Why football recruiters target multi-sport athletes

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The notion that high school football players should specialize on the gridiron for the best opportunity at an FBS scholarship is a myth.

In an examination of the three recruiting cycles from 2022-24, DCTF found that of the 607 high school signees to the 13 FBS programs in Texas, 404 (66.5 percent) played at least one other sport at the varsity level. Track was the most popular second sport by a wide margin, accounting for 83 percent of all multi-sport athletes, followed by basketball, which constituted 27 percent of two-sport athletes. The graph below represents the percentage of each program's high school signees classified as multi-sport athletes over the three cycles. 

Of note in this analysis - While UTEP ranked last with 45 percent of signees participating in another sport, 10 of the 14 high school signees new head coach Scotty Walden brought in for the 2024 class were multi-sport athletes. Sam Houston's 2022 cycle had just 38 percent multi-sport athletes, but two-thirds of its 2023 and 2024 classes (when the program moved to the FBS) were multi-sport. Houston experienced a similar trend with its Big 12 move. The Cougars' 2022 class in the American Athletic Conference had 43 percent multi-sport athletes, while two-thirds of their combined 2023-24 classes in the Power Four were multi-sport athletes.

This data proves that a majority of high school athletes who earned a college football scholarship did not specialize in football, which is not conincidence.

In a study titled "The prevalence of high school multi-sport participation in elite national football league athletes," researchers found that of all the 318 NFL first-round draft picks from 2008-17, 88 percent of them were multi-sport athletes in high school. In researching the 12 NFL quarterbacks in the 2023 Super Wild Card Weekend, Gabe Brooks of 247Sports found that 11 played another sport in high school. Joe Flacco, Jared Goff, Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes all played basketball, baseball and football.

This is why college coaches and recruiters actively seek out football players who compete in another sport - their brains are wired differently than the general population.

"The first thing I look for in recruiting - and I know this sounds odd - I try to identify really unique competitors," Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Forget skillset. Naturally, we're there because (of) their size, length, speed, whatever. But is he a competitive human being? What I mean by being competitive is, does he play multiple sports? I think that matters."

Anthony Hill Jr. won Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year honors for the Longhorns this fall, finishing second on the team with 67 total tackles. The five-star linebacker was running on Denton Ryan's 4x400 relay team the prior spring at the 5A state meet.

For TCU head coach Sonny Dykes, playing a second sport isn't only beneficial to an athlete if they excel at it. Simply participating is a green flag for college coaches because it shows unselfishness, that the athlete cares about his high school's athletic program.

"I think one of the most important things we want to see from people is a competitive spirit," Dykes said. "Somebody who's unselfish and somebody who wants to help the team. A lot of times, these athletes will run track. They may not be the fastest or the best, but they want to help their team. And that says a lot about who they are, what kind of player they are, and their character."

A recruit's most important measurable is his competitive fire, which requires constant stoking that offseason practice cannot satisfy.

That's why current Lancaster head coach Leon Paul III essentially merged Duncanville's football and track programs when he was an assistant coach at the school for five years. Paul never stood above 5-feet and 5-foot-6, but he used speed to his advantage as a football player. He approached Duncanville star quarterback Ja'Quinden Jackson with a proposition: those nice 20-yard runs for a first down could be turned into touchdowns after an offseason running track. So Jackson and four-star cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr. spearheaded the football team's efforts in daily track practice.

Duncanville made back-to-back state championship appearances in 2018 and 2019.

"A lot of people say, 'It's not a switch, you can't just turn it on,'" Paul said. "Well, I believe that about competition, it's not a switch you can just turn on. I believe you have to exercise it."

As executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association, Joe Martin has advocated against football specialization. This view started when his high school basketball coach informed him he wouldn't see minutes on the hardwood if he put on the football pads in the fall. As a football coach from 1978 to 2003 with successful stints at Denton, Garland and Allen, Martin encouraged his coaches to share athletes with other programs, especially as he witnessed specialization trends becoming more prevalent in the late 80s and early 90s.

"We wanted our kids to participate in multiple things because we wanted them to have to compete in multiple areas," Martin said. "I think competition builds people."

The typical detractors to focusing on one sport - burnout and overuse injuries - hold less water with football because there is only one fall season, albeit the increasing popularity of summer and spring 7-on-7 leagues. The point isn't that football players are putting themselves at risk by sticking to football; it's that playing a second sport can only help them attain their college football dreams.

Hudson Standish, a national scouting analyst for 247Sports, says recruiting services ranking athletes as football prospects continue their homework after the final Friday night whistle blows.

"Almost every single guy that's in ourTop247 rankings, we've poured over any film from any sport they've had," Standish said.

So, a player who's athleticism translates to another sport will see his ranking bumped at a quicker rate than a football-only athlete. Standish said 247Sports decided to make 2A phenom Terry Bussey a five-star early in his high school career because they saw his verified track times and the fact he averaged 25 points per game in basketball. Current New York Jets wide receiver Garrett Wilson cemented himself as a five-star wide receiver by proving to be the best player on a Lake Travis basketball team that made a deep run. 

"Maybe they're not elite athletes because they do multi-sport participation, but through multi-sport participation, they're able to really stamp themselves as this caliber (of) athlete," Standish said.

Paul says track and field is especially useful for verifying athleticism because college coaches know they're getting a lasered time on a prospect's speed. 

“It helps confirm to the coaches that what they’re seeing on film is real," Paul said. "Anybody can look fast on film. Of course, he’s not going to get tackled when he’s sprinting on his highlight tape. If he got tackled, it wouldn’t be (there). But when they see that type of speed, then they see his track time is a 10.5 (second 100m)? Oh, he can really run.”

If the goal is to become the best football recruit possible, playing multiple sports will prove the player's competitive edge to college programs, allow recruiting services to notice them quicker due to a larger Varsity game sample size and display the talent that supplements the football film. 

"The multiple sports they play, the multiple positions they play, creates a little diversity in their game," Texas A&M head coach Mike Elko said. "I think that always yields to a better athlete, which to me yields a better football player."

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