As all-star tournaments gain momentum, 'AAU football' begins
BCS-caliber recruits are flocking to seven-on-seven all-star team tournaments
Decreased high school involvement and resemblance to AAU hoops worry critics
Proponents insist AAU-style football is the future and that it will remain pure
TAMPA, Fla. -- On one field, Miami's Lamarcus Joyner, potentially the most sought-after cornerback in the class of 2010, covered Ace Sanders, a speedy receiver from Bradenton, Fla., in an ultra-intense game of touch football. On another field, Columbus, Ga., 6-foot-7 tight end Brian Vogler ran routes against Port St. Lucie, Fla., linebacker Jeff Luc, whose YouTube highlight video plays regularly in college coaches' offices across the nation.
One Saturday earlier this month at the University of South Florida, more than 250 players from six states gathered for a seven-on-seven football tournament. Their teams didn't represent individual high schools, though; instead, battles raged between all-star teams comprised of skill-position players from different geographic regions hand-selected by independent coaches or writers from Scout.com. In 11 months, most of the participating players will sign Division-I scholarship offers, and for those who follow the NCAA's other big-money college sport, all of this should sound eerily familiar.
"It's AAU football," Brett Goetz said.
Goetz should know. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., stockbroker coaches Joyner's team, the South Florida Express. In February, 55 of South Florida's best players, all of whom BCS conference schools will likely recruit, showed up to try out for the team. Goetz chose the best 24 to take to the seven-on-seven Badger Sport Skills Pass Camp. Run by New Level Athletics in conjunction with Scout.com, the tournament is one of four nationally -- Rutgers, Ohio State and Las Vegas are the three other sites -- that bring together all-star teams instead of dividing players by high school team. In only their second year, the tournaments have already attracted the nation's best prospects. Baron Flenory, New Level's co-founder and a regional manager at Scout.com, estimated that 90 percent of the skill-position prospects who played in either the Under Armour or U.S. Army All-American games this past January played in one of his tournaments in 2008. "This year," he said, "we'll have 99 percent."
Flenory, a former New Hampshire defensive back, readily admits he would love to create an offseason football circuit similar to the one that rules basketball recruiting. On the basketball circuit, Nike's Peach Jam tournament is the crown jewel. The tournament in Tampa may as well have been called the Guava Gridiron, because it was organized exactly the same way: all-star teams from different regions -- in this case, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Mississippi and the larger metropolitan areas in Florida -- taking part in pool play followed by a single-elimination tournament.
Flenory, the son of former Duquesne basketball star B.B. Flenory, said his professional idol is Sonny Vaccaro, the godfather of grassroots basketball. "I love what he did," the younger Flenory said. "I think he's a genius." After several conversations during the nascent stages of Flenory's grassroots football operation, Vaccaro came away impressed with the 25-year-old. What impressed Vaccaro most was Flenory's desire to help players who weren't already big-name recruits. "He's basically an outsider," Vaccaro said. "He started from scratch, and he did it the right way. And he did it without being a big name and without having a big-name player."
Flenory understands his ambition will be met with skepticism and trepidation thanks to the reputation of grassroots basketball, which has been tainted by dirty recruiting and by coaches who exploited players for personal gain. Some worry that if grassroots football takes off, it would empower the "street agents," who in the past have shopped players to schools in relative anonymity. With a system similar to basketball's, those street agents could conceivably form their own traveling teams.
That's what worries Illinois coach Ron Zook, who pointed out that most high-school coaches are not allowed to coach seven-on-seven tournaments because of state association rules against extra practices. Zook worries that diminishing the influence of high school coaches combined with the NCAA's stringent restrictions on contact between prospects and college coaches will make it even more difficult for college coaches to make informed recruiting choices. "Once you begin to take the high school coaches out of the mix, then we're getting into the same thing as basketball," Zook said. "The NCAA must feel that what goes on in basketball is OK."
Of course, AAU football is a bit of a misnomer. The Amateur Athletic Union does sponsor football, but those leagues cater to younger children. The AAU is not affiliated with these tournaments, just as it is not affiliated with many of the more popular grassroots basketball tournaments. Still, "AAU basketball" has become the catch-all term for offseason tournaments involving traveling teams.
Flenory originally set out to run a skills camp. He believed the 40-yard dash doomed his own recruitment, so he has banned the run from any event he organizes. He also believed his model was superior to the recruiting service and shoe company-sponsored combines that measure 40-yard times, vertical jumps and shuttle runs. The idea for the tournaments sprang from a moment during a skills camp Flenory and partner Kashann Simmons put on in Somerset, N.J., in 2007. Players from New Jersey and New York had spent much of the day talking trash, so when it came time for the seven-on-seven period of the camp, Flenory and Simmons matched a team of New Jersey players against a team of New York players. When future Oklahoma receiver Dejuan Miller caught a bomb to win the game for New Jersey, Flenory and Simmons knew they had struck gold.
"Fans, parents and kids started chanting 'New Jersey' and ran to the middle of the field," Flenory said. "We had to stop the camp. ... Everybody looked around and said this is the next biggest thing."
At the time, seven-on-seven tournaments were nothing new. For the past decade, high school coaches have sent their skill-position players to various tournaments to polish their timing, throwing, catching and coverage skills. But those tournaments are tied to high school teams. Adidas sponsored a series of school team-based seven-on-seven tournaments in 2008 that drew more than 4,000 players. Nike, meanwhile, invited some of the best high school teams in the country to its Oregon campus for a tournament last year. In Texas, a consortium of state coaches run the State 7on7 tournament with the blessing of the state's high school sports association. While high school coaches aren't allowed to coach their teams, they are encouraged to watch their school's team to ensure everyone is following the rules. Wylie Independent School District athletic director Mark Ball, a member of the tournament's board, said the tournament builds stronger high school teams, something a gathering of all-star teams does not.
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