SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Ohio State coaches had a 235-pound mass of potential to mold into a football player, but they could not agree on the form. As a freshman, Sam Hubbard was projected as a linebacker, but one member of the Buckeyes staff had designs on making him a tight end to plug a hole in the depth chart.
Luke Fickell, the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator, was part of the discussion, and he chuckled when he recalled what happened next. Someone asked if Hubbard, a high school lacrosse star, could catch a football. Another coach reminded everybody that Hubbard was accustomed to catching and shooting a small rubber ball traveling 70 miles an hour. “He said, ‘You don’t think he has the hand-eye coordination to catch a football?’” Fickell said.
Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, spent time at linebacker and tight end before being shaped into a defensive lineman. With 41 tackles, Hubbard has gamely filled the gap created by the departure of Joey Bosa, one of 12 starters from last season’s Ohio State team selected in last spring’s N.F.L. draft. The Buckeyes’ ability this season to reload rather than rebuild owes much to Coach Urban Meyer’s philosophy to recruit natural athletes who like to play football and not just gridiron specialists.
Meyer, who played college football and minor league baseball, sees the value of multisport participation. So does Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, his coaching counterpart in the College Football Playoff semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday. After losing three starters in the secondary and four defensive linemen from the Tigers team that lost to Alabama in last season’s national title game, Swinney restocked with 23 newcomers. More than half of them, according to Clemson’s media guide, played more than one sport in high school.
“I want the multisport guy,” said Swinney, a three-sport athlete at Alabama’s Pelham High. “I just love that.”
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the showdown between No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State features a handful of players who were pursued by both teams, including Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Ohio State defensive end Jalyn Holmes, both of whom also competed in basketball in high school. The programs’ recruiting battles have created a rivalry far greater than the sum total of their two-game all-time series.
“We recruit against Clemson probably as much as anybody,” Fickell said.
With their embrace of multisport participation, Meyer and Swinney are swimming against a tide of specialization in youth and high school sports — Alabama devotes a full scholarship to its long-snapper — that dragged Meyer, as a parent, into its undertow. Against his wishes, the middle of his three children, his daughter Gigi, gave up basketball in high school to participate in year-round volleyball at the club level. Meyer said he was overruled by his wife, Shelley, who was adamant that a full-time commitment to volleyball was necessary if their daughter wanted to play the sport in college.
“I got so upset,” Meyer said, adding: “I said, ‘She’s going to play basketball,’ but I lost that argument. Shelley said, ‘You don’t understand.’ I said, ‘I don’t understand? I’ve been coaching and in athletics my whole life and I don’t understand?’”
His daughter did become a four-year starter at Florida Gulf Coast University, following the path of her older sister, Nicki, who played volleyball at Georgia Tech. But Gigi also competed in wakeboarding while in college and became a national champion, validating her father’s model, too.
Swinney has had firsthand experience with parents and coaches who believe that practice in one sport makes the perfect future pro. After all, he has coached all three of his sons in youth baseball, which is known for excesses like travel leagues for 8-year-olds. This past spring, Swinney said, he coached his youngest son’s 12-under travel team, the Orange Crush.
“We start throwing the last week in February,” Swinney said, “and we play March, April, May and June — 11 tournaments and 44 games.” He added: “But all of my kids are multisports guys. We play and then we shut it down so they can play football, they can play basketball, they can go play golf.”
Swinney contends there is much to be gained by playing multiple sports, even if an athlete doesn’t become the next Devon Allen, the Oregon receiver who finished fifth in the 110-meter hurdles at the Rio Olympics. In Swinney’s view, the participation is its own reward. “I just think that the cross-training, the different types of coaching, the different types of locker rooms, the different environments that you practice in, the different challenges — I think it develops a much more competitive, well-rounded type person,” he said.
Then there’s this: Parents who steer their children into specialization to give them a head start on acquiring the skill mastery needed to earn a college scholarship or a pro contract, or both, may actually be subverting those goals, experts argue. Studies have shown that the rates of injuries and burnout are significantly higher for athletes who pour all of their time and energy into one sport while their bodies are still developing. Swinney pointed out that in last year’s N.F.L. draft, 90 percent of the players selected — including 26 of the first 31 picks — had been multisport athletes in high school.
“Parents should get out of the way and let the kids be kids,” Swinney said. “I think it’ll all work itself out. There’s enough pressure. If you’re good enough, you’re going to be good enough.”
One of Clemson’s newcomers, Dexter Lawrence, a 6-foot-5, 340-pound freshman defensive lineman, competed in basketball and track before college. He said his footwork in football was better for having played the center position in basketball. Another Tiger, the freshman cornerback Brian Dawkins Jr., was encouraged by his father, a former three-sport athlete who played 16 seasons in the N.F.L., to participate in three sports at Valor Christian High in Colorado.
“I think sometimes you see some of these kids that specialize so early,” Swinney said, “and they’re much closer to their ceiling.” He made a motion with his hand as if he were wringing a towel and added, “I see it all the time; one sport since the fifth grade and that’s all they’ve done. They’ve been to every clinic, every camp, every teaching session and everything’s been squeezed out of them. There’s just not that much room for them to get any better.”
Ohio State’s Hubbard is a perfect example of what Swinney is talking about. He has added 30 pounds to his frame since his freshman year and found his niche at defensive end. Once skilled enough in lacrosse to commit to playing collegiately at Notre Dame, he now is considering an N.F.L. career. One of Hubbard’s teammates, Zach Turnure, played one year of collegiate lacrosse for the Buckeyes before joining the football team as a walk-on. Both said the running and physicality of lacrosse made it better preparation for football than one might think.
“I miss lacrosse because it was a big part of my life and I was really good at it,” Hubbard said, “but I like what I’m doing now. It’s hard to complain about how things turned out when you’re about to play for a national championship.”
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