Malcolm Holland makes transition from pro baseball to college football

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Somewhere between Bowling Green, Ky., and Midland, Mich., Malcolm Holland had what he likes to call an “aha!” moment.

It was his third full season of professional baseball and Holland, a 33rd-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2011 draft, had started to taste professional success. But it was short-lived, he said, as pitchers figured him out. And that’s when Holland thought it might be time for something different.

“It’s an eight-hour bus ride, absolutely brutal,” he recalled. “We left at something like 4 a.m. after a night game and I’m like, you know, I could go back and play college football.”

For almost four years, Holland avoided the game he had grown up loving. The 5-11, 185-pounder, a Chandler, Ariz., native and former defensive back prospect had picked baseball in summer 2011, walking away from a Boise State football scholarship offer. The deciding factor, he said, was when the Dodgers agreed to help pay for college, a stipulation he got written into his contract. Knowing he’d eventually be able to get his degree was all Holland needed to purse baseball. But after three-plus seasons, he felt ready to chase a different dream.

“Going to play professional baseball, was more about showing I could,” said Holland, now a walk-on backup defensive back at the University of Arizona. “I stayed away from football mostly. I’d watch it every now and then, but I had a lot of buddies that were playing college football and it was hard for me to sit there and be like, dang, I could be playing on TV instead of sitting in Ogden, Utah, where no one knows what I’m doing.”

Fortunately for Holland, the professional baseball to college football route has been well worn over the last few years, most notably with standouts such as Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State) and Tyler Gaffney (Stanford) proving it’s possible to succeed in both. Holland knew the path. Now he just had to put a plan into action.

As a young football prospect, Holland liked what he saw from Rich Rodriguez, then the coach at West Virginia. Arizona hired Rodriguez, who is credited with pioneering the zone read concept, in 2012, and Holland suspected he’d be a good fit with the Wildcats. A few phone calls later, he decided to walk-on.

The transition took time. Holland, now a 25-year-old sophomore, joked that he was in that famous “baseball shape,” which meant he had no trouble sprinting between 90 feet bases. Backpedaling, which he hadn’t done in almost four years, was a different story. And while Rodriguez points out that baseball players typically spend at least half the game sitting on the bench, Holland hadn’t been easy on his body. He estimates that in all his years of baseball, he had averaged 40 stolen bases a season, so he spent plenty of time diving and slamming into bases head and shoulders first. If people think he’s an old man now, they should have talked to him when he first got back on the football field.

“I’m like Benjamin Button,” he laughed. “It’s a reverse. At first when I was here I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, my body feels so old.’ But a lot of stretching, lifting and plyometrics and I’m starting to get those fast-twitch muscles back.”

Holland redshirted in 2015, and is now considered a significant special teams contributor. The highlight of his football career so far was recording three solo tackles in the Territorial Cup win against rival Arizona State last season. He’ll probably never be a starter at Arizona, but Holland has no regrets about the journey he took to college football. And when he sees former baseball teammates have success in the big leagues — Holland was middle infield partners for a year in Class A ball with Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, the 2016 National League Rookie of the Year, and remains close friends with Dodgers center fielder Joc Pederson — he doesn’t second-guess his decision.

“When you go through the minor league experience, you really give those guys who made it (to the majors) a lot of credit, because you know how hard it was, what a grind it is every day,” Holland said. “Those guys, they performed, they were consistent and I’m very happy for them. … My goal here was to make a lasting impact. Everyone wants to leave a legacy. It might not be the storybook ending or beginning I wanted it to be, but how many people get an opportunity to do both?”

As it turns out, playing baseball and football at a high level is a bit of a theme on the Wildcats’ roster this season. In addition to Holland, Arizona is home to Donavan Tate, a 27-year-old freshman quarterback who was drafted No. 3 overall by the San Diego Padres in the 2009 MLB Draft and played six seasons of minor league ball before retiring from baseball in 2016.

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“It’s a unique situation,” Rodriguez said. “They’re both older and have had some different life experiences. They’ve been a great addition to the team. … And I think other guys see, these (two) have been around the block a little bit, and now they’re truly playing for the love of the game.”

Tate credits Holland with showing him the how to go from full-time professional athlete to full-time student, juggling classes, study hall and practice. And he’s not surprised Holland has been able to move back to football so smoothly.

“For us, we’ve both done this our whole lives,” Tate said. “It wasn’t necessarily like either of us were really starting over. We had an understanding of the toll (football) was going to take physically and mentally, we just needed more reps.”

And, yes, Holland does miss baseball. So much so that he’s majoring in business accounting — he’ll find out late this week if he’s been accepted into Arizona’s business school — with hopes of working in an MLB front office someday. In the meantime, he believes there are other baseball opportunities to be had in Tucson.

“No (softball) intramurals for me and Donavan so far,” Holland deadpanned. “But I keep waiting for the baseball team to invite us out to batting practice. I think we could show them a thing or two.”

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