COVID-19 cut the 2020 college baseball season short after only four weeks. Consequently, the NCAA voted to grant an extra season of eligibility for any spring athlete who was unable to complete his or her season, meaning that Ole Miss two-sport phenom Jerrion Ealy is in an an interesting position.
On the football field, Ealy will enter the 2020-21 season as a sophomore.
On the baseball diamond, he has the option to enter the 2021 season as a freshman.
Prior to his collegiate career, the Walnut Grove, Miss. native was considered at one point to be a top-10 pick in the 2019 MLB Draft. After not being selected in the first five rounds, he chose to forgo his professional baseball career and committed to Ole Miss as one of only four players to earn Under Armour All-America honors in baseball and football, joining Kyler Murray and Maurice Hampton. The fourth two-sport honoree A.J. Brown broke records while at Ole Miss and had an outstanding rookie year with the Tennessee Titans.
Ealy’s first season at Ole Miss proved why he was a five-star running back out of high school as he tallied the second-most rushing yards by a freshman in school history, led the SEC in kick return average, finished second in the SEC and fifth nationally in all-purpose yardage among freshman, and was named a freshman All-American by multiple outlets.
When his first fall in Oxford came to a close on Thanksgiving, Ealy turned his focus to getting ready for baseball. He reportedly had a great offseason and turned some heads within the organization as he burst onto the scene. Come Opening Day, he was named the starting center fielder against No. 1 Louisville.
His first four weeks playing under Mike Bianco at Swayze Field didn’t start with as much of an explosive breakout as he may have liked, and Ealy hit .182 in 13 games with six starts. He reached base eight times on four walks, two singles, and two doubles in 22 plate appearances.
The slow start to the extremely concise 2020 season didn’t allow him to get a groove, but it mirrored his sluggish high school senior season at the dish, which ultimately led to his draft stock falling well beyond initial expectation. Baseball America had the following to say about Ealy prior to his draft:
For all of Ealy’s tools and athleticism, however, the industry has soured on him this spring as he’s struggled offensively against below-average Mississippi competition. While Ealy does have impressive hand-eye coordination and solid pure bat-to-ball skills, he has long needed refinement in his plate discipline, approach and mechanical setup at the plate—which is mostly to be expected from a two-sport athlete at his level. However, scouts thought he would hit much better this spring and have been disappointed with the lack of progress he has shown in the batter’s box. (...) still has tremendous upside if he ever focuses exclusively on baseball.
The latter of what the scout continued on to say really sparks one to wonder...
What if Ealy chooses to play baseball full-time?
Even though his first 17 games in a Rebel uniform wasn’t a hitting showcase that put the nation on notice, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound freshman made a name for himself on the base path and in the field. Ealy stole five bases on seven attempts, good for second best on the team, and made a Louisiana Monroe baserunner look silly by throwing him out from left field by at least six feet.
The 2020 baseball season being cut short undoubtedly hindered Ealy from reaching his full potential, and his ability to earn the starting nod on one of if not the nation’s top team after less than three full months of preparation speaks to the talent he possesses.
Now, with the 2020 football season in question amidst the Coronavirus global pandemic and at least five months before he might next see the field in blue and red, Ealy faces a unique decision. Seeing as he might have left football behind if he was drafted high enough in the MLB Draft, perhaps baseball is his passion. At the same time, after his year on the gridiron, maybe his perspective changed.
Either way, there is a chance he does not suit up at all in the fall with the cancelation of NCAA football menacing itself as a possibility should COVID-19 disallow. It is likely that fall athletes would receive similar eligibility relief to their spring counterparts should that happen, but that would mean Ealy would again grab a bat and glove before he put on shoulder pads and took a handoff.
To add another wrinkle to the mix, Ole Miss and first-year head coach Lane Kiffin has a loaded running back room. In addition to Ealy, fellow freshman Snoop Conner had a successful year as the secondary back, four-star all-encompassing runner Henry Parrish and three-star explosive runner Kentrel Bullock will enroll this fall, and John Rhys Plumlee is not a sure-fire quarterback under the new coaching staff.
After his incredible freshman year, Ealy’s playing time is not in question, but who is to say that his security won’t change? He could foreseeably choose to put the uncertainty to rest, forgo football all together (whether this year or next) and focus on preparing for his fresh three years of baseball eligibility that will begin in February.
Ealy has a compact athletic build, raw bat speed, and an unmistakable elite ability to drive the ball that will only improve with more hitting repetitions. His breakaway speed allows him to chase down balls in both gaps from center field, his strong arm was showcased against the Warhawks, and he could take the time to work on his fly ball reads and routes.
At this point in time, this is all speculation. Ealy has not hinted toward a singular focus and it is highly probable that he will take the opening kickoff to the house in Houston if the college football schedule remains in tact for 2020. Just don’t be surprised if the two-sport star makes the decision to narrow in on his MLB prospects down the road.
Heck, maybe he will put athletics aside all together and focus on his Broadway aspirations!
... what if?