This story is sponsored by Southern Utah University. Learn more about Southern Utah University.
Utah assistant football coach Morgan Scalley understands the reluctance some players have about moving from a position they believe earned them a college scholarship to a role they may never have envisioned.
In some cases, it requires letting go of a lifetime of expectations. Their childhood dreams took tangible shape on high school fields, and then some college coach ruined that bliss with his opinions about how altering that dream might make for a more successful story.
“When I played here, I wanted to be a running back,” said Scalley, who coaches safeties and special teams for the Utes. “I was recruited as a running back, they put me at wide receiver, ended up going to running back spring ball of my sophomore year, and then Kyle (Whittingham) came to me in fall camp saying, ‘We want to move you (to safety).’”
Scalley was a star running back at Highland High, a standout kick returner, and the first-ever Deseret News Mr. Football winner. Whittingham’s suggestion that he should play defense shattered the vision he had for his future.
“When you’re a young kid like that,” Scalley said, “it’s hard. My initial reaction was, ‘Coach, it’s always been my dream to play running back.’ Kyle’s reaction was, ‘It’s always been my dream to play center field for the Angels, but that’s not going to happen.’”
Scalley trusted his coach, moved to the defensive side of the ball, and ended up being critical in helping his team make history. He was a team captain on the 2004 Utah team that went 12-0 and won the Fiesta Bowl as the first non-BCS team to play in a BCS bowl game. Scalley earned MWC co-defensive player of the year honors and was named first-team all conference.
Scalley said the key to convincing players that their talent may actually lie in something they haven’t considered is putting players in a position to succeed.
“Ultimately, when they’re here, you (coaches) want what’s best for them,” Scalley said. “I think that’s hard for kids to see sometimes.”
It is not uncommon for players to change positions once they move from the high school ranks to college. There are a number of reasons college coaches will suggest players change positions, but two are involved in most cases: the needs of the team, and the skills and abilities of the players.
The move is made easier by a number of factors. The first and foremost is the experience of a player.
BYU’s Tanner Balderree played both offense and defense for his California high school team, while Utah’s Sam Tevi hadn’t played a down as an offensive lineman as a prep player.
Balderree’s experience as an offensive player, although limited, made his switch from defensive line to tight end fairly simple.
“I played both in high school, but we ran the wing-T offense, so I only got about three passes in my high school career,” Balderree said. “I was really only able to show one aspect of my game (defense).”
So when Cougar coaches suggested he might see more playing time if he moved to offense, he was willing, albeit somewhat disappointed.
“My first reaction was that I don’t think I want to do it,” Balderree said. “I really enjoy defense. I like to tackle. It’s one of my favorite things in football is being able to lay people out and tackle.”
But the more he thought about it, the more he saw it as a way to help the team and embrace the game in a different way.
“Instead of trying to read and react, you’re the one taking action,” he said. “You’re the cause, not the effect anymore. You know what’s going on before the play starts.”
He said that his defensive background makes him a pretty aggressive tight end, but he’s still getting used to being hit.
“I've been trying to get used to that mentally,” he said. “But tight end is a lot of blocking. It’s nice that I spent a whole year (at BYU as a freshman) getting this aggressive mentality of ‘take it to them; punch them in the mouth.’ On the offense when I block, I try to be very aggressive, get a good shot on someone. It’s not just like being in someone’s way.”
He said that while he’s still learning and adjusting, the satisfaction that his hard work will bolster the Cougar offense is what drives him.
“That’s kind of been the biggest boost of all,” he said. “I’ve been able to step in and do something pretty unique and it makes me feel like I’m important to the offense.”
Tevi’s experience was a bit more difficult.
“When coach (Ilaisa) Tuiaki (now at Oregon State) was here, he said, ‘How would you like to switch to offensive line?’” Tevi recalled. “I told him straight up, ‘I wouldn’t like it at all.’ But anything to help the team. They switched me that spring.”
In fall camp, the Ute coaches moved him back to defensive line for a short period before moving him to the offensive line, where he’s become a critical member of a talented unit.
“It kind of broke my heart,” he said. “Defense is what I grew up playing. This is a team sport, and I finally got over it.”
He said the most difficult aspect was adjusting to the difference in technique and mentality.
“I just wasn’t comfortable with it,” he said. “On the D-line, I had much more freedom. I guess I was just being selfish at the time. I started growing up and being more mature. Offensive line … it’s fun now.”
Scalley said one issue that may make changing a player’s position more difficult is how they were recruited.
“If he’s promised certain things, I think that makes the transition a lot harder,” Scalley said. “The recruiting process can make it hard, to where if you said, ‘You’re going to be a quarterback and that’s it,’ that’s the hardest case scenario.”
Which is why SUU coach Ed Lamb said he actually only recruits players who are willing to play whatever role the team needs. That’s made it easier, he said, because SUU is not an FBS program.
“When you recruit at the FCS level, we really have the liberty to dictate that,” Lamb said. “We articulate it from day one. We’re recruiting them as an athlete.”
The program has three players in the NFL right now and all changed positions when they arrived at SUU.
“We’re looking for developmental bodies,” he said. “Not necessarily finished products. It’s absolutely how we have to do things here to be successful. We’re looking for unrecruited players with developmental potential. … And those guys who are unrecruited, they’re ready to make that change.”
It’s working so well for the Thunderbirds that right now CBS Sports not only has three current SUU players on their draft projections for the 2016 NFL draft, but they have them as the highest-rated players in their positions in Utah.
Defensive end James Cowser, strong safety Miles Killebrew and cornerback Leshaun Sims are projected to be drafted between the fourth and seventh rounds.
Cowser and Killebrew both changed positions upon their arrival in Cedar City.
Killebrew was a running back in high school and is now rated as one of the top safeties in the country, while Cowser was an offensive guard in high school and is now one of college football’s top defensive ends.
“I wanted to play and I didn’t care how,” said Cowser, who graduated from Davis High.
Killebrew said he’d played some cornerback in high school, but a few months into his college career, coaches moved him to safety.
“I was willing,” he said. “I didn’t even think I was going to play college football. When they said, ‘We need you to play here, and you’ll have more playing time’ I was all about it.”
Sometimes a player’s reluctance is that they see the suggested move as an indictment of their skills.
“If players understand it’s not a shot at their athleticism, it’s an opportunity for them to understand, ‘Hey, this is where the coaches see my best skill set.’ In 90 percent of the cases, they figure it out.”
Regardless of the situation, Scalley said eventually most athletes simply want a chance to compete.
“Ultimately, players want to play,” he said. “And I think if the initial mindset is ‘No, I don’t want to make that change,” a year of not playing will help (persuade) them.”