Courting new attention
Frank Iheanacho continues the trend of basketball players turning to football
Frank Iheanacho (Houston/Westside) delivered the news to his family and friends two years ago. A spry, 6-foot-5 sophomore with dreams of playing college basketball, he received his first scholarship offer from New Orleans.
It was a moment Iheanacho will never forget. It also was something that made him want more. He wanted more scholarship offers so he would have more options.
Iheanacho's offer list is now 16 strong, but only three are in the sport he once thought would be his destiny.
Iheanacho will be in a college uniform next year, but thanks to a strong senior year on the gridiron, that uniform will probably include a helmet and pads instead of a high-tops.
Pretty impressive for someone who technically is only in his first year of varsity football. Iheanacho was on varsity as a sophomore but didn't get any playing time and focused solely on basketball as a junior.
"All of this, it makes me feel good. It lets me know I'm working hard every day at practice, before and after, and in the weight room," said Iheanacho. "It lets me know I'm doing something right. Hard work pays off. I'm just glad they see my potential. I know I have long way to go, and I'm never going to be satisfied with where I'm at."
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Basketball players choosing to play football at the next level isn't new. Derick Roberson is in his 19th year with the Dallas Independent School District. He was a coach for 16 years and now serves as an assistant athletic director. He's seen some of the city's best athletes in action, regardless of the sport.
Roberson watched Michael Crabtree dominate in football and basketball during his high school days at Dallas Carter. Crabtree was one of Texas' top combo guards before playing football for Texas Tech and, eventually, the San Francisco 49ers.
Why are we seeing basketball players play football after high school? Roberson credits the evolution of the game.
"When you look across the nation, more teams are trying to get speed around them," Roberson said. "More teams are running spreads, and when you're trying to get the best possible matchups, you need guys with good hand-eye coordination and guys who can jump -- on both sides of the ball. That's what attracts [football] coaches to basketball players. Some of your best athletes are usually basketball players."
SMU men's assistant basketball coach Ulric Maligi started out coaching AAU ball. He said there are many players who love both sports but make better fits by ultimately focusing on football, primarily because of their size.
Take Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans, for example. Evans was a 6-foot-5 power forward for the Galveston (Texas) Ball basketball team. He decided to play football his senior year and earned his lone BCS offer from the Aggies. Now he's one of the most physical receivers in the game -- and a pro prospect.
"A lot of times, these guys are mid-major basketball players, but coaches can sell them on the fact that they can not only be high-major football guys but also NFL guys," Maligi said. "With some of the football coaches I know who are friends of mine, I think they like how guys like [Evans] are so physical on the basketball court. He has size, speed and lateral quickness, and they like his leaping ability.
"You can put a helmet on an athlete and teach him some skill on the football field."
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Iheanacho went from being a virtual unknown to one of the nation's most sought-after players. He is another example of how basketball players can successfully make the transition to football and earn an opportunity to play at the next level.
Iheanacho's good feet, soft hands, body control and ability to win jump balls make him an instant attraction to recruiters. He's caught 32 passes for 441 yards and nine touchdowns through eight games this year.
And he's made football coaches take notice. In his first game, Iheanacho caught four passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns in a win. After his second game, he earned his first football offer from Houston.
Iheanacho now has offers from Texas A&M, Florida State, LSU, TCU, Arkansas and others. He has garnered interest from Texas, UCLA, Missouri and Texas Tech.
"The atmosphere is great in both sports, but I love the physicality of football," he said.
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Like Iheanacho, Marques Townes (Perth Amboy, N.J./St. Joseph) is trying to make his mark on the football field after having played basketball all his life.
Townes decided to play football as a senior. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Townes is an intimidating outside linebacker who has been able to score interest from Penn State, Syracuse, Rutgers and other schools.
"Once they start to offer, and hopefully they'll offer, I'll be talking to my father about everything," said Townes, who has basketball offers from Fairfield, Robert Morris, Florida Gulf Coast and others. "I really might consider doing football. I feel like it'd be a great opportunity for me. It might just have a big effect on my life."
Townes' athleticism makes him intriguing. He has lined up as a linebacker, running back and wide receiver, and his lateral movement and overall skill set allow coaches to consider him as a future defensive end and tight end, as well.
Football could be a perfect option for Townes, who is considered a tweener in basketball.
Being one of the biggest and tallest on the gridiron could be an advantage at the next level. He is currently averaging 10 tackles per game for his school.
"I could see myself playing football down the road," he said. "When I started playing basketball in high school, I was all the way focused on that. Now that football is back, I love the feeling of being out there. Yeah, I can see myself doing this in college."
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From NFL veteran Martellus Bennett to Texas Longhorns DL Jackson Jeffcoat to Texas A&M teammates Evans and WR Ricky Seals-Jones, the state of Texas has seen its share of two-sport stars.
Iheanacho hopes to be next.
"I'm happy that I came back," Iheanacho said. "It let me realize how hungry I was. It let me know to get better."
As for Townes, everything seems to be falling into place. When Penn State showed interest, it gave him the idea that he is capable of things far greater than he expected.
"I still have a way to go," he said, "but I like where this is going."