Alex Stepheson had just finished eating in one of USC's dining halls when he heard a voice shout, "Hey! Just the man I was looking for!"
Stepheson turned around to see Pete Carroll, charisma wrapped in a gold and cardinal hoodie, waving at him from a few yards away.
"Yeah, you," Carroll said. "Come over here, big guy!"
A 6-10 basketball standout recently transferred from North Carolina, Stepheson walked over to Carroll's table, unsure of what to expect.
"You have to sit out this year," Carroll said. "You ever think about playing football?"
Stepheson, two weeks into his tenure at Southern Cal, was totally caught off guard. A post-practice lunch had turned into a Pete Carroll recruiting pitch. He was living the dream of every USC frat star who pumped iron in preparation for Sigma Chi's beach party, flexed their Creatine-filled muscles in the mirror and thought to themselves, "I could totally be an asset on special teams."
For Stepheson, this was reality, and it also wasn't the first time he'd been approached by a famous football coach. His freshman year at UNC involved a similar encounter when Butch Davis cornered Alex and gave the spiel, encouraging him to check out the gridiron while making sure word never got back to Roy Williams that Butch was trying to poach one of his guys.
Both times, Stepheson, outgoing and gregarious, chatted and told Carroll and Davis that he'd consider their offers, yet both times he came to the same conclusion: He was a basketball player.
And it wasn't like he was just any basketball player. As a 6-9 freshman at Harvard Westlake High School in North Hollywood, Stepheson was one of the country's top recruit's seconds after hitting puberty.
After high school, he joined Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Brandan Wright, Deon Thompson and Will Graves at North Carolina in what ESPN ranked the second best recruiting class of the past 20 years (Michigan's Fab Five was No. 1). The world had been molding him to play basketball since it became clear he'd be one of its tallest inhabitants. Every second he spent away from the court was a second wasted, time he could have spent honing his craft.
But after going undrafted and tearing his ACL last season in Greece, Stepheson finds himself on the outside looking in, hoping for a shot at an NBA roster this offseason. There are, after all, only 360 full-time jobs in the profession. Myriad talents fall through the cracks and end up playing in Europe, the D-League or hogging the ball at your local LA Fitness.
And though Stepheson has spent the past nine months recovering from ACL surgery and fine-tuning his footwork, ball handling, and shooting, previous weaknesses in his game, he'll have to have a dominant summer to crack an NBA roster.
"When I think back," Stepheson said, referring to Carroll's practice invitation. "I always wonder, 'What if I went?'"
You might have read about the Seahawks signing Darren Fells, former international basketball player, to a three-year contract earlier this week. Darren, brother of St. Louis Rams tight end Daniel Fells, is a beast at 6-7 and 280 pounds. Clearly Carroll and Schneider are obsessed with physical specimens, but are they on the cusp of the next big trend in the NFL?
And Stepheson isn't just 6-10 -- he's 6-10 and 290 pounds of pure muscle. He has a 37-inch vertical leap and hands the size of Ken Griffey Jr.'s glove. He's a "Dwight Howardesque" athlete. He's not only a giant, but he's a giant that God built solidly and proportionally. The anti-Greg Oden, if you will.
So my question is this: Would Stepheson or player that fits his profile (6-9 to 7-0, 35-inch-plus vertical leap, huge hands, excellent athlete) be unstoppable as a receiver in the red zone? Would Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis stand a chance defending Stepheson in a jump ball from the 5-yard line? Would they stand a chance if they double-teamed him?
With the success of former college basketball players Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates, two guys who didn't play a down of football in their underclassman careers (Graham played sparingly in a fifth season at Miami once his basketball eligibility had expired) why don't more teams actively recruit basketball players to catch touchdown passes?
Clippers forward Matt Barnes, a standout wide receiver at Del Campo High School in Fair Oaks, Calif., said that he and Blake Griffin were recently chatting at practice about a hypothetical that many sports fans have imagined: What could Blake Griffin do as an NFL wide-out?
Barnes is a modest guy and made sure to emphasize that it'd be incredibly difficult for a former NBA big to be an effective route-runner or deal with the physicality of the position (I agree to an extent but still argue that Dwight Howardesques could be effective in third-and-short "jump-ball" situations anywhere on the field, even if only as a decoy). But given the scenario of Barnes and Griffin lining up as receivers in the red zone, Barnes quickly replied, "In the red zone -- it'd be over."
So here's a new question: Would a poor man's Blake Griffin, say, for example, his older brother Taylor Griffin, be worth a roster spot if he only saw the field as a red-zone target? If he subbed in for a team's No. 2 receiver inside the 20-yard line to open up defenses and out-jump helpless defenders who are 6-0 or 6-2?
I hope you're emphatically nodding at this point.
Because while it doesn't make sense for Dwight Howard or Blake Griffin to forfeit millions of dollars playing the sport they love, it would make sense for the hundreds of Taylor Griffin's playing in the D-League, Europe, or elsewhere, to consider the NFL. Quite simply, and I'm speaking to agents here, it might be a more lucrative career path.
Precision passers like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are effective in the red zone because they can throw within unbelievably small windows to guys like Brandon Stokley, Deion Branch and Donald Driver, incredible possession receivers who run flawless routes and have great hands to boot. Even Mark "Throw The Ball In The General Vicinity And Hope My Teammate Catches It" Sanchez could connect for touchdowns with Stepheson.
So why don't NFL teams go after these guys?
You might remember after George Mason's incredible run to the Final Four in 2006 its star power forward, Jai Lewis, got signed by the New York Giants. Inspired by the success of Antonio Gates, Lewis thought he could parlay his success on the court into a football career.
"A lot of NFL teams are trying to find the best athletes in the country," Lewis said at the time. "So why not look at basketball players?"
Lewis had the right idea, but the Giants were envisioning the wrong prototype. If Alex Stepheson, Miles Plumlee or Jarvis Varnado -- the list of intriguing bigs fighting for roster spots in the D-League or playing in Europe goes on and on -- could practically guarantee a touchdown in the red zone, they'd be worth more money than any non-elite wide receiver (guys other than Calvin Johnson, AJ Green, Larry Fitzgerald, etc.). The math would go something like this: Calculate how many additional touchdowns a Howardesque player would provide, then extrapolate how many additional wins those touchdowns would account for (my guess is more than two), and then assign a monetary value to the player. How much is a player worth that's netting a team two victories? $2 million? $3 million? More?
And make no mistake -- minus getting away with an egregious pass-interference penalty, there's no way even the most athletic NFL cornerback could stop any of those guys one-on-one. I'd argue that a guy like Stepheson would still have an advantage if it were two-on-one, but even if the odds were to slide back into the defense's favor with the aforementioned double defensive back scenario, picture this: The Lions sign Hassan Whiteside, the 7-footer who played at Marshall and got drafted by Sacramento in the NBA, and line him up next to Megatron at the 5-yard line on first and goal. That means the defense is devoting four cornerbacks to stop two wide-outs. That allows running back Mikel Leshoure (and his fantasy owners) to enjoy a 40-touchdown season and the Lions have created an unstoppable red zone offense. Jim Schwartz, you're welcome.
To get an expert's opinion I turned to Ernie Accorsi, one of the greatest general managers and talent evaluators in the game's history, and asked if he'd ever gone after college basketball players.
The answer was yes. When Accorsi was with the Browns, he recruited Mookie Blaylock, a point guard out of Oklahoma. He visualized Blaylock, the previous generation's Eric Bledsoe, as a return man, third down back, perhaps a slot receiver.
"We thought he was small, wasn't a great shooter, maybe he'd take the bait for football," Accorsi said. "But he wanted no part in that. It takes a special person to make that leap and I haven't done a whole lot of that [recruiting ex-basketball players] but I'll take a chance on a player that has great natural ability."
Blaylock went on to be a first-round pick and enjoyed a successful NBA career, but Accorsi wasn't off in his evaluation. Both of Blaylock's sons shunned basketball and are currently sophomores on Kentucky's football team.
When I proposed my hypothetical scenario to Accorsi, asking whether basketball big men could make the conversion to NFL red zone targets, he said, "I would have loved to have Wilt Chamberlain on my team. He was tough enough and strong enough."
"But remember one thing," Accorsi said. "A guy who is that big is also a big target and he's really going to get hit. I know there's no 7-foot corner who's going to guard him but I guarantee there's a 6-1 corner that's made out of rocks that's going to hammer him in the ribs."
One former quarterback with a solid grasp of what it's like to throw to a mammoth wide receiver is ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski. He threw touchdowns to Harold Carmichael, the tallest receiver to ever play in the NFL at 6-8.
"When we got inside that 10-yard line, we were going to score," Jaworski said. "I knew I had something special in Harold -- to get him those alley-oops, take advantage of his size and athleticism."
Jaworski studies the game with a zeal matched by few others in the profession. He watches more tape than quality assurance workers at the Scotch® factory. Over the years, "The Polish Rifle" has built strong relationships with coaches and personnel guys throughout the league and is always on the cusp of new trends and advances in strategy.
When I told Jaws about Stepheson and asked if a guy like that would warrant a roster spot, Jaworski said, "Absolutely."
(Cut to me fist-pumping)
"There's no question and I think clearly you're on to something," Jaworski continued.
(Cut to me fist-pumping more ardently, thinking about how I'm definitely quoting that in the article)
Jaws went on to talk about the great tight ends. In particular he praised Tony Gonzalez as a former basketball player who "has the unique ability to get the ball like it's coming off the rim or glass" and "knows how to get the ball at its apex."
"The NFL is a now a red zone game," Jaworski said. "If you just look at the Super Bowl and what happened to the 49ers, they're kicking field goals and the Ravens are scoring touchdowns. Four-point spreads. You got to find a way to be creative in that part of the field and score touchdowns ... That's where the visionaries down the road are going to find a guy to throw the alley-oop. It's going to be little things like that that I think are going to revolutionize the game. Not the spread option, not the Wildcat, I think it's going to be individual players, not plays."
One innovator whom Jaworski and I share an affection for is Chip Kelly (you didn't think I'd really go an entire football article without mentioning Chip Kelly, did you?).
But I'm going to throw my favorite coach under the bus for a second and look back at a drive that changed the fate of the Oregon Ducks' season and ultimately cost them a shot at the national title.
In their only loss against Stanford, Marcus Mariota broke a 77-yard run in the first quarter that gave the Ducks a first down at Stanford's 15.
It looked like the Ducks were about to take a 7-0 lead, but Oregon thrives on spreading the field and didn't match up well with the massive Stanford front seven in the red zone.
After a 7-yard completion on first-down, Kelly's squad got stuffed on the next three plays (of course Kelly went for it on fourth down), came out with zero points, and ended up losing the game. What if the Ducks, or any other team, had a guy like Stepheson for those types of situations? Mariota would have floated the ball up to him on first down, Alex would have plucked it out of the air while defensive backs helplessly pulled and clawed underneath him, and he'd land with the ball clasped in his mitts to the roar of the crowd.
Kelly is football's apotheosis of how creativity wins games, but his teams sometimes stall in the red zone because his offenses can't create the space they need to thrive. If he had a Stepheson-type receiver, Stanford would have at least been forced to double-team him, opening up the field for Mariota and Kenjon Barner. Clearly Oregon was one of the best red zone teams in the country (No. 8 to be exact), and Chip Kelly is as innovative as they come, but even a team like the Ducks can struggle to score touchdowns in the red zone, especially against a good defense.
But as space shrinks in the red zone, teams can gain a profound advantage by increasing their height. A team's "vertical passing game" takes on a different connotation and teams score more red zone touchdowns as a result. The Saints (Graham) and the Patriots (Gronkowski) have long understood the concept, now it's time to take it to the next level.
So here's what's going to happen. One college or NFL team is going to sign a Howardesque player who absolutely dominates. After one team starts scoring touchdowns throwing alley-oops, every team will be hitting the phones wondering what the heck happened to Dan Gadzuric.
Teams will realize that the only way to stop big men from catching jump balls is by defending them with other 7-footers. After that, we'll see elite bigs who can also run slants and hitches. That's when things will get really crazy.
The influx of bigs will lead to more littles like Jaquizz Rogers and Wes Welker -- guys far too small and quick for a big guy to tackle in the open field. Suddenly the game will be an athletic version of Twins, with various Devito-Schwarzenegger duos running all over the field trying to get the ball into the end zone.
It sounds chaotic, but it'll be beautiful because we'll see less kicking and more incredible athletes doing incredibly athletic things.
Football, at the end of the day, is the only sport based purely on athleticism. There's no other game where you could pluck a Jason Pierre-Paul off the street with four years of pre-draft experience and watch him blossom into a star. (Ezekiel Ansah is the next Pierre-Paul and he started playing three years ago.)
There are hundreds of forwards and centers playing college basketball today who because of a mediocre jump shot or bad luck won't make it to the NBA.
In the case of Stepheson, he's optimistic about his chances of signing after this summer.
"It's always been my dream to run out in Madison Square Garden," Stepheson said. "But I feel like if I gave it everything I had and I didn't make it to the NBA, I could live knowing that I gave it my best shot, and the situation didn't work out, let me try this next door."
Stepheson said he was going to devote at least the next two years to basketball. If I were the Jacksonville Jaguars, I'd give him a financial incentive to reconsider his commitment to the court.
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