Top 10 College Football Players Who Could've Been in the NCAA Tournament

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured Columnist IVMarch 14, 2023

Top 10 College Football Players Who Could've Been in the NCAA Tournament

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    Michigan State WR Keon Coleman
    Michigan State WR Keon ColemanScott Taetsch/Getty Images

    March Madness begins this week, and after a week of exciting conference tournament action, every sports fan is ready for it.

    You can bet a bunch of college football players will be watching across the country as they begin to prepare for their spring practice sessions or, in some cases, are already practicing.

    But which current college football players could have been starring on the hardwood and participating in the action? Believe it or not, there are a handful.

    To make this list, players needed to have a legitimate basketball past. Former USC wide receiver Drake London and Iowa State defensive end Will McDonald IV are recent examples of college football players who starred on the hardwood before their time on the gridiron.

    The following players might have been playing in the 2023 men's NCAA tournament had they not chosen to pursue football instead.

Ronnie Bell, Michigan Wide Receiver

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    GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 31: Ronnie Bell #8 of the Michigan Wolverines makes a catch against Bud Clark #26 of the TCU Horned Frogs during the second half of the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on December 31, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
    Lance King/Getty Images

    Considering his bright NFL future, it's hard to say whether Ronnie Bell would have been available to participate in this year's NCAA tournament. He just went through the NFL combine last week, and the 6'0", 191-pound former Wolverines playmaker should be a hot commodity for NFL teams looking to pad their receiving corps.

    Bell could also ball, though.

    Before he caught 145 passes for 2,269 yards and nine touchdowns over his five-year career in Ann Arbor, Bell considered a future in college basketball. He didn't have any football scholarship offers for most of his high school career, so he signed a letter of intent to hoop at Missouri State.

    Then Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh called.

    "The story he (Harbaugh) told me was that his brother-in-law coached basketball at Blue Springs South, which is a school in the same conference as me back home," Bell said on the Prepare to be Amazed podcast (via Wolverine Digest's Christopher Breiler). "He talked highly of me because my senior year I went crazy. The year before I jumped over a kid from Blue Springs South and dunked over him."

    That athleticism certainly translated on the football field.

Maliq Carr, Michigan State Tight End

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    UNIVERSITY PARK, PA - NOVEMBER 26: Michigan State Spartans Tight End Maliq Carr (6) makes a one handed catch for a touchdown against Penn State Nittany Lions Linebacker Kobe King (41) during the second half of the college football game between the Michigan State Spartans and Penn State Nittany Lions on November 26,2022, at Beaver Stadium in University Park, PA. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Tight end Maliq Carr is blossoming into a potential star for a Michigan State team that desperately needs more firepower. But the 6'5", 255-pound pass-catcher didn't just use his size and athleticism on the football field.

    The Detroit Free Press selected Carr as one of the top 20 high school basketball players in the state of Michigan, according to his school bio. He joined the Spartans' basketball team for the 2022 spring semester and suited up in one game.

    After a career 2022 football season, Carr chose not to rejoin the basketball team this year. He is focusing on football, and his upside could make him one of the top tight ends in the Big Ten and a potential NFL player.

    After spending his first season at Purdue, Carr transferred to Michigan State ahead of the 2021 season. He's now in line to start this year, as he's the only scholarship tight end who has played in a game for Michigan State. Last year, he finished with 16 catches for 209 yards and two scores.

    Carr played only one minute in one game during the 2021-22 college basketball season, but who knows what would have happened had he stuck with it? Instead, he's poised for a big year on the gridiron.

Keon Coleman, Michigan State Wide Receiver

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    EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN - OCTOBER 15: Keon Coleman #0 of the Michigan State Spartans tips a pass against Ricardo Hallman #2 of the Wisconsin Badgers during the third quarter at Spartan Stadium on October 15, 2022 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
    Nic Antaya/Getty Images

    Much like Maliq Carr, Michigan State wide receiver Keon Coleman thought he'd give college basketball a try as well. And when you can play well enough to suit up for Tom Izzo's Spartans, that's a big deal.

    Still, the schedule had to be extremely demanding, and Coleman's football future was even clearer and brighter than his Carr's.

    The 6'4", 215-pound pass-catcher played sparingly as a freshman, catching seven passes for 50 yards and a touchdown. This past season, he broke out as the top target for Spartans quarterback Payton Thorne, leading Michigan State in receptions (58), receiving yards (798) and touchdown catches (seven).

    Coleman appeared in six games for Izzo's Spartans during the 2022 spring semester, but he and Izzo reached a "mutual decision" that he wouldn't rejoin the team this year.

    "Keon had a great football season and it's in his best interests to take the next few months to get ready for spring football, while also taking care of his academic obligations," Izzo said in a prepared statement, per Spartan Nation's Matthew Lounsberry.

    Given Coleman's size and athleticism, it wouldn't be surprising to see him in the NFL down the road. But he certainly had the ability to capitalize on his hoop dreams, too.

Cooper DeJean, Iowa Defensive Back

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    IOWA CITY, IOWA - NOVEMBER 12:  Defensive back Cooper DeJean #3 of the Iowa Hawkeyes runs up the field during the first half against safety John Torchio #15 of the Wisconsin Badgers at Kinnick Stadium, on November 12, 2022 in Iowa City, Iowa.  (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
    Matthew Holst/Getty Images

    The Iowa Hawkeyes have had their fair share of two-sport superstar athletes over the past few years.

    Safety Kaevon Merriweather had Division I basketball offers but decided to head to Iowa City to play football, and the safety is now preparing for the NFL. Star linebacker Jack Campbell may have been a super-tall linebacker (6'4", 218 pounds), but he fit right in on the hardwood, too. He could have played on the college level.

    Both those guys made the right decision to pursue football, though. It seems like safety Cooper DeJean did, too.

    The four-sport star at OABCIG High School scored 1,832 career points in basketball, which put him 58 behind Minnesota Vikings tight end (and former Hawkeye) T.J. Hockenson and 55 ahead of Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes on the state's all-time scoring list, according to The Athletic's Scott Dochterman.

    While DeJean could score in droves, he showed in the 2022 season that he made the right choice with football. The star defensive back finished the year with 75 tackles, three tackles for loss and five interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns.

    So, yeah, DeJean can do it all. The NFL will take notice of him with another big season.

Jason Harris, Arizona Edge

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    Jason Harris could have gone to college for hoops.
    Jason Harris could have gone to college for hoops. Credit: 247Sports

    Former Under Armour All-American Jason Harris hasn't experienced the type of college football career that he'd hoped for. But after transferring from Colorado to Arizona, he'll hopefully get on the field for the Wildcats and start to salvage a career that looked so promising coming out of high school in Mesa, Arizona.

    The 6'7", 220-pound edge-rusher has off-the-charts size and speed, which made him an outstanding high school basketball player. The former 4-star recruit from the 2020 class and top-300 player originally decided to go to Colorado, but he has since transferred closer to home.

    Harris' brother, Jalen, played defense for the Wildcats, so Jason wanted to play for head coach Jedd Fisch and keep it a family affair. However, he hasn't been able to get on the field much over the past two years. He made only one appearance during the 2022 season and registered two tackles.

    Harris' father, Sean, played football for Arizona and then went to the NFL for seven years. His mother, Cha-Ron, played college basketball for the Wildcats, too.

    Harris was a 4-star hoops prospect coming out of high school, but he hasn't been able to break through in his sport of choice.

Riley Leonard, Duke Quarterback

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    ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND - DECEMBER 28: Riley Leonard #13 of the Duke Blue Devils throws a pass in the first quarter against the UCF Knights in the Military Bowl Presented by Peraton at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on December 28, 2022 in Annapolis, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
    Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Back when Riley Leonard was a two-sport star in Fairhope, Alabama, he was struggling to decide whether he wanted to play football or basketball in college. After a breakout 2022 season at Duke, it's obvious he made the right choice.

    But back then, following an All-State season, he was pondering offers from only South Alabama and Southern Mississippi, with interest from Tennessee, Nebraska and Kansas, according to's Ben Thomas. At that time, he was pondering hoops offers from North Alabama, UAB, Samford and Missouri State.

    When Duke offered Leonard, though, that changed things. He has surged because of his athleticism, and his ability to run and pass has made him one of the most exciting, little-known players in college football.

    During Duke's breakout, eight-win campaign this past season, the 6'4", 209-pound signal-caller finished the year completing 63.8 percent of his passes for 2,967 yards, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions. He added 699 yards and 13 scores on the ground.

    With at least a few seasons left to play in Durham, Leonard may stay in Drake Maye's shadow, but he's making his own name for an up-and-coming program and getting a world-class education, too.

    The big decision back in high school definitely went his way, but Leonard could fill it up and handle the ball, too. At least he can watch the Blue Devils' hoops team in his downtime, right?

Chris Marshall, Ole Miss Wide Receiver

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    STARKVILLE, MS - OCTOBER 01: Texas A&M Aggies wide receiver Chris Marshall (10) tries to make a catch during the game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Texas A&M Aggies on October 1, 2022 at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, MS. (Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    When Chris Marshall was a 5-star, top-25 football recruit, there was little doubt which sport gave him the highest ceiling. But that didn't mean the 6'3", 195-pound pass-catcher was only going to focus on football.

    For a while after he committed and signed with Texas A&M, he planned to play for the Aggies basketball team and head coach Buzz Williams, too.

    How good was Marshall on the hardwood? The nation's current No. 2-ranked team, nearby Houston, offered him. So did Ole Miss, Texas Southern and Western Kentucky, according to On3's Griffin McVeigh.

    Williams later clarified that Marshall wasn't going to be a part of the Aggies' basketball program. As it turns out, he won't be a part of the football program under Jimbo Fisher, either.

    After catching only 11 passes for 108 yards this past season, Marshall left College Station and transferred to Ole Miss to play for head coach Lane Kiffin. With several star pass-catchers leaving the Rebels, he has a chance to step into the starting lineup in Oxford.

    This isn't the first time Kiffin landed a former two-sport star from the transfer portal. Last year, he grabbed former USC tight end Michael Trigg. Both of those guys will now be catching passes from either Jaxson Dart, Spencer Sanders or Walker Howard.

    As Marshall prepares for a fresh start, it's fair to wonder whether he'll ever revisit his dream to play both football and basketball in college.

Kool-Aid McKinstry, Alabama Cornerback

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    NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 31: Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Kool-Aid McKinstry (1) celebrates a big pass breakup in the endzone during the Sugar Bowl between the Alabama Crimson Tide and Kansas State Wildcats at Caesars Superdome on December 31, 2022 in New Orleans, LA. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Alabama cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry was a 5-star prospect who proved to be too talented to keep off the field in Tuscaloosa. The rising junior enters the 2023 season as arguably the top lockdown corner in the sport.

    McKinstry is a long, lanky athlete who is almost certain to feast this year under new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and then head off to the NFL. But he isn't just a star on the gridiron.

    When McKinstry first came to Alabama, he was set on playing basketball for head coach Nate Oats as well, according to On3's Griffin McVeigh. He practiced with the Crimson Tide as a freshman, though he never got into a game.

    According to Saturday Down South's Crissy Froyd, McKinstry led Pinson Valley High School to a 28-4 record. He averaged more than 15 points per game along with five rebounds and almost four assists.

    But at 6'1" and 195 pounds with terrific athleticism, McKinstry is a can't-miss NFL star in the secondary. He's expected to be one of college football's best players at his position this season.

Keeshawn Silver, Kentucky Defensive Lineman

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    Keeshawn Silver's new stomping grounds at Kentucky will present an opportunity ... but not on the hardwood.
    Keeshawn Silver's new stomping grounds at Kentucky will present an opportunity ... but not on the hardwood.Credit: 247Sports

    Back when Keeshawn Silver was a 5-star college football prospect from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, everybody in the nation wanted him to play football.

    He stayed at home to play for the Tar Heels in the hope that he'd get a shot to play both football and basketball for the legendary program. There was no questioning his intent.

    Keeshawn Silver @keeshawn__

    I will be playing both sports πŸπŸ’™ <a href=""></a>

    After a disappointing start to his time on the gridiron and a hoops career that never got off the ground, Silver has resurfaced at another basketball school to play football. He can only hope this time around is better.

    Despite how bad as the Tar Heels were on defense the past few years, Silver couldn't find consistent playing time. The 6'5", 315-pound defensive lineman thus transferred from UNC to Kentucky this winter.

    Teaming with Deone Walker in the middle of that UK line, Silver hopes to capitalize on his fresh start. Perhaps maybe a change of scenery is all he needed.

    "It's very motivating because I got something to drive for working for. I'm working for something right now, I've got a purpose," Silver told Wildcats Today's Hunter Shelton.

    Wouldn't it be fun to see Silver suiting up for head coach John Calipari? He would certainly be able to take up some space in the paint.

    Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops is likely just hoping Silver can scratch the massive potential that made him a top-tier prospect.

Sonny Styles, Ohio State Defensive Back

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    ATLANTA, GA  DECEMBER 31:  Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison (9) and safety Sonny Styles (20) attempt to block the pass by Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl college football playoff game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Georgia Bulldogs on December 31st, 2022 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA.  (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Ohio State safety Sonny Styles reclassified to the 2022 recruiting class, and he was talented enough to see some action right away for the Buckeyes last season. Although he finished with only nine tackles and one tackle for a loss in 10 games, it's just the beginning of what should be an exciting career for the former 5-star prospect.

    Styles, the No. 12-ranked player in his recruiting class, is from nearby Pickerington, Ohio. The Buckeyes are glad he stayed home.

    "I think when you look at the potential best 11 players for the 2023 defense, he's a guy that our staff is gonna point out and say, 'We need to find a way to get him in there,'" defensive coordinator Jim Knowles told NBC4's Justin Holbrock. "He held his own in the playoff semifinal [against Georgia], and I think he's just got all kinds of skills."

    But Styles could ball indoors, too. In July 2021, Garrick Hodge of Eleven Warriors reported Styles had picked up basketball scholarship offers from Akron, Toledo, Duquesne, Kent State and Ohio all within a week.

    Star defensive lineman J.T. Tuimoloau also talked to the Buckeyes about playing both sports before deciding not to. Those are some impressive athletes suiting up for Knowles next year, and both could wind up being stars in 2023.

    Just not on the basketball court.

    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference unless otherwise noted. Recruit rankings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.