By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Last summer, while top college baseball players sharpened their skills in leagues from Alaska to Cape Cod, Jonah Todd unloaded trucks and stocked shelves at a Walmart in Birmingham.
Perhaps the unlikeliest star in the SEC, Todd, a walk-on, needed to earn money to pay for his housing at Auburn.
The SEC's second-leading hitter (.385), Todd starred in baseball and basketball at Oak Grove High School in Bessemer, Ala., accepting a scholarship to pitch at Marion Military Institute, one of two offers he received.
"I wanted to go to a juco somewhere to hope after those two years I could get somewhere better," Todd said.
Despite going 9-0 with a 0.25 ERA as a high school senior, Todd's pitching days ended quickly when Marion coach Matt Downs saw Todd's outfield prowess.
"He said, `I need you in the outfield, so you're not going to pitch any,'" Todd said. "So I never saw the mound after that."
"When I first got here, I was just trying to earn a starting spot," Todd said. "I didn't think I'd really see the field that much. Even coming into the spring, I didn't know if I'd get to play a lot. Thought I would just fill in holes when people get tired or get hurt, just fill in a hole here and there."
Auburn's coaching staff thought Todd could provide outfield depth. Soon after his arrival, the projection increased.
"The very first day we got on the field and were able to start evaluating," assistant coach Doug Sisson recalled. "`What a minute, this guy's got tools.' It's not often you get a walk-on who has legitimate tools."
Sisson knows tools when he sees them. He spent 23 coaching and managing in professional baseball, including two with the Kansas City Royals in 2011-12.
"If you grade out the five major league tools, he's got four of them," Sisson said. "He doesn't have major league power, but he's got the major league hit tool, and he's got the defense tool, and he's got the run tool and the throw tool."
A left fielder in the fall, Todd moved to center for preseason, winning the job during training camp. He's started there all but one game, dazzling fans by covering great distances to make rally-killing catches.
"We work on that a lot during batting practice," Todd said. "Coach Sis always tells us, `Gold gloves are won in BP.' You just go for everything you can in BP just to test your limits and see what you can run down and what you can't. There's some stuff out of range, but most stuff I can find a way to get to."
Todd's fundamentals -- a first step in the right direction and straight routes to fly balls -- impress Sisson.
"I'd stick him in center field in the big leagues tonight and feel confident about it," Sisson said. "He can play defense at the major league level right now. As good as (2014-16 Auburn outfielder, No. 39 pick in MLB draft) Anfernee Grier was, we haven't experienced a drop-off at all. Defensively, he's fantastic."
Offensively, Todd has been exceptional as well, ranking in the top five in the SEC in average, runs, doubles, hits and on-base percentage. He's hitting .404 in conference games.
"I just like the challenge," Todd said. "When you've got a pitcher out there like some of the guys we face. `This the best guy you're going to see. He's going first round.' Trying to go out there and prove that you're better than that guy."
With their surprising star in center leading the way, the Tigers are exceeding expectations. Picked to finish tied for last in the SEC West, No. 10 Auburn (28-11, 10-5) is one game behind first-place No. 16 Arkansas, which visits Plainsman Park this weekend.
"It's a lot of fun," said Todd, who earned the nickname `Joe Dirt' from Butch Thompson for his hustle. "We knew going into the season, even our coaches told us, `We're better than what they say we are. We're going to be at the top of the conference this year. You just have to trust yourself and trust each other.'"
For a guy who thought his career might end with his last high school game, it's been an adventure.
"I didn't even think halfway through my senior year that I'd be playing baseball still," Todd said. "During my senior year, if you had told me I'd be playing here by my junior year (of college), I would have told you you were crazy."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer