Football or basketball?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The term "athlete" is used in football recruiting as a way to describe a prospect who can play a number of different positions equally well.

For Nashville (Tenn.) Ensworth School's Cornelius Elder, it goes well beyond that.

Elder isn't even sure which sport he'll play.

Elder's first love was football until he discovered the AAU basketball world. He soon fell in love with the travel and the one-on-one game. Suddenly, basketball surpassed football as his main focus. But despite his passion for basketball, high school and college coaches tell him that football is his best path for success.

"It makes me just work harder and harder in basketball," Elder said. "When people say that it just makes me think they haven't really seen me play basketball."

The mailbox at Ensworth says it all. Football coach Paul Wade said of the 20 or so letters that Elder gets daily, about 75 percent are from football recruiters.

The scholarship offers tell the same tale. Programs from the SEC, ACC, Big East and others have offered Elder a scholarship. Ohio State did so this week. Basketball coaches haven't followed suit. Elder has some offers from smaller schools but is still waiting on at least a mid-major offer. Elder, who's 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds and plays guard in basketball, said he'll need an offer from an NCAA tournament contender to turn down those football offers. He's hoping the AAU circuit can provide that.

"I'm kind of small for a basketball player," Elder admitted. "Hopefully they see what I can do this summer and I can get some basketball offers but if I don't, I will play football."

But don't get Elder wrong. He would be happy to play college football and is flattered by the attention, as varied as it has been. See, even if Elder chooses football, his future is very much in question. Some schools are recruiting Elder to play offense as a slot receiver/scatback. Others are recruiting him to play cornerback.

Elder said he has no preference.

"When I get the ball in the open field, I know I can create and get the crowd going and get my team going," he said. "On defense, I can do the same thing, so either way."

Wade said schools that run a traditional power offense, like LSU, Tennessee, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, are recruiting Elder for defense. Schools who spread it out a little more, like Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Arkansas State, Ohio State and Oregon, are recruiting Elder to play offense.

Elder can't say if he's better on either side of the ball.

"I would say offense. I get the ball more. I create on offense," he said. "But I could say defense because I'm always around the ball and I have a knack for getting around the ball. I can't really say I'm better at either one."

The AAU circuit has kept Elder from gaining as much weight as he would have had he focused on football. Wade said Elder will need to weigh at least 180 pounds to stand the rigors of the college game.

"His strength and conditioning is probably not where I would hope it would be going into his senior year, but he is an unbelievable runner," Wade said.

So good in fact that his highlight tape has multiple "wow" moments where the shifty speedster thrives even though he doesn't follow the play's design.

"Sometimes he sees the field so well that he makes unbelievable plays, and then, on the flipside, he sees the field so well he makes everybody else look like they've done absolutely nothing because he can go the opposite way of the play and make something look like a crazy design," Wade said.

Then there's Elder's play on defense.

"He can close on the ball as a defensive back better than any player I've ever seen," Wade said. "He likes to hit. He doesn't like to get hit but he likes to hit."

Elder has mastered the art of not getting hit. He'll maximize his runs while making sure he takes only glancing blows to protect his small frame. Wade said he took only a couple of hard hits all last season.

Wade won't be getting hit hard anytime soon. Elder said he thought about taking a couple of football-related visits this summer, but will focus on AAU basketball instead. Elder has never been to a football combine and never even been timed in the 40-yard dash. Still, Wade is sure where he'll end up.

"He's football," the coach said. "No doubt."

Elder may still have something to say about that.