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Hoop Dreams Lead To The Gridiron

Posted Feb 22, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- One of the more common themes around the NFL over the last decade or so has been the infiltration of former basketball players to the gridiron. A trend that seemingly began in the AFC West with the likes of Tony Gonzalez in Kansas City and later Antonio Gates in San Diego, former hoop stars have continued to strap on the pads and play the tight end position at a high level. Since then, even more have made the transition, including the Eagles’ Zach Ertz, Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas and more famously New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.

This draft class is chock-full of prospects with basketball backgrounds, and over the first few days of media sessions they’ve talked about how their skills on the hardwood have led to success between the lines of a football field.

“(Basketball) helps you a lot,” said South Carolina wide receiver Bruce Ellington. “As a defender on a basketball court, it helps you stay low. It helps your quickness and it helps with just being competitive ... going through football and basketball drills are like the same thing - you’ve got to be athletic, and competitive.”

Ellington would know. The cousin of Arizona Cardinals rookie Andre Ellington, Bruce went to South Carolina as a two-sport athlete, and started as the Gamecocks’ point guard as a true freshman, leading the team with 12.8 points per game. Ellington played a total of three seasons for both teams, but declared for the NFL Draft last month, forfeiting the chance to play for the basketball team this spring.

Bruce Ellington

It just so happens that Ellington is a talented football prospect as well, leading Steve Spurrier’s team with 49 receptions in 2013 to go along with eight receiving touchdowns.  Despite his 5-foot-9, 197-pound stature, his competitiveness jumps out on the field as a downfield receiver, as a ball carrier, return specialist and as a blocker on the perimeter, making him an ideal candidate as a slot receiver at the next level. Ellington isn’t your traditional basketball convert in the NFL because of his height, but he doesn’t think that’s going to be an issue.

“Even though I’m short, I’m going to go get a rebound, and I just like going to go get the ball, you know, just like going up to go get a catch,” Ellington said.

“I think it just helps with athleticism and competing. Whenever you get the opportunity to compete, it’s good to do that,” said California tight end Richard Rodgers, a four-year varsity hoops star in high school.

“My basketball background definitely helps me out in the fact of going up for jump balls and being able to move my hips in and out of routes,” affirmed Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. “It just translates very well to the tight end position.”

Wide receiver Davante Adams, one of the top receivers in the draft class as a redshirt-sophomore, had interest in playing both sports at Fresno State. He, too, takes advantage of his skills on the hardwood and translates them to the football field.

“I was always a hooper growing up and I didn’t play football until my junior year (of high school). It makes it real easy to go up and win those 50/50 balls,” the second-team All America selection said. “I’m so used to go up and grabbing boards, it’s kind of second nature when the ball is in the air to go up and grab it. I know with my leaping ability that no one is going to get it over me, so that’s why we were so effective in fades this year, (quarterback) Derek (Carr) was able to just throw it up for me and let me go get it.”

It’s not just the tight ends and wide receivers who are making the switch, as offensive linemen through the years have cited their basketball background in helping make the transition to the offensive line, a sentiment echoed by Ohio State’s Jack Mewhort.

“I thought I was a hooper, I had the hoop dream like every kid does,” the third-team All America tackle said. “Being able to play basketball does help, the crossover is there. It does correlate. I encourage any young player who is a dual athlete to keep going and make sure you push yourself in both sports.”

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