The 7 Greatest 2-Way College Football Players of All Time

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2015

The 7 Greatest 2-Way College Football Players of All Time

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    DUANE BURLESON/Associated Press

    College football is undergoing a metamorphosis when it comes to players and the positions they line up at. More and more schools are maximizing the athleticism of some stars by having them contribute in as many ways possible, often doing so on both offense and defense as well as special teams.

    Last year saw a boon in this trend, with the likes of Washington's Shaq Thompson, USC's Adoree' Jackson, UCLA's Myles Jack and Utah State's Nick Vigil all having big years as both offensive and defensive stars. Jack, Jackson and Vigil figure to continue being involved on both sides of the ball this season, as will others like Washington's John Ross and some of the top recruits from the 2015 class.

    When their careers are over, could any of them go down in college football history as among the best two-way players ever? If so, they'll have to be able to perform to the level of past multi-position standouts that have littered the game over the years, including several from past eras when playing both ways was the rule rather than an exception.

    Here's a look at the greatest two-way players the game has ever seen, chosen based on their overall contributions on offense and defense and how impactful they were in both areas. These players didn't just take occasional snaps but were rather key contributors whose absence from either unit would have been a huge loss for their teams.

Champ Bailey, Georgia

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    Years in college: 1996-98

    Positions played: Cornerback, wide receiver, kick/punt returner

    Champ Bailey's use as a two-way player was a gradual one, something that didn't exist during his freshman year and was limited to spot duty on offense as a sophomore. But in 1998 he had one of the best all-around seasons in college football history, landing him Heisman consideration and plenty of national recognition.

    A starter at cornerback since his sophomore year, Bailey also became Georgia's go-to receiver. That year he was second on the team with 47 receptions and a team-best 744 yards and five touchdowns, registering three 100-yard receiving games including in an upset win at No. 6 LSU.

    The defensive presence wasn't lessened by his play on offense, though, as Bailey had three interceptions and regularly covered opponents' best receivers. He was named a unanimous All-American and won the Bronko Nagurski award as the nation's top defensive player, then wrapped up his career with 198 all-purpose yards and several key plays on defense in the Bulldogs' Peach Bowl win over Virginia.

    Bailey finished seventh in the Heisman voting that year and parlayed that success into an early entry into the NFL. He was drafted seventh overall by the Washington Redskins, and in 2013 he ended a storied career that featured 52 interceptions but only a few brief forays into offense in his early years.

Chuck Bednarik, Pennsylvania

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    Paul Vathis/Associated Press

    Years in college: 1945-48

    Positions played: Center, linebacker, punter

    In modern times, a college football player with the nickname of "Concrete Charlie" would probably be someone who spent all of his time on the offensive or defensive line, a moniker given for their presence as an immovable object as a blocker or defender. With Chuck Bednarik, that was only half right.

    During a time in the game when many players never left the field, Bednarik often played all 60 minutes of his college games at Pennsylvania by anchoring the offensive line as center, then holding down the middle of the Quakers defense as their top linebacker. In between, he'd occasionally handle punting duties.

    A three-time All-American (and a consensus one on two occasions), Bednarik finished third in the Heisman race in 1948 and also won the Maxwell Award. He continued to play double-duty throughout a 14-year NFL career, helping him land a spot in both the collegiate and professional Halls of Fame.

    While the 6'3", 233-pound Bednarik sometimes resembled a block of granite on the field, his nickname came from an offseason job during his pro career as a concrete salesman.

    "The nickname perfectly captured his fearsome presence as a jarring blocker at center and a thunderous tackler at middle linebacker," Richard Goldstein of the New York Times wrote in March, shortly after Bednarik passed away at the age of 89.

Dick Butkus, Illinois

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    Larry Stoddard/Associated Press

    Years in college: 1962-64

    Positions played: Center, linebacker

    Dick Butkus' reputation is built mostly on the many exploits and feats he had as an NFL linebacker, one of the best in pro football history. But the foundation for that great career was built on the dedication and endurance that came from playing both ways for Illinois in college.

    Butkus didn't gain nearly as much recognition for his offensive play, mostly because it didn't have the same flair and impact as what he did as a linebacker. The Butkus Award given out each year isn't for strong blocking, but rather for being the nation's top linebacker, which he was in both 1963 and 1964 as a unanimous All-American.

    For his Illinois career, Butkus had 374 tackles, a total that still ranks eighth-best in school history despite him only playing three seasons. He once had 23 tackles in a game against Ohio State, and in 1962 he led the Fighting Illini in interceptions with two. Butkus' legend continued to grow in the state when he was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1965, and he played all nine of his NFL seasons with the Bears and went into the Hall of Fame in 1979 under their logo.

Gordie Lockbaum, Holy Cross

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Years in college: 1984-87

    Positions played: Running back, cornerback

    Holy Cross doesn't have a particularly strong football lineage, an FCS school from Worcester, Massachusetts, that has made the playoffs only twice and attended one bowl game in 119 years of play. But in the mid-1980s the Crusaders gained plenty of attention during a run when they claimed a pair of Patriot League titles and went unbeaten in 1987.

    That's when the school's best (and most memorable) player was running all over the field and playing on both sides of the ball.

    Gordie Lockbaum was the Crusaders' top defensive back heading into the 1986 season, his junior year, when the coaching staff decided to give him a shot on offense to help a depleted running back unit.

    "The question came to me, 'Can you get yourself in good enough shape to do that?' And I felt I could," Lockbaum told ESPN's Jack McCluskey in 2011.

    The rest was history, as for the next two seasons Lockbaum would split time between rushing and tackling, and as a result he ended up as the school's career leader in touchdowns while amassing a school-record 2,173 all-purpose yards in 1986.

    Lockbaum played 143 of 171 snaps in a 1986 game against Army, which brought him media attention and made him a national star. He was fifth in Heisman voting that year and third as a senior in 1987 when the Crusaders went 11-0.

Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota

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    Associated Press

    Years in college: 1927-29

    Positions played: Fullback, defensive tackle

    On offense he'd either blast open a hole for the halfback to run through or just plow through his self-created opening. On defense, Bronko Nagurski was there to stop that from happening as a space-eater.

    Whichever task he was doing, usually in the same game, it produced great results for Minnesota in the late 1920s, leading to him to earn All-American honors at both fullback and defensive tackle in 1929. That season he led the nation with 737 rushing yards and also played a key role in stopping opponents on the ground and helping the Golden Gophers go 6-2.

    Nagurski routinely had games where he made huge plays on both sides of the ball, such as a 1928 win over rival Wisconsin when he recovered a fumble on defense and then ran the ball six consecutive times for the game-winning touchdown. He later sealed the victory with an interception.

    Though the offensive play helped lift Nagurski to national notoriety, it's still his defensive play that remains memorable today. It's why a top national defensive award was named for him in 1993.

Jim Thorpe, Carlisle

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    Associated Press

    Years in college: 1907-12

    Positions played: Running back, defensive back, kicker, punter

    Though he wasn't the first player to line up all over the field, Jim Thorpe is probably the most famous of those from the early days of college football. That's because Thorpe probably would have played every position had he been asked to, but instead limited himself to just four of them.

    Known for being stellar at multiple sports, including baseball, lacrosse and track and field, Thorpe didn't get heavily involved in football until 1911. That's when Pop Warner, who coached both track and football at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania let track star Thorpe give football a try, and he immediately dominated.

    Over the next two seasons Thorpe would run the ball on offense, play as a defensive back on defense and handle all of the kicking duties. He scored every point for Carlisle in an 18-15 upset of Harvard in 1911 thanks for four field goals and a touchdown. The following year he'd scored 25 touchdowns and tally 198 points, getting named an All-American for the second straight year and leading Carlisle to an unbeaten season and a national championship.

    Thorpe went on to a professional career that spanned multiple sports and various positions and disciplines, winning two Olympic gold medals at the 1912 Stockholm games while also playing in Major League Baseball and the NFL.

Charles Woodson, Michigan

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    DUANE BURLESON/Associated Press

    Years in college: 1995-97

    Positions played: Cornerback, wide receiver, punt returner

    The last player to win the Heisman Trophy from a primary position other than quarterback or running back was Charles Woodson, but it's fair to say he didn't claim that honor just because of what he did on defense. If not for Woodson's role as a wide receiver and an exceptional return specialist, it's unlikely he'd have won the 1997 Heisman over Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning.

    Defense was always Woodson's primary role with the Wolverines, and it's what enabled him to get drafted fourth overall by the Oakland Raiders in 1998 and why he's still a star in the NFL who's likely to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer after his career is over. In his three seasons in Ann Arbor, Woodson had 18 interceptions, and many of those plays came in big games and key situations.

    But the exploits as a punt returner and his forays into offense are what enabled him to win the Heisman and become a focal point of the 1997 Michigan team that went unbeaten and claimed a share of the national title. He often broke through in all three areas in the same game, including his final matchup against rival Ohio State when he intercepted a pass in the end zone, returned a punt for a touchdown and had a long catch that set up the game-winning score in the 20-14 victory.

    "Woodson's performance that day turned the tide of the Heisman voting in his favor for good," wrote Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.