Miami?s Eric Winston, who became an All? Big East tackle as a junior in 2003. ?We?re thinking of creating a new category just called Linemen,? says Allen Wallace, publisher of SuperPrep magazine, which also rates blue-chip prospects, ?because you just don?t know [at what positions] some of these guys are going to land.?
Another phase in the emergence of the ATH was the reappearance of the two-way player. Cornerback Deion Sanders?s experience as a part-time receiver in the NFL paved the way for college DB-WRs such as Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson of Michigan, All-America Champ Bailey of Georgia and All-America Chris Gamble of Ohio State.
Why are more players so easily able to change positions? The most obvious answer is that today?s blue-chippers are better conditioned than ever. ?High school kids all over the field are eating better and training better than they did even five years ago,? says recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. ?They go to college in shape and ready to contribute, and coaches want to get them on the field one way or another.?
LSU is a prime example: Of the 22 starters for the Tigers? young Sugar Bowl team last January, nine had played different positions in high school. ?A decade ago, having these players was considered a luxury,? says Wallace. ?Now colleges consider them a necessity.?
Scholarship limits also compelled coaches to start looking for more versatile athletes. In the ?90s the NCAA dropped that limit from 95 per team to 85. That put pressure on programs to find imaginative ways to ration scholarships, and all-purpose athletes offer more bang for the buck. ?If they?re talented enough, you?ll find a spot for them, and often it?s like you?re signing two players,? says Miami coach Larry Coker, who estimates that a third of his recruits have wound up in a different position from the one they were projected to play. ?You have to make sure you have a signing class that has at least five guys who are versatile players. It gives you flexibility.?
And, by extension, a means to be more creative with a game plan. ?There is less of a discrepancy between good and bad teams, and coaches talk about being pressed to become more creative in order to win,? says Wallace. ?Athletes who can catch, run, throw and hit allow you to make use of things like trick plays.?
To execute his multiple offensive and defensive schemes, Saban is constantly on the lookout for players with the tools to contribute immediately. ?One reason there are more ?athletes? factoring into our system is because the game is changing,? says Saban. ?Nobody used to play four wideouts. Nobody used to play empty--no backs in the backfield. We use both of those sets and many more.?