Junior Ethan West has been a varsity football player since he was a freshman at Cosby High School. And in those three years, he has lined up at wide receiver, tight end, free safety, strong safety, cornerback, linebacker and defensive end.
“Just about everywhere,” Cosby coach Pete Mutascio said.
His first high school position was safety. He was 6-foot-2, 200 pounds then. But as he’s grown and put on weight, he’s moved closer to the line of scrimmage, playing linebacker, then defensive end. Lately, he’s played mostly outside linebacker for the Titans.
Now he’s 6-4, 225 pounds and 17 years old. He holds more than a dozen scholarship offers, and each school already has assigned him a position. Almost every school that has offered is recruiting him as a linebacker. Two or three want him as a safety.
But how is a college recruiter supposed to project what position West will play two or three years from now, especially when he has played seven already?
Just because he’s listed as a linebacker doesn’t mean he’ll play linebacker in college. If a college likes him at linebacker, that means he’s good enough to play linebacker or defensive line, said Gary Criswell, a former Hampton football coach and a commentator for WRNL (910).
“If they like him at linebacker, he becomes a no-risk pick,” Criswell said.
Linebacker is a complicated position, the coach said. The middle linebacker typically makes the defensive calls, and linebackers are responsible for dropping back in coverage, stopping runs and blitzing. They have to do a bit of everything.
If West is good enough to play linebacker, he’s good enough to play defensive line should he continue to grow.
College coaches aren’t allowed to comment on high school recruits until they’ve signed with a school.
At 6-4, West is already at the upper end of the scale for linebacker height. Most between 6-2 and 6-4. Should he grow to 6-5 or 6-6, he could get moved to defensive line. (West says he thinks he’s done growing.)
As college coaches see it, West is good enough to play linebacker if he’s done growing and good enough to play defensive line if he continues to grow.
“The best thing you can say about a defensive player is that before he’s finished maturing, he can play any of the front seven positions,” Criswell said.
West’s height is a big part of his appeal. The fact that he stands 6-4 means he’s capable of putting weight on his frame. West says he could see himself gaining 15 pounds in college.
And his height is part of the reason why he started collecting offers as a sophomore. Had he stood 6 foot, his recruiting profile might be vastly different now. Height matters tremendously in the recruitment of almost any position.
“It’s the golden vital statistic,” Criswell said.
Recruiters love versatile players, because they give the coaches options and the roster depth. St. Christopher’s alumnus Jack English is one recent example. He was recruited to Virginia in 2013 as a defensive end, then switched to tight end and then offensive line, where he started for two seasons.
So if a school is willing to move players around after they arrive, why bother assigning them a position at all? The answer has to do with the way scholarships are distributed.
A Division I Football Bowl Subdivision can have 85 players on scholarship at a given time. Coaches are careful to make sure all their needs are met and no position is left understaffed. If a team has an abundance of linebackers, it may not be able to afford recruiting a linebacker the next year.
If it has room at tight end, though, it might be willing to recruit a versatile player like West, knowing that maybe one day they can move him to defense if he’s a better fit there.
“It comes down to what their need is and how a player’s skill set will fit their need,” Mutascio said.
But West also got a few offers before he established himself at linebacker. Virginia was his first FBS offer, and the Cavaliers came in when he was a sophomore, before he had established himself as a linebacker recruit.
West had speed and size, and recruiting the top in-state talent is a priority for almost any school. For a player with that much upside, it doesn’t matter what position he’ll ultimately play, and a school like Virginia or Virginia Tech is willing to offer him and see where he ends up.
Ultimately, West says he doesn’t care which position he gets assigned in college. The school and the team are the factors he’ll consider during his recruitment. He wants to be challenged academically.
“I’m willing to play anywhere,” he said. “It’s about the right fit for the school and academics-wise.”
Even though West doesn’t play it anymore, safety is his favorite position. He enjoys being in the back and seeing the play develop in front of him.
But West is adaptable. He understands that he’s outgrown the position, so he’s come to love linebacker. It’s the position his father, James, played at Monacan High School.
As a linebacker, he gets to do a little of everything. He leads the defense, he covers receivers and he tackles ball carriers — “which I fell in love with,” he said.