Christian set to make his mark on diamond

nwhite@thestate.comFebruary 1, 2013 

  • USC BASEBALL The Gamecocks will scrimmage at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 3 p.m. Monday. Scrimmages are open to the public.

Before the official start of spring practice last week, USC baseball coach Chad Holbrook raved about Ahmad Christian’s versatility, speed, energy and work ethic. And he predicted the football cornerback was a lock to make the 35-man baseball roster, something that didn’t happen a year ago.

Two scrimmages later, Christian continues to make a believer out of his coach. He rapped out a total of five hits last Saturday and Sunday while capably playing both second base and left-field, not a bad day for someone who spent the fall on the football field instead of working out with the baseball team.

“It was a little bit surprising that he had the success right out of the gate because his layoff has been so long, but Ahmad was brought up in a baseball family,” said Holbrook, who cited Christian’s baseball mentor back in his native Jacksonville, Fla., former major league infielder Desi Relaford. “He has been taught the game. He understands the game. His baseball mind and his baseball instincts are very advanced.”

Even so, attempting to play both sports at a top-flight SEC program is a daunting undertaking. But Christian, a redshirt freshman who had eight tackles and two pass breakups as a backup defender in the fall, remains determined to keep playing football and baseball.

“I never really thought of it as just one sport that I needed to play until my senior year, when I started to hear a lot about getting drafted,” he said. “I wondered if baseball was going to be my calling, but I was also highly recruited as a football player. I just stuck with both of them to see where they would take me.”

The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Christian was drafted out of high school in the 46th round of the 2011 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers — he believes that he would have gone higher if he had not signed to play college football — and he’s convinced that he can make an impact in both programs.

Although he’s a natural infielder, he realizes that being able to play one of the corner outfield spots might be a quicker way to get on the field. He has begun the process of learning to track down fly balls, and although he has the speed, he hasn’t yet mastered the jumps and route-running needed to do it well.

“He’s not there yet, but he’s getting better,” Holbrook said. “I would be a little apprehensive to put him out there in the eighth or ninth inning today, but hopefully he’ll be ready by Opening Day. He just needs some more reps.”

Christian is prepared to put in the time to learn, just as he did watching how veterans such as D.J. Swearinger and Akeem Auguste went about their jobs on the football field. He cites the advice of defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward as something he can apply to both sports, especially on those days when he questions his ability to do it all.

“I definitely have my doubts, but every day I just come out here and try to play as hard as I can and get better at every sport,” Christian said. “Coach Ward always personally tells me to ‘get better today.’ And now, with me playing both sports, I have to take that as a mind frame. Going into practice or meetings, you have to get better every day. If I do that, I’ll be successful.”

As soon as the football team ended its 11-2 season with a victory against Michigan in the Outback Bowl, Christian went home and jumped into the batting cage to take as many swings as he could. After not making the team last season, he was leaving nothing to chance, even though he knew the coaching staff had expressed regret about not keeping him on the roster.

“It was disappointing, but not to the standpoint where I didn’t want to do baseball anymore,” Christian said. “I got encouraging words afterward, which kept my drive going. I knew I had to get better.”

His commitment to getting better extends to both sports. He still plans to squeeze in as much of football spring practice as his baseball schedule allows him. Holbrook noted that he and football coach Steve Spurrier are working together to make sure that Christian stays football-sharp, even if he becomes a regular in the baseball lineup.

Although his mother occasionally will tell him that he should pick one sport, Christian wants to keep pushing forward, joking that he would love to be the next Deion Sanders. Holbrook will settle for him being a solid contributor, something the coach can easily envision.

“Regardless of whether or not he’s a starter or a role player who comes off the bench, he can help us win games,” Holbrook said. “You can do a lot of things with a guy like Ahmad Christian.”

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