Football players often change positions in the middle of their careers, but it’s usually when that player isn’t excelling in his current spot or injuries to teammates force the change to be made. It’s not often that a player switches positions, excels at both of them, and then makes the switch back, but that’s exactly what Kansas legend Nolan Cromwell did.
When the Ransom, Kansas native arrived in Lawrence, he earned a starting job at safety under coach Don Fambrough. He played there in the 1973 and 1974 seasons before making the switch to quarterback. Yep, from defensive back to quarterback. That’s a position change that you just don’t see everyday.
Not surprisingly, as a quarterback, he was more adept using his legs than his arm. In 1975, he rushed for 1,124 yards as a quarterback, more than doubling his two-year total (606) in passing yards. During that spectacular 1975 year that culminated in an appearance in the Sun Bowl, Cromwell racked up extreme yardage and set an NCAA record in the process. In a 41-7 win over Wisconsin, Cromwell ran for 187 yards, but his record day happened against #1 ranked Oklahoma a month later. KU beat the defending national champions 23-3 on November 8 and Cromwell had a game for the ages in the process. He rushed for 294 yards that afternoon and set the standard for rushing yards by a quarterback. That yardage total was still a record until 2013. After that historic 1975 campaign, Cromwell was honored as the Big 8 Offensive Player of the Year, First Team All-Conference, and Honorable Mention All-America.
In the meantime, he was also a star on the KU track team. He set Kansas records at the 600 and 400-meter events, the intermediate hurdles, and the decathlon. He won Big 8 championships in 1975 and 1976 with the mile relay team and won individual conference awards in the hurdles. Cromwell was a two time All-American in track and field.
His 1976 football season was cut short because of injury when KU was 5-1 and ranked #8 nationally. Kansas finished that season 6-5 and out of the rankings, illustrating Cromwell’s importance to the offense. But despite his injury and the fact that he had spent the last two seasons as a quarterback, the Los Angeles Rams drafted Cromwell as a defensive back with the 31st pick in the 1977 draft.
Defensively, he dominated in the NFL. He was selected to four consecutive Pro Bowls between 1980 and 1983 with his best performance coming in 1980. That year, he snatched eight interceptions and was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Year. For his accomplishments in the 80’s, he was named to the second team all-decade squad at safety behind Ronnie Lott and Kenny Easley.
Cromwell has worked as an assistant coach in the NFL for four franchises, and today, he works as an offensive assistant for the Cleveland Browns.