Jerrion Ealy's Big Choice

He could be the next Mookie Betts. Or the next Saquon Barkley. What's a five-tool baseball prospect to do when he's also a 5-star high school running back drawing the attention of Nick Saban?
photo of Danny KnoblerDanny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterMay 22, 2019

Everyone wants to know whether Jerrion Ealy prefers baseball or football. The quick answer is no.

"If God would have blessed me with seven more inches, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Ealy said by phone one evening this spring. "I'd probably be committed to Duke University to play basketball."

Alas, Ealy stands 5'10" tall, not 6'5". He was gifted with speed, strength, athleticism and instinct. But not height.

The NBA was never going to be in his future.

The NFL? That's another story. As a record-setting running back who patterned his game after Saquon Barkley's, Ealy was very much in demand to play big-time college football.

Major League Baseball? That too, because as a five-tool outfielder who has been compared to Mookie Betts and Andrew McCutchen, Ealy is a prospect any team would love to work with. He's fast enough to steal bases, powerful enough to hit home runs and possesses such a strong arm his throws from the outfield have been clocked at 98 mph.

He plays both sports with enthusiasm that matches his ability. He has a competitive nature and sense of team that his coaches in both sports rave about.

In the fall, he's not a baseball player moonlighting on the football field. In the spring, he's not a football star biding his time on the diamond.

He's one of just four players to make the Under Armour All-America team in both sports. One of the other three was Kyler Murray, who was a first-round draft pick by baseball's Oakland A's before he chose football and went first overall to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL draft this April.

Scouts who saw both players say they see similarities between the two. But they also say they always knew Murray would choose football.

"He was clearly a football-first guy," said David Rawnsley, vice president of player personnel for Perfect Game USA, which hosts prospect tournaments and events and calls itself the world's largest baseball scouting service.

The difference with the 18-year-old Ealy is it's never been clear whether he's football-first or baseball-first. Once basketball was no longer an option, even his coaches couldn't tell you which one he prefers.

"I'd have to ask what time of year it is," said Ricky Black, his football coach at Jackson Prep in Mississippi. "What season?"

So far, Ealy hasn't had to choose. He has been able to do both. Black never complained when Ealy spent his summers playing baseball, missing some early training sessions. Jackson Prep baseball coach Brent Heavener was happy to see Ealy when football ended and was even happy for him to miss some baseball practices to run sprints and relays for the track team.

But when the MLB draft begins June 3, Ealy could be picked as high as the first or second round. A team that drafts him that highly likely would do so with the idea of giving him a big enough signing bonus that he'd give up football.

Ealy has told teams he would consider doing that, even though he has also signed a football letter of intent to attend Ole Miss. But he has also said he would consider playing both football and baseball in college, or playing pro baseball in the summer while playing football for the Rebels in the fall. (The NCAA has long allowed players—Murray and John Elway to name two—to turn pro in one sport while maintaining their amateur status in another.)

"Anything and everything is an option," he said.

And how will he decide what to do? He said he'll follow his heart.

"That's exactly, 100 percent, what I'm going to do," he said. "It doesn't matter how much money you're making if you're not having fun. At the end of the day, it's where I'm going to have the most fun."

He just needs to figure out where that will be.

The tools are all there, as baseball scouts like to say. He's a good enough outfielder to handle center field, but the arm is strong enough to make him a fit in right field too. He's a legit base stealer, but his bat speed and power make him a home run threat as well. 

Jerrion Ealy has the kind of tools major league teams covet, but the interest he has received from college football's biggest schools has some in baseball wondering if he has the patience to refine his game.
Jerrion Ealy has the kind of tools major league teams covet, but the interest he has received from college football's biggest schools has some in baseball wondering if he has the patience to refine his game.Photo courtesy of Jackson Preparatory School

Still, he isn't major league ready. Not yet. And there are concerns about how long it will take his batting skills to develop against better pitching, and whether Ealy can remain patient if progress doesn't come quickly.

After all, he'll always have football as an option.

On the football field, Ealy has emerged as a game-changing running back who's so highly regarded that both Clemson and Alabama heavily recruited him. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban created something of a stir when he showed up on campus at Jackson Prep to see the 5-star talent in January.

At the Jan. 3 Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando, Florida, Ealy ran for 119 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. He broke the game's rushing record by the end of the third quarter, getting there on a 38-yard touchdown run.

"He has unusual balance," said Black, who has coached football for 48 years. "He has a great combination, with speed and the ability to catch anything. He would have been our best receiver or best defensive back.

"He dropped a pass in the state championship game because his visor fogged up. The following Monday, his teammates wanted to run the film back three times, because they'd never seen him drop anything before."

Ealy was heavily recruited by out-of-state powerhouses, but in a February signing-day ceremony, he announced he would stay closer to home. Black tossed him a football covered in gold sequins, and after Ealy caught it and opened it up, he reached in and pulled out an Ole Miss cap.

But will he actually get to Oxford this fall? As excited as Ole Miss and its fans were to land one of the nation's top recruits, they also knew a big baseball contract could keep Ealy from ever wearing a Rebels uniform.

"If Ealy decides football is his passion and decides to put pro baseball on hold for a few years, that could be one of the biggest wins for Ole Miss in recent recruiting history," Nick Suss wrote in the Clarion Ledger in mid-April.

Six days after he officially signed with Ole Miss, Ealy began his senior baseball season at Jackson Prep. He would go on to bat .373 with six home runs and 22 stolen bases, but scouts said the competition in Mississippi was weak this year, and they expected more.

"His stock has dropped a little," said one National League scout who has followed Ealy's career closely. "He's a tremendous athlete, but my assessment is football comes easier to him than baseball. In the first game this year, he struck out to start an inning and then when his team batted around, he struck out again. That stuck with me."

While one published mock draft (Draftsite.com) had Ealy going sixth overall to the San Diego Padres, draft analysts at MLB.com and Baseball America have dropped him out of the first round. Baseball America has him as the 45th-best prospect available, down from 32nd earlier in the year. MLB.com has him 77th.

The issue, one scout said, is that many teams view Ealy as more of a long-term project as he develops his hitting skills. A team that might otherwise risk first-round money on his potential may fear that if things don't go well in the first year or two he could quit baseball and go play college football.

If he's struggling in Clinton or Delmarva, will he decide he'd rather be running around in front of 100,000 fans in Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge?

"It's a longer journey [for him in baseball]," the scout said. "If he said he's not playing football and is devoting 100 percent of his time to baseball, you could get a dynamic player."

While Ealy has indicated to scouts he's open to signing with them and dropping football, the risk may be too great for some teams.

Even if he doesn't go in the first few rounds, though, Ealy will almost certainly get drafted and be given a chance to sign. A team could take him in the middle or lower rounds and then offer him the chance to play pro baseball in the summer and college football in the fall.

Or maybe one scout and one team will believe so much in the talent that they'll take the chance and give Ealy enough money to commit full time to baseball now. Even with his less-than-dominant senior season, it's not that hard to convince yourself he's worth it.

"I've been scouting 30-plus years, and one thing I've learned is you don't find these special athletes very often," said Perfect Game's Rawnsley. "He's one of the very few who qualifies as a special athlete.

"Mike Trout in high school was not this kind of athlete. [Ealy's] athleticism is absurd."

There's more to Ealy than just absurd athleticism, more reason for anyone who loves baseball to hope he eventually finds his future on the diamond.

"His character and work ethic are just off the charts," said Chris McRaney, who coached Ealy the last three summers at Team Georgia Baseball Academy. "It's a LeBron James-type personality.

"Everybody loves him. Everybody wants to be around him. I talked to a scouting director who said he has the best charisma in the draft. He's just different. Truly a special young man."

Ealy lived with McRaney's family while playing for Team Georgia, and coach and player grew close enough that McRaney considers Ealy to be almost like a son. But others who have spent time around Ealy tell similar stories.

"I've never met a guy as humble with all the national attention he has received," said Brent Heavener, Ealy's high school baseball coach at Jackson Prep. "It's always, 'How can I help my team? What can I do to help win a state championship?'"

He has helped. Jackson Prep won the Mississippi state championship in football in each of his four seasons. The school won its third straight baseball state championship this month.

But there are individual goals, too.

"He won't be happy just being a first-round draft pick," McRaney said. "His goal is to be an All-Star, one of the best players in the game. I've said this to scouting directors, and I've said it to others. If he signs and decides to play baseball, I would say in five years he's going to be in the All-Star Game.

"This is not a normal young man. I would almost be surprised if he doesn't do it."

As humble as he can be, Ealy didn't back down when told what McRaney said.

"No doubt," he said. "I'm not out there to be an average Joe. I don't like being average in anything I do. I'm a competitor."

Ealy remembers being seven years old and running down the hallway toward his parents' bedroom. His father would toss him a football.

"And I had to catch it," he said.

"I'm not out there to be an average Joe," Ealy told B/R. "I don't like being average in anything I do."
"I'm not out there to be an average Joe," Ealy told B/R. "I don't like being average in anything I do."Photo courtesy of Jackson Preparatory School

Football came from his father. Baseball came from the other side of the family, from his uncle, Arthur Gardner. For years, Gardner worked for the Major League Scouting Bureau, covering Mississippi and Louisiana.

"Growing up, he taught me pretty much everything I know about the game," Ealy said. "He's the one who introduced me to baseball."

Ealy enjoyed it, but he never committed to the game. He would only pick up a bat when baseball season was coming around. McRaney said when Ealy first came to Team Georgia at age 15, baseball was little more than a hobby.

"He had played since he was nine or 10, but it was still a hobby to him," McRaney said.

It's much more than that now. As he spent more time on the game, Ealy felt himself getting better and getting more comfortable.

"I would definitely love to be in a major league locker room," he said.

He's well aware that baseball players have longer careers than football players, and his high school teammates made sure he knew about all the big-money contracts signed this spring. While Trout, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado all inked deals that guaranteed them $300 million or more, no NFL player has ever received more guaranteed money than the $107 million in Russell Wilson's contract with the Seattle Seahawks.

But baseball players almost always spend time in the minor leagues, riding buses and playing before small crowds in small towns. Football players serve their apprenticeship while playing in front of huge crowds on Saturday afternoons.

There was a time when an athlete like Ealy could consider having it all. Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and Brian Jordan all played in the major leagues and in the NFL.

That's the one possibility Ealy seems to rule out—not because he wouldn't enjoy it but simply because he believes that path won't be open to him.

"Teams want your undivided attention," he said.

He'll have to choose, either this summer after the draft or in a few years when college is done. But as his teammates like to remind him, it's better to have two good options rather than none.

"The joke around the locker room is you've got good problems to have," Heavener said.

One way or the other, he'll have a chance to do something he loves, and he won't let the tough decision get him down.

"I hate bad energy," he said.

With his talent, either way, it's all going to be good.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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