Get ready for AAU football (cont.)
"You're really looking for what your purpose is," Ball said. "Our purpose is for kids to be able to play together in the summer, to work on parts of their defense and parts of their offense. They also can build camaraderie that will help them during the season."
High school coaches surrounded the fields at the tournament in Tampa, but none were allowed to coach. As Plant (Tampa, Fla.) High coach Robert Weiner watched a team featuring a handful of his players face the South Florida Express from behind the end zone, former Plant and University of Miami quarterback Robert Marve coached the offense. Meanwhile, coaches from a team stocked with some of Georgia's best players were told on arrival that they couldn't coach lest they run afoul of their state association. Flenory wound up coaching the Georgia team.
Some worry independent coaches will form teams for personal benefit. In basketball, coaches have sold players to schools or used their relationship with a player as leverage to get a college job. Recently, Baylor hired Dwon Clifton, star recruit John Wall's travel team coach, as its director of player development. Meanwhile, the highest paid assistant in Kansas State's basketball program is Dalonte Hill, who coached former Wildcats star Michael Beasley's travel team before beginning his collegiate coaching career at Charlotte.
Goetz, the South Florida Express coach, said he wants neither money nor a college coaching job. "These days, there's a lot more joy out here" than at work, the stockbroker said. Goetz's journey into the world of recruiting began when he helped run an Optimist's Club youth football league in Miami Beach. Two years ago, Goetz helped one of the league's alumni, Dr. Krop (Miami) High linebacker Etienne Sabino, navigate the recruiting process. After Sabino signed with Ohio State, other South Florida players asked Goetz's advice. Last year, someone from Scout.com called Goetz and asked if he would assemble a team for the seven-on-seven tournament in Tampa. That team included cornerback Brandon McGee, who signed with Miami, and defensive back Vladimir Emilien, who signed with Michigan. The members of this year's team are drawing interest from teams in all six BCS conferences.
Goetz already has seen more independent coaches emerge, and he expects even more to as the tournaments get bigger. "People were fighting to get kids on their teams this year," he said. "It's almost like recruiting in college now. Everybody's trying to get the best guys."
Florida coach Urban Meyer warned against painting independent coaches with too broad a brush. Many, he said, do have the players' best interests at heart. Still, Meyer always worries when someone besides a player's parent or high school coach has an influence on that player's school choice. "Anytime there's a third party involved, you have to be cautious," Meyer said. "At Florida, we try to recruit the coach, the family and the player."
The most infamous third party in college football recruiting circles isn't a fan of seven-on-seven tournaments. Brian Butler, the trainer who managed Tennessee signee Bryce Brown's recruitment, said he prefers drills to glorified touch football. "For me, it's all about the training," Butler said. "I don't do the seven-on-seven. People have asked me to. We'd have a pretty good team."
Those who do support the tournaments insist a few natural roadblocks could keep grassroots football from earning the same seedy reputation as its hardwood counterpart. First, seven-on-seven is not real football. While basketball purists would argue that the me-first game played on the travel hoops circuit isn't real basketball, at least post players can participate. Seven-on-seven football eliminates line play completely, taking away nine of the 22 positions on most football teams. "The difference is in the games," Vaccaro said. "We can play 1,000 games in grassroots basketball. They can't have live contact."
Also, college coaches aren't allowed to attend seven-on-seven tournaments. In basketball, coaches swarm elite tournaments during evaluation periods. During games at last year's Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., the coaches in attendance included Kansas' Bill Self, Gonzaga's Mark Few, Kentucky's Billy Gillispie and dozens of others. "The NCAA won't allow college coaches to be at these events," Flenory said. "The NCAA won't allow these to be invite only. ... There's so much out there stopping it from becoming an overflow. This can be a 100-percent quality event."
That quality is what draws most of the players. Tevin Brantley, a receiver/defensive back from North Carolina, came to the tournament because he wanted to face the best players from the nation's most talent-rich state. "Florida's supposed to have the fastest guys, the biggest guys," Brantley said. "I want a piece of the action." As Brantley spoke, 6-6, 305-pound Leon "Earthquake" Orr walked past. Told that Orr, a New Port Richey, Fla., resident who has committed to play on the line at Florida, will play tight end as a senior at Gulf High this fall, Brantley smiled. "See?" he said.
College coaches pay attention to what happens at the tournaments. After the Rutgers tournament, recruiting interest spiked for 6-3 receiver Eric Williams of Fairless Hills, Pa. Williams, who plays in a run-heavy offense at Pennsbury High, torched defensive backs for an entire weekend as writers from various recruiting services watched. Word got back to college coaches, who put Williams on their recruiting lists. Florida's Meyer said his staff considers the outcomes of individual matchups at the tournaments in its recruiting evaluations. "It depends who we're getting the reports from," Meyer said. "Some we don't take seriously. Some we take very seriously -- if we know the person providing the information."
In the coming years, coaches across the country will have to take the all-star seven-on-seven tournaments more seriously. During the tournament in Tampa, a writer from Rivals.com said he'd suggest to his boss that their company stage a similar series of tournaments. The shoe companies won't be far behind, either. Love it or hate it, grassroots football has arrived.
"That's what we're going to turn it into," New Level's Simmons said. "It gives kids another alternative to combines. Why would they go run the 40 when they could come here and play for their state?"
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