Road Rules: The lessons learned during my week with the Express
After week on travel football circuit, it's clear football will soon resemble hoops
Basketball recruiting is a cesspool, but increasing players' exposure isn't all bad
NCAA rulebook can be a bear -- but so can sleeping and breathing on a bus
SI.com's Andy Staples recently accompanied the South Florida Express travel team, which includes 25 of Florida's top prospects, on an unofficial recruiting trip to a national tournament and four schools in the South. From The Grove to South Beach, Staples got a firsthand look of what it's like to be a top recruit. This is the final installment of a five-part series.
Spending six days on a bus with 25 elite high school football players taught me a variety of lessons. The most important? Aerosol deodorant may have fallen out of fashion, but it is critical when sharing an enclosed space with 32 other males who are subsisting on a diet of McDonald's, all-you-can-eat-buffet fare and rest-area vending machine goodies. Feel free to bring a separate stick of deodorant to use under the arms.
Here are some of the other lessons I learned during my week with the South Florida Express traveling 7-on-7 team.
Football, at least for skill-position players, is going to resemble basketball in a few years. All-Star teams will travel the country playing in 7-on-7 tournaments, and the best players will meet multiple times before they see one another in pads at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl or Under Armour All-America Game. With the increased interest in and coverage of football recruiting, it shouldn't surprise anyone that travel football is growing. What's amazing is that it took this long to figure out how to make it work.
Three years ago, brothers-in-law Baron Flenory and Kashaan Simmons, the founders of New Level Athletics, came up with the idea of holding regional 7-on-7 tournaments. The first two years of tournaments worked so well that Flenory and Simmons decided to hold their first national tournament this year.
Even without a TV deal or well-known sponsor, the BadgerSports Elite 7-on-7 National Championship drew some of the nation's best players. A few days later, Nike hosted the latest installment of its 7on series, which matches 7-on-7 teams -- made up exclusively of high school teammates -- for a made-for-TV event that aired on ESPNU. ESPN also will hold its second Gridiron Kings 7-on-7 tournament, which features all-star teams divided by region, later this month. Under Armour and Fox -- two companies always looking for an edge on Nike and ESPN -- would be wise to enter the 7-on-7 business.
The best new idea I heard during the tournament came from former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson. Johnson, who coached the Los Angeles-based 1925 All-Stars along with former Buccaneers teammate Brian Kelly, wants to hold a tournament in Los Angeles next year during the May evaluation period, when assistant coaches are allowed to watch -- but not speak to -- prospects. Usually, this means visiting high schools during spring practice, which isn't very helpful when a recruit lives in a state that doesn't allow spring practice.
A tournament during the spring evaluation period would mimic major travel basketball tournaments such as the Peach Jam, where coaches surround the court to watch teams from across the nation. "[A coach] can say, 'I can knock all these down in a two-day period,' " Johnson said.
That could be helpful for schools with tight recruiting budgets and for players who are seeking scholarship offers. For example, had coaches been able to watch the BadgerSports tournament, Express receiver Jessie York (from Boyd Anderson High in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.) would have earned a boatload of new offers. Highlight videos are nice, but coaches want to see players with their own eyes. Seven-on-seven isn't real football, but it's helpful in evaluating quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs and linebackers. It also allows college coaches to evaluate firsthand a player's demeanor, attitude and ability to take coaching.
Johnson and Kelly want their tournament to be an extension of a brand called Big Man on Campus. Besides the tournament, they want to stage camps in various regions of the country. There, they'll select players to appear on the Big Man on Campus reality show, which will follow players through their recruitments. Johnson said he hopes to distribute the show on Fox's family of regional sports networks.
So is all of this good for college football? Yes and no. College basketball recruiting is an absolute cesspool, so anything that makes football recruiting more like basketball recruiting is risky. Fortunately, the sheer number of football recruits (25 in a class as opposed to three or four for basketball) reduces the financial incentive to cheat because the chances of guessing wrong are so much higher. Also, if travel football helps underexposed players find scholarship opportunities or helps more players visit schools they couldn't afford to visit otherwise, it isn't all bad.