Hardwood to gridiron: Former basketball stars shining in Ohio recruiting
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Ryan, I saw that that Huber Heights receiver Ahmad Wagner finally decided to make the switch to football after a few years at Iowa. It seems like a lot of kids in the Dayton area end up making the switch and it goes really well for them. Is there anybody else coming up like that? — Luke W. from St. Paris, Ohio
DAYTON, Ohio — There have been a significant number of recruits in Ohio, but especially in the Dayton area, who have made the switch from basketball to football. It took former Iowa forward Ahmad Wagner three years of college to recognize his talent on the gridiron, but others have decided more quickly.
2018 Ohio State wide receiver signee L’Christian “Blue” Smith, from Wayne High School near Dayton, is a name that comes to mind as another prominent example. Smith had Division I offers in both sports, but elected to play football due to the mismatches he created as an elite receiver prospect.
Dayton should have two more players, potentially of that caliber, in the 2019 recruiting class. Land of 10 spent time in Ohio’s biggest basketball city to speak with two basketball standouts who have switched to football and have seen their recruitments take off as a result.
Jonathan Allen is a 6-foot-6, 315-pound titan with the physicality and natural strength to dominate defensive linemen. His years of footwork practice as a big man have helped him transition naturally to becoming a tackle at Dayton Dunbar. Ohio State, Pitt, Louisville, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Iowa are some of the prominent offers for Allen.
Justin Stephens was a 6-6, 240-pound wing on the hardwood, but the switch to football has seen him emerge as one of the country’s most coveted tight end prospects. He excelled early for Trotwood-Madison and has since captured offers from LSU, Iowa, Louisville, Kentucky and other Power 5 programs.
Both players picked up high school football for the first time just weeks before the start of their junior seasons. Between the two of them, Stephens and Allen have since compiled more than 40 scholarship offers — 25 from Power 5 programs.
This isn’t a future either one of them could have imagined when they suited up together in basketball.
“We played AAU together since like fourth grade. We played for the Dayton Nets and then Team Flight,” Stephens told Land of 10.
Stephens grew up playing football as a kid and had experience in the sport. For him, a return to the field felt natural. The same cannot be said for Allen, who only made the decision to play for the Dunbar Wolverines a week and a half before the team’s first game.
“It was more or less like ‘I’m going to try it, see if I like it.’ Offers started rolling in, though, and I got in the weight room a bit, so the offers started coming a lot,” Allen explained.
Astoundingly, the mere idea of Allen deciding to play football netted him his first scholarship.
“Toledo actually told him before he played football, ‘Once you put a helmet on, you’ve got an offer.’ In the first game, I said, ‘Coach, he’s playing.’ He told me to let him know Jon had an offer,” Dunbar coach Darran Powell told Land of 10. “It’s just been crazy, I’m just glad he finally decided to come out. Everybody’s been preaching that he could change his life and he finally took heave to it. The sky is the limit now.”
Still, that didn’t mean Allen’s transition came without hard work. Any Division I offer is exciting for a high school prospect, but in order to capture the major scholarships that everyone around him told him he could earn, Allen had to learn to love the weight room.
“Lifting is the hardest part. I’ve never lifted until this year,” Allen admitted. “Maybe a couple push-ups, but I never really lifted like that. It’s definitely getting better. It was hard to do a bench press when I first came in here. So it’s getting a lot better, my upper body and lower body. My legs have always been strong, but that’s going up tremendously. A lot of core work, too.”
Some parts of the game translated for Allen, who’s used to defending the paint against guards and wings looking to get to the rim. It requires quickness that most big men don’t have.
“I’m a basketball guy first. It was definitely a lot of the footwork that helps, with spin moves, cutting, getting out – like all of the stops we do in basketball definitely works on cutting and coming back and watching your back and stuff in football,” explained Allen.
It’s a much different story for Stephens. He felt physically ready to compete on the gridiron from the day he strapped the pads on. Like many other standout young athletes, he’s a competitor who takes pride in his abilities. Stephens saw the other Dayton-area basketball players who flipped over to football and experienced resounding success. There was no question in his mind that he could compete with them.
“Most of them played basketball and I played against them in basketball when I was a freshman, so I feel like I can do what they do and do it better,” said Stephens. “It was a pretty good transition. I played football a little bit, so it wasn’t strange to me. It was just about getting adjusted to the workout and practice schedule.”
In a city that’s known for its basketball talent, Powell hopes that Allen, Stephens and the other talented football prospects in the Dayton area can change the perception. More than that, he hopes to encourage more players to simply give football a shot.
“I was a big part of the basketball drive, too — I won a state championship and everything. Dayton is very talented, not just in basketball. It’s football and track and all kinds of sports in this city. I tell the kids that they don’t have to be a specialist,” Powell said.
“You really have to be special to be the No. 1 draft pick in the NBA draft or something, so expand and explore your sports. [Allen’s] story can encourage everybody to come out and try.”
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