DeMarcco Hellams made his way into Nick Saban’s office in late March, a wide grin on his face. There, in Tuscaloosa, Hellams was living out his Pop Warner dreams, being courted by the storied coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
But for the 6-foot-2, 198-pound junior from DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Md. who burst onto the scene as a high school freshman wide receiver, racking up 13 touchdowns and more than 1,100 yards in his three seasons, Saban had only one position in mind: safety.
While Hellams started out as a pass catcher for DeMatha, the 17-year-old has been getting more offers from high-major schools to play defensive back after adjusting to playing on both sides of the ball during his sophomore year. Alabama is one of 24 major college football programs to offer a scholarship to the four-star recruit.
“When I played my junior film of me playing receiver and safety, colleges looked at me like, ‘You are not just a receiver who can play safety, or we can mold you into a great safety,’ ” said Hellams, who is rated the No. 2 overall prospect in Maryland and No. 65 nationally in 247Sports’ composite recruiting rankings for the 2019 class. “ ‘We think you are a great safety right now, and our coaches, trainers and systems can put you at the next level as a defensive back.’ ”
While there has long been a football cliche that says it’s good strategy to get the ball in your best athletes’ hands, more top high school players such as Hellams are realizing that the best route to a college scholarship — or a possible NFL future — could come from playing defensive back.
“Everyone wants the ball in their hands,” said Elijah Brooks, Hellams’s coach at DeMatha. “[Wide receiver] is the one position everyone wants to play because everyone wants to score the touchdown. But if you can find the guys who play a tough mentality on the defensive side of the ball and they are fast enough, strong enough and big enough, they turn out to be highly coveted.”
With football becoming a more pass-heavy sport at both the collegiate and professional levels, athletic defensive backs who can match up physically with elite wide receivers are becoming a hot commodity.
In the NFL, the numbers advantage of playing defensive back is obvious. Rosters contain roughly twice as many defensive backs as wide receivers, and over the past three years, a total of 46 defensive backs — 29 cornerbacks, 17 safeties — were selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, compared with 21 wide receivers.
“When I talk about the recruitment process to my guys about getting noticed, you have to think like this: How many wide receivers are there who are 6-foot, 6-foot-1 and run a 4.5?” said Matt Bowen, a former NFL defensive back who is now an ESPN analyst and assistant high school coach in the Chicago area. “So now, how do you separate yourself? If you are a cornerback, even if you are 5-11, 5-10 and a half . . . you probably get noticed more because colleges, and especially the NFL, everyone wants to play man-to-man coverage or Cover 3.”
Isaiah Oliver, who is considered one of the top cornerback prospects in the 2018 NFL draft class, played both cornerback and wide receiver during his time at Brophy College Prep in Phoenix before making the move to play exclusively on defense at Colorado. His choice has sent him on a path to the NFL.
“I feel like in high school, there are a lot of elite wide receivers but not a lot of elite defensive backs,” Oliver said. “If you are able to play corner and show you have the ability to develop as an elite corner, then you definitely give yourself more opportunities for scholarships and things like that.”
Oliver said that as a young athlete, it is harder to develop the techniques needed to play cornerback at a high level, which is why players who start the transition earlier are more likely to stand out.
In March, NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks tweeted kudos to high school and college coaches who convinced “explosive athletes to play defense instead of touching the ball.”
Brooks added: “Any [high school] player measuring [5-foot-10 or taller] should start backpedaling today,” referring to a defensive back’s technique. “There's a lot of [money] to be made. . . .”
Like Hellams, Bishop Dunne (Tex.) wide receiver Marquez Beason has played on both sides of the ball in high school, focusing more on the wide receiver position. But after hearing the rumblings from coaches, scouts and others that a strategic move to cornerback could provide him with more opportunities, the 5-11, 173-pounder made the switch to full-time cornerback two months ago.
“I’m dedicated to cornerback,” said Beason at the end of March. “Some people say it would be a hard transition, but really it’s just technique and being an athlete.”
Beason, a four-star recruit who is rated the No. 10 prospect in Texas and No. 54 nationally by 247Sports for the Class of 2019, added that the ball skills he developed as a pass-catcher help him at corner, and that he can better situate himself at the start of the play by reading the opposing receiver’s feet and body position.
At DeMatha during an April offseason training session after school, Hellams’s measurables and athleticism clearly stand out. He lifts weights with his teammates three times a week, in addition to running track twice a week.
He is aware that he has options. Virginia Tech sees Hellams as a wide receiver or a safety. Ole Miss and Vanderbilt want him strictly as a wide receiver. Clemson and Alabama — winners of the past three national championships — want him as a safety. He will continue to play both sides of the ball his senior year, walking the halls of his high school with two playbooks in his backpack, wondering how he can make it to the next level.
Sitting in Saban’s office in Tuscaloosa, Hellams started to see what the possibilities could be if he donned an Alabama jersey during his college career.
“I just straight asked [Saban], ‘How do you see me at Alabama?’ And he talked about watching my film on defense,” Hellams said. “He talked about how Alabama produces a lot of DBs and a lot of DBs are drafted, but they also need a lot of DBs to come in.”
Hellams said Saban compared him to Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick — considered a lock to be a first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft — drawing parallels to his speed, the way he covers ground in the open field and his football IQ. He also reminded Hellams of Alabama’s track record of sending top defensive backs to the league, including Landon Collins, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Eddie Jackson and Marlon Humphrey.
“In the back of my mind, I am thinking, [Hellams is] 6-2, 198 [pounds], I would love to have him in the middle of the field over top of my defense, I would,” Bowen said.
“I’m sure there are teams that are recruiting him at receiver, and look, I understand. When I went to Iowa, I wanted the ball in my hands, too,” Bowen added, referring to his own collegiate career. “But I had smart coaches, and they knew what was the better path for me to getting on the field and to the NFL.”