K.C. Herren, a second-round pick by the Texas Rangers in 2004, is finished with baseball. Now the former Auburn High School star is trying to get on the playing field for Washington, as a walk-on safety.
Washington fans don’t have to reach that far back to remember a story similar to that of walk-on safety K.C. Herren — a former minor-league baseball player who turned to college football.
Tripper Johnson, a graduate of Newport High, traveled the same path to become a contributor to the Huskies in 2008 and 2009.
When Herren’s baseball career ended in 2009 and he was thinking about what to do next, he turned to Johnson, who had used the same agent.
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“I talked to him and said, ‘What was your experience like — was it worth it for you? Was it what you hoped it would be?’ ” Herren said. “And basically he said he got to do two of his favorite things — play professional baseball and college football.”
So last spring, Herren — a graduate of Auburn High who was a second-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2004 and No. 51 overall — walked on to the UW football team.
“It’s great,” he said. “It’s football. I couldn’t be having more fun.”
He didn’t see any game action last fall after returning to the sport after an eight-year absence. But now, entering his second full season with UW as the Huskies go through spring practice, he’s beginning to feel more comfortable on the field.
“I think he had to knock a little of the dust off,” said UW coach Steve Sarkisian.
Herren signed a letter of intent to play baseball at UW as part of the Class of 2004, also intending then to walk on to the football team. While baseball was his priority at Auburn, he was also an All-SPSL first-team pick as a receiver and defensive back as a senior.
Deciding to play pro baseball, however, was easy when the Rangers came calling — he quickly signed a contract that included a reported signing bonus of $675,000. Herren’s contract also included paying for his future college education as part of the Major League Baseball Scholarship Plan.
That came in handy when Herren was released before the 2009 season, having never made it past Class A.
Herren says, “I played a complete contract and didn’t perform at the level I needed to stay in it.”
He played one more year in an independent league, then decided to go to college. Herren, an outfielder, hit .245 with 20 home runs in six seasons, including his year in independent ball.
“No matter what, I was going to come to school here,” he said.
The talk with Johnson helped convince him to give football a try, so he contacted UW coaches, who encouraged him to walk on, which he did last spring.
The 6-foot, 207-pounder, who turns 27 in August, has earned the inevitable nickname “Pops” from teammates. But Herren takes the ribbing in stride.
“I knew exactly what I was getting into when I came down here,” he said. “I played with 16-year old Dominican guys when I was 23 in baseball. So it’s not really that hard. When you get on a team, things don’t change that much.”
The part of Johnson’s story Herren hopes to replicate next is getting on the field. Johnson, also a safety, became an immediate starter in the lost season of 2008, then played primarily on special teams in 2009.
Competition at safety is a little stiffer now, however, with the likes of veterans Sean Parker, Justin Glenn and Nate Fellner, and a few promising young players, notably incoming freshman Shaq Thompson.
“Last year was a great experience,” said Herren, who plans to major in finance. “And this year I want to be able to contribute — I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and watch and take up a spot for someone that could be contributing. We’ve got a great term here — steak eater. You can’t just sit and watch and be a steak eater and not contribute. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to bring something to the table.”
• Fellner spent Wednesday’s practice working primarily with the linebackers. Sarkisian said it’s not necessarily a position switch yet.
“We are doing some different things as far as nickel packages and dime packages and it’s getting Nate down in the box and utilizing his strengths,” he said. “Nate is an excellent run defender. He’s really good around the box, so we’ll try and give him those opportunities.”
• Also working at a new spot Wednesday was Erik Kohler, who has started at guard and tackle the past two years but spent much of the day at center. Starting center Drew Schaefer is sidelined with a knee injury, though it’s apparently not serious. Sarkisian said the team merely wants to improve depth at center and is giving Kohler some reps there. Kohler also worked with the first unit at guard.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @bcondotta