Parker moves from gridiron to diamond
Clemson's two-sport star translates success from football to baseball
New Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney says there are only 10 NFL quarterbacks who throw the football as well as Tigers freshman Kyle Parker.
While that comparison might sound like hyperbole from a young coach, it might be hard for Clemson fans to doubt Parker's athletic abilities if they witnessed his one-day performance earlier this spring.
On April 11, Parker completed 13-of-21 passes for 171 yards with one touchdown in the Tigers' spring football game at Memorial Stadium. Shortly after the intrasquad scrimmage, Parker walked across a parking lot to Doug Kingsmore Stadium, where he hit a home run in each game of a doubleheader against No. 5 Miami.
For those Clemson fans who saw Parker's performance, it was Bo Jackson-like stuff.
"He caught a lot of people's eyes," Swinney said. "I think most people around here know him as a baseball player because he hasn't been on the field much as a quarterback. But I think he surprised a lot of people in the spring game."
Parker's whirlwind spring is finally coming to a close. For more than two months, he juggled playing both sports while attending classes. Spring football practice is over, but Parker hopes Clemson's baseball season lasts a few more weeks.
The Tigers' 14th-ranked baseball team open NCAA tournament play Friday night against Tennessee Tech in the first round of the Clemson Regional.
"Things are definitely slower than they were," Parker said of playing only baseball now. "It's definitely a little easier right now."
Parker is hitting. 268 with a team-high 12 homers and 50 RBIs. The right fielder, who graduated early from high school to enroll at Clemson in January 2008, is the fastest player in Clemson history to reach 25 home runs, after hitting 14 as a freshman last season. Parker started last spring, hitting .303 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs. He was one of only two freshmen named All-ACC and was selected freshman All-America by Baseball America.
Parker was a two-sport star at Bartram Trail High School in Jacksonville, Fla., when Swinney, then an assistant on Tommy Bowden's staff, recruited Parker to Clemson as a quarterback. All along, Parker wanted a chance to play both football and baseball in college, but he redshirted in football last season while learning the nuances of Clemson's offense.
Parker's father, Carl, was briefly a two-sport star at Vanderbilt. Carl Parker played wide receiver for two seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, playing in three games in both 1988 and '89.
Parker's mother, Cathy, made news a few years ago, when she helped raise more than $800,000 for the construction of an artificial turf football field at Barrow (Alaska) High School when she learned the school couldn't geographically support a grass field. The school named the facility Cathy Parker Field in her honor.
"The biggest thing my dad was concerned about was the coaches and whether they'd put pressure on me to play one sport or the other," Parker said. "I'm really blessed that hasn't happened."
Swinney and Clemson baseball coach Jack Leggett met before the baseball season to discuss how Parker would juggle both sports during the spring. Parker played in 56 of the baseball team's 59 games this spring, missing only a couple of games because of his football responsibilities.
But juggling both sports wasn't always easy. On April 7, Parker played in a baseball game at rival South Carolina. He was back on the Clemson campus the next morning, attending a quarterbacks meeting at about 7 a.m. Parker said he followed that same schedule more than a few times this spring.
"Jack Leggett and I have a great relationship," Swinney said. "We want what is best for the kid and both teams. Obviously, I want what's best for the football team, but I want to help the baseball team. We worked some things around so he could play both sports."
Leggett said the only real conflict so far was during the fall, when football practices didn't leave Parker time for baseball. Parker also said didn't have the time this spring to watch as much football film as he would have liked.
"He's very strong," Leggett said. "He has great power in his bat and quickness in his bat. He does a very good job of laying off bad pitches. He's been a better outfielder this season. He's not the fastest guy, but he's quick. He's got some savvy and he knows where he's supposed to be. He's a complete player."
Clemson fans are only beginning to see what kind of football player Parker can become. He was ranked the No. 4 quarterback prospect in the country by ESPN.com as a senior at Bartram Trail.
With starting quarterback Cullen Harper exhausting his eligibility after the 2008 season, sophomore Willy Korn was expected to win the job this spring. Korn was one of the country's most highly regarded quarterback prospects in 2007, and Clemson fans had clamored for him to win the job in each of the past two seasons. He played in six games last season, completing 26-of-38 passes for 216 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
But even while juggling two sports this spring, Parker outperformed Korn at times during spring football practice. Swinney named them co-starters heading into preseason camp, but Parker might have an edge after his performance in the spring game.
"He has all the tools," Swinney said. "He has a tremendously gifted arm, and moves his feet and stands well in the pocket. He has all the intangibles you're looking for in a quarterback. There probably aren't 10 guys in the NFL that throw the ball like Kyle. He's got a quick release and just has a very strong arm. He's very accurate."
Even Leggett, who played defensive back and kicked at Maine in the 1970s, is impressed with Parker's arm strength.
"I've seen him throw the football, and I can tell he has a different gear than most," Leggett said.
The Tigers, coming off a 7-6 campaign in which Bowden was forced to resign after six games, open the 2009 season against Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 5 at Memorial Stadium.
"It was very, very competitive in the spring," Swinney said of Parker and Korn. "They both had good days. Obviously, Kyle played better in the spring game. It's probably something that will go down to the last day [of preseason camp]. They're both very competitive guys. It might be a case where we play both and settle it on the field."
Parker's immediate concern is leading the Tigers back to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the third time since 2002. The Tigers last played in the CWS in 2006, having lost in a Super Regional at Mississippi State in 2007, and missed the NCAA tournament altogether last season.
There will be plenty of time to rest this summer.
"I think I can play both sports through college," Parker said. "I've done it for a while and have handled it. Eventually, I might have to choose one, and we'll see where that goes. Right now, I'm just having fun playing both sports."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com.