A wave of two-way players in the Pac-12 Conference just might be ushering in the future of college football—and doing so with a nod to its past.
"The history of football, you go back decades and it was almost the norm that guys were playing both [offense and defense]," USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Then, that really quieted down."
Thanks to USC cornerback, wide receiver and returner Adoree' Jackson, and across town with UCLA linebacker and running back Myles Jack, buzz for two-way play is gaining volume.
College football went almost four decades between two-way Heisman Trophy winners, from Syracuse legend Ernie Davis winning the game's top individual honor in 1961 to Charles Woodson doing so at Michigan in 1997.
But rather than Woodson launching a new era of two-way stars, he was an outlier—or at least, ahead of his time.
Eighteen years after Woodson's exploits, Jackson is a throwback to the former Heisman winner, excelling as a cornerback, wide receiver and kick returner. And Jackson is just one in a club of burgeoning, two-way playmakers around both the conference and nation.
UCLA-USC being the heated rivalry it is, any good Bruins fan will tell you that head coach Jim Mora beat the Trojans to the punch on two-way stars.
Jack was already a standout on defense his freshman season, starting from Week 1 of the 2013 season and contributing as both a dynamic run-stopper and pass-rusher at linebacker.
But he did not command national attention until he carried for 120 yards, 66 of which came on a game-sealing touchdown run at Arizona on Nov. 9, 2013.
Jack may have indirectly opened the door for Pac-12 counterpart Shaq Thompson at Washington.
Facing a situation similar to that of UCLA in 2013, first-year Huskies head coach Chris Petersen turned to the junior linebacker, Thompson, as a ball-carrier in 2014.
"We had some backs that were a little bit banged up," Petersen said in October. "We needed to get something going there so that’s why I did it."
All Washington got from Thompson was a three-game stretch of 98, 174 and 100 yards rushing in late October and early November.
"Every situation is different and unique, depending on your team and who is playing and where you need a spark," Petersen said.
Washington needed a spark in the secondary as well as the backfield last season, and wide receiver John Ross obliged by playing cornerback.
Coincidentally, Thompson and Ross were both recruits of Sarkisian's in his tenure at Washington. Given their success and the outstanding season Jackson had for USC, it would seem Sarkisian has an eye for such players.
It doesn't hurt that Sarkisian sees more of those players who are willing and able to take on offensive and defensive roles.
"The guys in high school football are doing it more," Sarkisian said. "It makes the transition [to two-way play in college] easier."
Indeed, among USC's committed recruits for 2015 is Ykili Ross, a 4-star wide receiver and cornerback.
The Trojans are also pursuing Iman Marshall, a 5-star prospect from Long Beach Poly in Long Beach, California. This past season, Marshall recorded 85 tackles and 16 pass deflections as a cornerback for the Jackrabbits and 19 catches for 315 yards and eight touchdowns as a receiver, per MaxPreps.com.
Marshall is a product of the same prep powerhouse that produced USC's second-leading receiver in 2014, John "JuJu" Smith.
Smith ended his stellar freshman campaign not with a reception from quarterback Cody Kessler, but in pass coverage on USC's defense of a Nebraska Hail Mary attempt.
Smith was a star safety in 2013 at Long Beach Poly, after all.
Big Men on Campus (and on Offense and Defense)
Two-way opportunities are not limited to the speedsters like Jackson, or "running backers" such as Jack and Thompson.
UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone is fond of packages that use big bodies. Shortly after Jack's attention-grabbing performance at Arizona, Mazzone used defensive linemen Eddie Vanderdoes and Cassius Marsh in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Vanderdoes isn't quite a regular on the UCLA offense, but his appearances are not sporadic either.
Football fans in the 1980s are well aware of the exploits of Chicago Bears great William “The Refrigerator” Perry, the All-Pro defensive tackle who put the “jumbo” into Jumbo formation sets on the goal line.
Vanderdoes has kept the Fridge’s spirit intact—right down to a classic nickname.
Mazzone said formations utilizing Vanderdoes are dubbed "Big Panda."
Vanderdoes has a touchdown carry in each of his first two seasons at UCLA. He also caught a pass from quarterback Brett Hundley against Arizona State in 2013—on fourth down, no less.
The Big Panda formation also utilizes Vanderdoes' 305-pound frame as a lead-blocking fullback. Whether it's Pac-12-leading rusher Paul Perkins or Jack following him, that's a whole lot for any defense to handle at the goal line.
Oklahoma State featured its own such package in the Cowboys’ 30-22 Cactus Bowl win over Washington, giving the ball to defensive lineman James Castleman in critical situations. Castleman scored a one-yard rushing touchdown and caught a 48-yard pass in that game.
“It's called 'lahi,' which means big in Polynesian,” Castleman said in the postgame press conference, via ASAP Sports.
Castleman's success in the Cactus Bowl is likely to spur more defensive linemen to seek offensive opportunities. Utah All-American end Nate Orchard touted his wide receiver skill set at last July's Pac-12 media days.
"High school I went receiver and defensive end," Orchard said, launching a facetious campaign to line up as a red-zone receiver. "Catching the football's my favorite thing."
When asked how he felt seeing defensive players make plays on offense, Orchard said: "Envy."
Orchard did not get his red-zone opportunity, but who knows? Maybe the success of Vanderdoes and Castleman on the offensive end will sway coaches for other defensive linemen looking to make an offensive splash.
Benefits of Two-Way Play
Intimately understanding the nuances of a particular position—say, linebacker—can translate to how a player approaches taking on a different position.
Like running back.
"I play linebacker, so I have the linebacker mentality," Thompson told Pac-12 Networks after his career-high, 174-yard day against Colorado. "I was just looking at the linebackers, seeing which way they were going, and if they weren’t there, I just attacked the hole."
Furthermore, the aggression typical of a linebacker can add a little something extra on a running back's stiff arm.
Likewise, Jackson's speed allows him to keep pace with most any receiver, and that same quality poses a difficult matchup for cornerbacks.
Two-way players can present matchup problems for which opposing offensive and defensive coordinators are not prepared.
And even when they are prepared, as Arizona was Jack—Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez recruited Jack to play running back, per ArizonaWildcats.com—the truly elite two-way stars will shine regardless.
Double the Challenge
Playing two positions means shouldering two workloads, both on game day and in weekly preparation.
"In practice, you get a lot of reps [playing two-way]," Jackson said.
It's not just practice, but also film study where two-way players are taking on added repetition.
"There’s a lot of sophistication to what we’re getting on both sides," Petersen said. "To just throw a guy out there without having a tremendous attention to detail is a really hard thing to do. So what meetings do you put him in? What walkthroughs do you put him in?"
Modern offenses have helped facilitate the rise of two-way players, Sarkisan explained.
"The uptempo offense helps guys, because it’s not a bunch of verbiage," he said. "It’s a little bit more of a simplistic play-calling mechanism for everybody. That allows guys to do it a little bit more."
Once a player is up to speed, the next question a coaching staff must face when using a player on both offense and defense is how evenly is his time distributed?
This is an internal question USC debated with Jackson.
"I keep battling [USC defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox because I want him on offense," Sarkisian joked after last month's Holiday Bowl. "He probably would have scored four touchdowns if he was an offensive player tonight."
It's not that much of a battle; Jackson primarily plays cornerback because he proved to be USC's best option at the position, not surrendering a touchdown until the final game of the season.
Diverting too much of Jackson's attention away from defense would have left a hole on defense, which is precisely the care with which Mora had to handle Jack at UCLA.
"Coach Mora recruited me as a defensive player," Jack told me before the season. "He's going to make sure my offense doesn't sacrifice my defensive production."
Twice as many repetitions mean twice as much contact being sustained, and the buildup of wear on a player at two positions can render him ineffective at both.
"It’s hard if you’re going to major in one side…especially at that running back/linebacker position," Petersen said. "That’s hard. Those running backs take such a pounding, then to go out at linebacker is tough."
There's certainly no guarantee of two-way opportunities paying off either.
Though Jack ran wild from the outset of his time at running back, Washington's initial results with Thompson were hit-and-miss.
Beyond a 57-yard touchdown run against Eastern Washington, Thompson's first eight carries of the season yielded just 27 yards.
"We had a little package for him and got him a few plays," Petersen said. "Just kind of dabbled it in and got mediocre results. Shaq did some good things, but you’ve got to give guys, especially at that position, a chance to get into a rhythm."
And as Thompson found his rhythm at running back with that strong, three-game stretch, he was limited to five tackles on defense.
Using a two-way player forces coaches to strike an absolutely ideal balance—and have the ideal player with him to do it.
"It does take a unique person, a unique player to really excel at it," Sarkisian said.
The two-way life may not be for every college football player. But for those who fit the mold, it's a great way to pursue the ultimate goal, as described by Jack.
"If it helps us to win games, I'm all for it," he said.