Former Xavier University forward Sydney Coleman has dumped dunking — his favorite basketball feat — in favor of a new sport. It’s a switch, which if successful, will allow him to follow the unorthodox NFL path of All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham.
Coleman wants to play for the New Orleans Saints.
He worked out for the Saints in late March and is scheduled to showcase what he’s learned in a Friday workout. Coleman’s improvements, if substantial, could earn him an invitation to Saints minicamp.
Not that his challenges will end.
It’s premature to consider Coleman, a 6-foot-7, 234-pounds native of Meridian, Mississippi, the next Jimmy Graham, the former rebounding power forward from the University of Miami basketball team whom the Saints transformed into one of the NFL’s top offensive playmakers before trading him this offseason to Seattle. Coleman, after all, has never played organized football.
Yet his NFL journey is intriguing because of its trajectory. It’s still unusual five seasons after the Saints picked Graham in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft.
“It’s just something I want to do, and I feel like it’s for me,” Coleman, 22, said Tuesday afternoon after a workout. “All throughout this process, it’s funny how God has put things in front on me. I get that feeling that this is something I should have been doing all along.
“But better late than never.”
Coleman’s NFL opportunity also offers a rare glimpse into the strategies of Saints coach Sean Payton and General Manger Mickey Loomis, a duo that appears open to trying new concepts and experimental players.
While most NFL prospects spend nearly two decades of their lives preparing for NFL workouts, Coleman, a computer science major, has trained for two weeks. He waited until Xavier’s basketball season ended last month in the NAIA Nationals.
Field Yates, a former NFL scout with New England and Kansas City, said while success in college football does not guarantee a prospect’s future in the NFL, a lack of football experience does not eliminate players like Coleman.
“For guys who haven’t played on the college level — you can’t look at every nonfootball player — but if the guys fits the height, weight, speed profile, he could at least draw some interest and certainly basketball-turned-tight ends have been somewhat of a minitrend,” said Yates, now an NFL reporter for ESPN.
Former Saints tight end Boo Williams said Coleman likely has an advantage as a basketball player because of his footwork, hand-eye coordination and balance. He’s at a disadvantage, though, with a lack of history of playing physical.
“He’s played in the post, so he should be used to physicality, but not this type,” said Williams, who played for the Saints from 2001-05.
Williams added Graham, even now, has not fully adjusted to the NFL’s physical style of play.
Coleman has not hired an agent, which would end his amateur status, but he said he plans to. Coleman added that he does not intend to return to college to play one season of football, which he is allowed to. He is not scheduled to graduate this year, therefore he would have to play college football in Division II or Division III.
During his private workout with the Saints, Coleman, wearing a long-sleeved, Xavier basketball shirt, appeared to be learning as much as he was showcasing potential, from proper blocking techniques and how to catch and tuck to releasing off the line and utilizing his hips to move quickly and precisely through tight, timing routes. Ironically, he handled tougher passes off the line of scrimmage, moments where there was little time to think, only react, better than fly routes.
“I was looking over my shoulder,” Coleman said, “hoping, trying to catch the ball, (thinking) ‘Are my hands right?’ Now, I’ve corrected it. Instead of letting the ball come to me, I’m attacking it.”
While Graham made the sport switch, he had already played 13 games of college football at Miami (2009 season) before arriving in New Orleans.
San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, one of the first athletic tight end talents of this generation, also skipped college football in favor of basketball — although he starred in the sport as a high school player in Detroit and initially signed to play football and basketball at Michigan State before transferring to Kent State.
Guess who Gates’ quarterback was his first season in San Diego?
Currently, the Saints depth chart at tight end is comprised of third-year pro Josh Hill (14 receptions 176 yards, five touchdowns in 2014), 12-year veteran Benjamin Watson (20 receptions, 136 yards, two TDs) and Orson Charles, who spent time last season on the Saints practice squad. Hill, a former undrafted free agent from Idaho State, helped to earn his roster spot by playing special teams, a rarity at his position in the NFL.
Last season, Coleman averaged 12.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in 33 games. Xavier went 24-10, its season ending in the first round of the NAIA Division I Nationals. Coleman spent the first two seasons of his college basketball career at Jackson State.
“What everybody knows about him is the athletic ability — running, catching, jumping,” Xavier basketball coach Dannton Jackson said. “But what people don’t know is his work ethic. Regardless of what Sydney Coleman does, he’s going to be successful because of how hard he works.”
At Meridian High School, he averaged 9.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and three blocks a game, helping his program win Mississippi’s 6A state championship during his senior season of 2009-10.
Coleman said he always wanted to play football — his father, Sidney Coleman, played linebacker for Tampa Bay and the Phoenix Cardinals (1998-92). But his mother, Brenda Evans, refused. Throughout high school and college, he ignored friends and fans that told him to give football a try.
Last fall, he decided to research the subject and learned many players that made the sports switch.
“For him, this is uncharted waters,” said his dad. “He’s a risk-taker. He’s willing to go out and get what he wants. I’m proud of him.”
Coleman said Graham has served as his most influential role model from a distance, the player he’s studied the most, from moves, different ways to get out of breaks and routes. He’s also researched basketball-turned-football players in the NFL: Kansas City’s Demetrius Harris, who played college basketball and club football at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Jacksonville’s Julius Thomas, a two-time Pro Bowler who played college football and basketball at Portland State; Erik Swoope, a former University of Miami basketball player who spent last season on Indianapolis’ practice squad.
Coleman said he looks forward to showing his progress, with the help of trainer Jerren Pierre, who played football at Southeastern Louisiana University.
“I will get out the blocks a lot quicker than I did,” Coleman said. “I felt like I was kind of slow because I was hesitant. ‘Should I go 10 yards? Should I go 15 yards?’ Now I know, so I can be more free to just show them. I have more fluent blocking.
“And on that vertical route, I’m going to catch the ball.”