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College Football's Two-Way Players of 2015


Texas A&M legend and Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow, who passed away earlier this month, carved a niche in college football history with his outstanding play at both linebacker and running back.

Crow played in the era from 1954 to 1965 in which college football rules banned specializing, thus all players participated on both sides of the ball in a “one-platoon” system.

The 2014 season teased a one-platoon comeback of sorts, with a number of two-way standouts popping up around the nation.

USC freshman Adoree’ Jackson turned heads late in the campaign with his performance across all three phases. NFL-bound Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson filled a void as the Huskies' top ball carrier for several games, and teammate John Ross — injured for the duration of 2015 — pitched in on offense, defense and special teams.

A half-century after the one-platoon restriction was lifted, more college players are doing their part to bring it back.

Budda Baker, Washington

Safety/Wide Receiver/Returner

One of the gems of Chris Petersen’s first recruiting class, Baker lived up to his lofty prep billing as an anchor at safety. He recorded 80 tackles, a sack and an interception en route to Freshman All-American recognition.

As Petersen has proven wont to do, last year doing so with Thompson and Ross, the Huskies' head coach is expanding the talented Baker’s role in 2015.

In addition to playing some wide receiver in spring practices, Petersen told Adam Jude of the Seattle Times Baker “will definitely be factored into our return game.”

Kalen Ballage, Arizona State

Running Back/Linebacker

Ballage will form one-half of a thunder-and-lighting backfield with fellow Sun Devils running back Demario Richard. Specifically, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Ballage will bring the thunder both as a ball carrier and pass catcher.

Ballage could also be that same force of nature as part of the Arizona State linebacker corps. Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham’s defensive philosophy of routine, aggressive blitzing calls on multiple linebackers contributing.

Graham sees the potential for Ballage to make plays on both sides of the ball. In preseason camp last year, the coach gave Ballage No. 9, the significance of which the Arizona Republic’s Doug Haller writes is it’s the same number Charles Clay wore while playing for Graham at Tulsa.

Clay played a multitude of offensive positions, as well as linebacker.

Cameron Echols-Luper, TCU

Cornerback/Returner/Wide Receiver

Echols-Luper served as TCU’s primary return man in 2014, and did the majority of his work for the Horned Frogs on special teams. He averaged more than 10 yards per punt return and took one to the house.

Echols-Luper was somewhat limited in as one of the many receivers in a deep corps last season, catching just nine passes for a modest 72 yards. The bevy of targets for Heisman-contending quarterback Trevone Boykin fueled a move into the secondary, where Echols-Luper, a two-sport athlete, now has the potential to be TCU’s next great star.

His speed, evident on the track where he’s one of TCU’s premier sprinters, as well as his athleticism make Echols-Luper a prime contender for the starting job Kevin White vacates.

And, with as much as offensive coordinator Doug Meacham likes to air it out, there are still opportunities for Echols-Luper to use his speed on offense.

Cody Grice, Akron

Nose Guard/Fullback

Grice is a defensive lineman first and foremost — and a very good one. He recorded 31 tackles, four tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks and forced a fumble playing on the interior of the Akron defense a season ago.

But, in the tradition of Chicago Bears legend William “Refrigerator” Perry, Grice has proven more than willing to mix it up on the offensive end, lining up in the Zips backfield for short-yardage and goal-line situations.

Grice rushed 20 times for all of 44 yards, and never any more than six yards on any given touch, but he scored four touchdowns.  

The big man’s proficiency in such situations prompted Zips head coach Terry Bowden to tell Elton Alexander of The Plain Dealer, “We should have had [the offensive package featuring Grice] earlier.”

Myles Jack, UCLA

Linebacker/Running Back

As the old adage goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and it was necessity that prompted UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to use standout linebacker Jack at running back in November 2013.

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More than anyone else in college football, Jack ushered in the current boom period for two-way play when he earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year on both offense and defense that season.

Jack’s contribution to the Bruins offense was limited in 2014, thanks in part to the breakout of Pac-12-leading rusher Paul Perkins. However, glimpses of Jack’s ability with the ball in his hands shined through — most notably, a stiff arm-punctuated rush at Washington almost one year to the day he carried for 120 yards and a touchdown in a win at Arizona.

Adoree’ Jackson, USC

Cornerback/Returner/Wide Receiver

USC sophomore Jackson isn’t just a two… well, three-way standout for Trojans football: He’s also a two-sport star, competing in the NCAA Track & Field Championships in the long jump earlier this month.

Jackson is working to become the first Olympic gold medalist and Heisman winner,’s Aaron Torres writes. He already started making headway on the Heisman part of that impressive two-pronged goal at the end of last season, when Jackson scored touchdowns on offense and special teams in the Trojans' Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska.

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian didn’t shy away from drawing the comparison between Jackson and Michigan great Charles Woodson, the last true two-way player to win college football’s most prestigious individual award.

Like Woodson, Jackson actually plays in all three phases extensively, and at the same positions: cornerback, wide receiver and returner.

Charles Nelson, Oregon

Cornerback/Returner/Wide Receiver

As Ryan Thorburn of the Register-Guard notes, Nelson’s official position heading into his sophomore campaign is “TBA.”

Though Nelson’s full-time spot is unknown, one certainty for Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich is that he wants to have Nelson on the field.

Bralon Addison’s knee injury in spring practices afforded Helfrich the opportunity to play Nelson on special teams, and the then-freshman delivered with a pair of punts returned for touchdowns in 2014.

Addison returns, resuming his place as Oregon’s likely No. 1 receiver. There’s no shortage of talent in the Ducks' wide receiving corps, thus Nelson’s place there is not as necessary as it was a season ago. He caught 23 passes for 327 yards in 2014, but standing out among a group that includes Addison, Devon Allen, Darren Carrington and Byron Marshall may be a challenge.  

Thus, Helfrich and defensive coordinator Don Pellum tested out Nelson on defense in the spring. Nelson’s break-neck speed and nose for the ball make him a potential difference-maker in the secondary in the same vein as former All-American Duck Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss

Defensive Tackle/Fullback

Nkemdiche averaged a healthy 6.4 yards per carry in 2013 — granted, those came on just five carries. Furthermore, the preseason All-American defensive lineman did not play any offense in 2014.

However, as the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit in the 2013 signing class, Nkemdiche boasted some impressive two-way credentials for Grayson High School in Loganville, Ga. There, he rushed for seven touchdowns in 2012.

Should Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze go into his bag of tricks this fall, Nkemdiche can do some damage with the ball in his hands.

Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA

Defensive End/H-Back

UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone enjoys tinkering with formations and lining up defensive players on his side of the ball. Last year, that philosophy gave birth to the “Big Panda” set, a goal-line package that put the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Eddie Vanderdoes in the Bruins backfield.

There’s no controversy brewing as to where Vanderdoes should focus his energy, as was the case with teammate Myles Jack at one time. Vanderdoes is one of the Pac-12’s premier defensive lineman heading into 2015.

But his surprising dexterity on offense gives Mazzone a few interesting options with which to tinker.

Vanderdoes caught a pass in his freshman season, but the next step in his offensive contribution is to catch a touchdown. Former Bruins defensive line teammate Cassius Marsh was on the receiving end of one in 2013.

Nick Vigil, Utah State

Linebacker/Running Back

Brother Zach Vigil cast a long shadow as the top playmaker on a Utah State defense that has consistently been one of the nation’s best for the last half-decade. Nick Vigil was certainly integral to the Aggies allowing just 19.7 points per game in 2014, 12th-best in the nation.

However, where Nick broke away from brother Zach was on the other side of the ball. Nick Vigil filled a pressing need at running back for the Aggies, rushing 41 times for 152 yards with three touchdowns. Vigil even completed a pair of passes.

With Zach gone, Nick Vigil can take over as the Aggies’ tackling-machine linebacker while also helping out on offense. Talk about making a name for yourself.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.