Steve Zabel prospered as a two-way Sooner star half a century ago. Here's why two-way college football stars are 'more possible' in 2020.
In 1968, Oklahoma football coach Chuck Fairbanks made a choice that would dramatically change tight end Steve Zabel’s career.
The Sooners started off slow despite a No. 5 preseason ranking, with a blowout loss to Notre Dame in the season opener and a loss to Texas two weeks later. His defense was struggling, so Fairbanks went to Zabel with a new challenge — he wanted him to play tight end AND linebacker.
“He said, ‘Steve, when you go play pro football, you’ll be either at tight end or at linebacker, and we’ve proven we can’t outscore people,’” Zabel said. “'We want you to play both ways.’”
The Sooners went on to finish the season 6-1 in the Big Eight with Zabel playing both ways.
Two years later, he was the sixth overall pick in the 1970 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Zabel played the majority of his 10-year NFL career at linebacker, where he started 95 games for the Eagles, New England Patriots and Baltimore Colts.
Fifty-two years since Zabel starred on both sides of the ball, two-way players have been a rarity in college football.
However, to get through a 2020 college football season, an unintended consequence of the coronavirus pandemic may be some players having to play on both sides of the ball. In the event a cluster of defensive lineman has to quarantine after testing positive for the virus, would any offensive lineman have to move over to defense to make up for the lack of depth?
“I think it’s something every coach in the country is thinking about right now,” OU coach Lincoln Riley told reporters last month after the Sooners had to practice without a position group due to the virus. “You always have contingency plans if the worst of the worst happens. Now the difference here is … it’s probably more possible than it’s ever been – not probably, it is.
- Related to this story
- Article: Carlson: Longing for a taste of normalcy? Sure, college football is back, but how about a Fletcher's corny dog?
- Article: Missouri State at OU football: Broadcast info, betting lines, matchup breakdown
- Article: OU football: Isaiah Thomas', LaRon Stokes' roles could grow with Jalen Redmond's opt-out
- Article: 'Just one of one': Why OU transfer receiver Obi Obialo is one of college football's most unique players
- Article: Riley: 'No change' in status for suspended players
- Article: Riley: Sooners to stop releasing virus data for competitive reasons
- Article: OU football: Spencer Rattler says 'pressure is a privilege' following Jalen Hurts, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield as Sooners' QB
- Article: 'A pretty good compromise': OU football fan honors late father with cardboard cutout instead of spreading ashes at Sooners' stadium
- Article: Bears haven't made I-AA playoffs since 1990
- Article: Carlson: Why 5,000 OU football season-ticket holders didn't get seats — and why it's a total bummer
- Article: OU football: Merv Johnson announces retirement from Sooners' radio booth
- Article: OU football: Missouri State president says game 'was in serious jeopardy' until Friday's test results
- Article: No. 5 OU vs. Missouri State football: Kickoff time, betting odds, matchup breakdown
- Article: Tramel: The Spencer Rattler era for OU football arrives on Owen Field with plenty of hype
- Article: College football: Sooners up to No. 3, Cowboys rise to No. 11 in AP poll
- Article: OU football: Spencer Rattler's arm is off the charts, but his running ability might be needed soon also
- Article: Big 12 leaves some wiggle room in its schedule for makeup games
- Article: Tramel: Cut Mike Gundy some slack for Oklahoma State quarterback decision
- Article: OSU football: Kolby Harvell-Peel shows creative side through music, with fifth album released on Thursday
- Article: OU football: After 'better than expected' opener, student section biggest change for Sooners' second home game
- Article: OSU football: The Six Shooter pregame thoughts on the Cowboys vs. West Virginia
- Article: OSU football: 3-2-1 kickoff for No. 15 Cowboys vs. West Virginia
- Video: OU Football: Highlights from football practice
“In the past, (it’s) what happens if two safeties get hurt during a game. Now it’s what happens if I don’t have a safety even available to play – period. The worst possible scenario is now way worse.”
Riley specifically talked about the potential for offensive and defensive lineman switching sides which makes sense as they are often around the same size. The Sooners have 17 offensive lineman on their 2020 roster, all of which are at least 6-foot-3 and 287 pounds. Riley said the two he sees with the best potential to play both sides are redshirt junior center Creed Humphrey and redshirt sophomore tackle Brey Walker.
“There’s obviously several,” Riley said. “There’s a lot of them that could do it. Creed with his athleticism could do just about everything. Brey Walker could probably anchor down as a nose and be tough to move.
OU doesn’t have the same amount of depth on the defensive line as it does on the offensive line, with only 12 players on the roster. The D-line’s size is comparable to the offensive line in height, as its shortest player is sophomore Josh Ellison, but its lightest is redshirt sophomore Zach McKinney at 258.
Riley cited size as a factor in determining what defensive lineman would make the smoothest transition to offense. He mentioned Perrion Winfrey (6-foot-3, 283 pounds), Jordan Kelley (6-foot-3, 293 pounds) and McKinney (6-foot-3, 258 pounds).
“Obviously, some of those big interior guys that are pretty versatile, like Perrion, Zach McKinney and Jordan Kelley, those types of guys,” Riley said. “From a size standpoint, they would be the best guys if they got the chance.”
While Riley was specifically asked about his lineman playing both sides of the ball, it could happen at other positions as well. Zabel went from tight end to linebacker, and Woolfolk and Bridges went from catching passes to defending receivers.
Multiple Sooners played both sides in high school, including redshirt sophomore safety Woodi Washington and freshman cornerback D.J. Graham, who played receiver in high school.
The circumstances in being forced to change positions would certainly be different for the 2020 Sooners than they were with Zabel. But he thinks it could be beneficial for them to play on both sides of the ball at Oklahoma because it could set them up for more opportunities as a pro player.
“I would say embrace it because if you want to play pro football, there's a chance that you might be a linebacker if you're a certain body type or a tight end if you're a certain body type,” Zabel said. “So if you're trained at a high level at Oklahoma as outside linebackers/tight ends, or a wide receiver/safety, man jump on the opportunity to do that.
“You could prosper by playing that other position.”