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August 20, 2006

Position changes can have big impact

With every pass he catches, Omarr Conner proves the value of versatility.

The former four-star prospect lost his job as Mississippi State's starting quarterback late last season. Instead of spending the rest of the year brooding on the sidelines, he moved to wide receiver and caught nine passes in the Bulldogs' last two games.

Conner now enters his senior year as a starting wideout. He is the favorite target of Mike Henig, the guy who replaced him at quarterback.

Plenty of other players across the country are hoping to make similarly smooth transitions this fall.

Whether they couldn't earn starting jobs at their natural positions or are trying to fill holes elsewhere in the lineup, the following 10 players are making position switches that could have major impacts on the upcoming season.

Because he made his move last fall, Conner doesn't appear in these rankings.

But the guy who tops this list also moved from quarterback to wide receiver last fall. Only in this case, circumstances caused him to switch back to his natural position.

Rivals.com 2006 Preseason Top Position Switches
1. Paul Thompson, Oklahoma, WR to QB: Thompson opened last fall as the Sooners' starting quarterback, but he struggled in a season-opening loss to Texas Christian and subsequently moved to wide receiver. When the dismissal of Rhett Bomar left Oklahoma without an experienced quarterback, Sooners coach Bob Stoops wasted no time declaring Thompson the starter. Oklahoma's hopes of making a BCS bowl depend on how well Thompson capitalizes on this second chance at his natural position.
2. Will Herring, Auburn, FS to LB: Herring collected a team-high 69 tackles and earned second-team All-Southeastern Conference honors last year as the Tigers' starting free safety. The Tigers may be messing with a good thing by moving Herring to strongside linebacker, but Auburn's coaches believe that's the position he's best suited to play in the NFL. Herring also can add depth to a linebacking corps that lost two of last year's starters: Antarrious Williams and Travis Williams. Auburn's coaches aren't the only ones confident Herring can make the switch. The SEC coaches and media selected Herring as a first-team preseason all-conference linebacker.
3. Justin King, Penn State, WR to CB: Although Rivals.com rated him as the nation's top cornerback prospect in the 2005 recruiting class, King actually spent the majority of his freshman season playing wide receiver. The two-way player made five starts at receiver and played primarily on offense after a season-ending injury to highly touted freshman receiver Derrick Williams. Now that Williams has regained his health and Penn State must replace four starters in the secondary, King has returned to his natural position.
4. Baraka Atkins, Miami, DT to DE, and Bryan Pata, Miami, DE to DT: Miami boasts one of the nation's toughest defensive lines, but that hasn't stopped the Hurricanes from doing some shuffling along their front four. Atkins moved to defensive end this spring after starting at defensive tackle last year. Atkins' move should make him one of the ACC's top pass rushers this fall, but it also caused a lack of depth at tackle after projected starter Teraz McCray endured a knee injury. The Hurricanes solved the problem by moving Pata, who started at defensive end last year. The switches now have Atkins and Pata playing the positions they most likely will fill in the NFL.
5. Reggie Nelson, Florida, S to CB: Nelson made the Rivals.com preseason all-Southeastern Conference team as a safety, but he won't be playing that position this fall. The offseason departure of Avery Atkins to Bethune-Cookman left the Gators scrambling for a starting cornerback. As the team's most versatile defensive back, Nelson agreed to make the move to corner. He will stay there as long as the Gators have enough depth at safety.
6. Reggie Davis, North Carolina State, RB to LB, and Darrell Blackman, North Carolina State, RB to WR: The Wolfpack have a surplus of young talent at running back with sophomores Andre Brown and Toney Baker and redshirt freshman Jamelle Eugene sharing carries. All that depth allowed N.C. State coach Chuck Amato to move a couple of his better athletes out of the backfield to fill holes elsewhere. Davis, who carried the ball just 27 times last year, has moved to weakside linebacker for his senior season. Blackman, a talented kick returner, has moved from tailback to flanker. Davis is expected to start, and Blackman also should earn more playing time this fall.
7. Travis Thomas, Notre Dame, RB to LB: Thomas couldn't beat out Darius Walker as Notre Dame's starting tailback, so he will find a way to tackle opposing ball carriers instead. The Fighting Irish believe Thomas' speed makes him an ideal fit for a linebacking corps that must replace all three starters from last year. Thomas already is listed as Notre Dame's starting weakside linebacker. Although he has never played defense in college, Thomas recorded 137 tackles as an outside linebacker his senior year at Washington (Pa.) High School.
8. Marcus Thigpen, Indiana, WR to RB: Thigpen caught 32 passes for 432 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a freshman last year, but the Hoosiers want to get the ball in his hands more often. That shouldn't be a problem now that Thigpen has moved to tailback. He probably will open the season as the Hoosiers' featured back. The 5-foot-8 Thigpen makes up for his lack of size with sprinter speed. He finished seventh in 100-meter dash at the Big Ten outdoor track meet.
9. Justin Britt, Alabama, DT to OG: The Crimson Tide believed they could add toughness to their offense by moving Britt over from the other side of the line. The plan is working so far. Although Britt's recovery from shoulder surgery limited him during spring practice, the former backup defensive tackle is working with Alabama's first-team offense at right guard.
10. Casey Evans, Utah, FS to LB: Evans tied for the Mountain West Conference lead with five interceptions last year as the Utes' starting free safety, but the former walk-on is moving to linebacker for his senior season. The move should help Utah take advantage of Evans' big-play ability he ranked second on the team last year with 89 tackles while creating more playing time for junior safety Steve Tate.
The Rivals Five
While our Top 10 list focused on players moving within the secondary or going from one unit to another, there also are plenty of high-profile offensive linemen accepting new assignments this year. Here's a look at five top offensive linemen working out at new positions this summer:
1. Michael Oher, Mississippi, G to T: Oher earned first-team honors on Rivals.com's freshman All-American squad as a right guard last year. He now faces an even more demanding assignment as the Rebels' starting left tackle.
2. Samson Satele, Hawaii, G to C: Satele was a first-team All-Western Athletic Conference selection last year after allowing only two sacks and recording a team-high 32 knockdowns as the Warriors' starting left guard. The fifth-year senior will line up at center this year in a move that could open up a starting spot for his cousin, junior Hercules Satele.
3. Steve Rissler, Florida, G to C: Rissler enters this year as the Gators' lone returning starter on the offensive line, but he won't be playing the same position he occupied in 2005. After primarily playing guard last year, Rissler replaces the departed Mike Degory as Florida's starting center.
4. James Marten, Boston College, G to T: After starting at left guard the last two years, Marten moves to left tackle this fall. Marten should make a quick adjustment to the new assignment because he started his college career backing up Jeremy Trueblood at left tackle.
5. Justin Blalock, Texas, T to G?: Blalock, a Rivals.com preseason first-team All-American at right tackle, is working out at guard this summer and appears likely to start the season at that spot. The potential move is due to the emergence of redshirt freshman right tackle Adam Ulatoski. If Blalock does move inside, it would represent the biggest position switch involving an offensive lineman this season.

More Preseason Player Rankings:
Quarterbacks | Running backs | Offensive linemen | Kickers/Punters | Return Specialists
Wide receivers | Tight ends | Linebackers | Defensive linemen | Cornerbacks | Safeties | Backup Quarterbacks

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