"It's about competition!"
That's what echoes over the sound of the music pumping through the speakers as the clock hits 11:30 in the morning at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. The voice is that of Vince Jacobs, one of the founders of the group putting on this high school football event, VTO Sports.
The athletes, 212 to be exact, are preparing to go through a dynamic flex exercise before splitting into groups to work agility drills and position specifics. To the untrained eye, it seems that the day of players showing what they can do, polishing skills and competing, is finally about to get started.
However, that could not be further from the truth. After yours truly spent 20 minutes being lost on the way to Mallard Creek, I arrived at the high school at 10:30 to plenty of folks prepping for the event. No kids on the scene, but coaches, both paid and volunteer, were setting up for the day's camp.
For anyone that's been in the football life, that setup period always brings back a sense of nostalgia. Coaches were setting up pads, moving the bars around for drills and laying down the ladder for quick feet. Cones were being placed meticulously to show borders and football was in the late-morning air.
The clock ticks as I mill around and talk with the coaches, but still, no kids.
Then, at about 11:20, the doors to the school up the hill open and the athletes start pouring out. Tall kids, small kids, big kids, skinny kids. All decked out in their black VTO Sports shirts with numbers on them, ready to get to the field and put cleats on.
As I poked around and asked about the registration and selection process, and what they spent time doing up in the school, I found out one of the more intriguing aspects of VTO Sports. The group is partnered with NCSA, a national group built on helping kids get scholarships to the next level.
The inside portion of the day is as critical as anything the youngsters are going to do on the field. Inside is where prospective student-athletes, and more importantly their parents, get a chance to learn about the process.
What to expect. What is permissible. How to best set yourself up for success. How to gain control over your recruitment. Ways to elevate your profile. Protecting yourself in the process.
Oh, and of course, how important academics is in getting to the next level. Every year kids with all the talent in the world end up unable to fully capitalize on their abilities because their academics don't allow for it. That means they are going to prep school, junior college or, in some cases, no school at all.
The reality, the honesty, is a very real theme with VTO Sports. Not only do they talk about it candidly inside, but they also remind kids of the hard work that it takes to get to the collegiate level down on the field.
"Anybody can be average"
That's what Hess Hempstead repeats as he coaches up his group, the offensive linemen. Hempstead, a four-year NFL veteran with the Detroit Lions is working to encourage his group, the smallest in number, to get better with every rep. Hempstead pushes his kids, not just to work, but to make sure they give a good look to their group members. As he says, "I want to see everybody give everybody a good rep."
The goal is for everyone to get better on that day.
While the encouragement is palpable, instruction is the main goal. Watching the coaches work, seeing them take mistakes, correct them and work to get the players to understand the techniques is beautiful to take in. "Head up, see what you hit," says Aleric Mullins, a former UNC and Green Bay Packers defensive tackle. His group is working on explosive first steps and the former Tar Heel teammates, Mullins and Greg Elleby, are showing the defensive tackles how to get it done.
From the pursuit drill to individual routines and the competition periods; no moment is not a teachable one. Good enough is not an option. Doing it just okay is not what the goal is out at Mallard Creek on this Sunday. Decent enough is not what the coaches want to see.
Players are being sent back to do their reps again. Coaches are moving to pull players aside and talk with them about small coaching points. It all speaks to coaches pushing to help these high school athletes understand that a poor rep is a wasted rep. Don't do your work just to get it done, do it to get better.
"It is so remarkably football"
About halfway through the day, that is what I said to Vince Jacobs II, son of one of the founders of VTO Sports. As I look back on that sun-soaked day at a Charlotte area high school, there really is still no other way to describe what took place.
Look, if you haven't figured it out by now I'm an "old head." That's football speak for an ex-player. The nostalgia and excitement from being around football is a very real thing for us; that feeling is what draws so many of us into coaching. You want to see my eyes light up? Take me to a seven-on-seven jamboree or let me watch a practice, that gets things going.
The point here is that this VTO Sports Prep 100 event had all of those things that are so quintessentially football. No, there were no helmets or shoulder pads, but those five plus hours had plenty of football packed into them.
They started out with a dynamic warm-up that was very reminiscent of the flex that every college around the nation is doing now. They moved from there to agility drills that were eerily similar to winter conditioning, complete with a mat drills aspect. Individual drills were college styled. DBs doing hip-overs. Offensive linemen doing full extension work. Linebackers working on taking drops and rallying to the ball.
Then the players move to more teaching of techniques. Receivers learning routes. Quarterbacks working on the proper drops and delivery points for those routes being taught to their receivers. Running backs understanding how to get out of the backfield and catch balls. Secondary personnel learning coverages and coverage techniques. Linebackers understanding where they fit in the pass scheme.
And of course, the defensive and offensive linemen working together to make one another better.
What results is a seven-on-seven period that runs surprisingly effecient, especially when it is constructed of groups of players who do not usually play together. Sean Boyd and Melvin Williams, two former UNC defensive backs, are coaching up their guys whether passes are completed or not.
These kids, offense and defense, elite or improving, have so much to learn and the coaches are working to squeeze as much knowledge in as possible. Sure, a wide receiver might make a great play but the coaches are instructing him on getting his head around and making crisp breaks. Yes, the quarterback made a nice throw, but the corner route was open with no traffic. Nice play on the under-thrown ball, but LB 135, you have to get to 12 yards because a good throw beats you.
Again the theme of "Anybody can be average" comes into play. This is football and good enough is no longer good enough, you have to burn to get better. And that's what the coaches preach as they correct mistakes and make good, better.
"It's about competition"
Yes, that's how Jacobs started the event, before the flex phase, but at no time is it more evident than when the prospects transition into one-on-ones. Coaches have already been working with their groups for a couple hours. They have seen them in individual drills. They have seen them in a team setting. Now, they want to see just how much these kids want to win.
As Vince Jacobs told the parents watching early in the day, "No testing, it's football only." And, folks, there is no better way to say football at a camp than one-on-ones. Football, the ultimate team sport, is all about doing your job, winning your one-on-one battles and at VTO Sports Prep 100 events, they ask the kids to do just that.
For offensive linemen that meant working as a group of five, lined up against four defensive linemen and working each part of a pass-protection scheme. Defensive ends versus tackles. Defensive tackles versus guards and centers. Offensive guys protecting their quarterback, defensive guys trying to put their paws on the pad that represented a signal-caller.
The intensity is very real. Bodies are colliding. Players win their individual battles. Players lose individual battles. Guys who are not supposed to win are beating players expected to dominate. The heart of these young competitors comes out and their coaches, on both sides, get excited.
Hell, as I stood around watching Hess Hempstead get fired up about one of his players manhandling one of Aleric Mullins' guys, it felt like a football practice. Defensive linemen who, at 11:30 that morning did not know one another from Adam, are now rooting loudly for their new teammates. Offensive linemen, the smallest and thus closest knit group are now high-fiving each other and offering encouraging words.
The intensity gets turned up a notch as the group moves to selected matchups, or what most of us know as call-outs. Best on best. Good on good. Let's see who the baddest dog in the yard is. Pastor Troy is blasting over the PA system, and these high school kids are getting after one another. Everyone wants to win.
Then the show, for a former defensive back like myself, really starts: skill one-on-ones. Safeties and corners matched up against the wide receivers, largely in press coverage. Receivers trying to shake defensive backs at the line, quarterbacks trying to throw their guys open and defenders trying to create incompletions.
There were touchdowns. There were balls knocked down, open receivers missed, tough balls dropped. Everyone was competing. Players were doing push-ups for dropped balls. Defensive backs were trying to keep receivers from even getting off the line, let alone catching the ball. Quarterbacks were trying to throw receivers into touchdown-type catches.
All the while, in the line and skill one-on-ones, there is coaching going on. Mo Collins, the former Gator offensive tackle and first-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders, is coaching up the line on leverage and protecting against the spin move. Melvin Williams is teaching corners about staying square while playing press coverage so they do not open up the gate to wide receivers.
Competition is the name of the game, but the coaching never takes a break.
"The coaches do not get a roster, that's by design."
That's Vince Jacobs again, speaking to the crowd of parents and media at the event, but also speaking to one of the things that make the Prep 100 events intriguing: anonymity. These coaches, guys who have played football in the NFL, CFL and at the BCS level, do not know who the players in their groups are. They don't have a roster. They don't have names.
The only identifying characteristic these players have to go off is the number on the chest of each participant. That means five-star and no-star are lined up side-by-side in drills, forcing everyone to compete for recognition. Players holding a boatload of offers are squaring off against guys who are just hoping to get a look from a small college. Rising sophomores and juniors are going up against seniors, competing to be successful.
In other words, there are no favorites at the VTO Sports Prep 100. I did not know that going into this, but as I watched coaches take kids aside and work with them and really spend time coaching up all the players in their group, you can see the importance of not knowing. They don't just spend their time trying to perfect the elite kid, while the youngster pushing to get better is left to fend for himself. Everyone is a part of the competitions and everyone is using that day to get better.
However, do not mistake the encouragement of all participants or the coaching up of all athletes to be an "everyone gets a trophy" or "no winners and losers" mentality. It is all about competition and when you compete, someone has to come out on top.
Here, is where anonymity comes into play.
After the workday is done the position group coaches convene to discuss their thoughts on top performers of the day. Each position group identifies five players, by number, as their top performers, and one player in that trio takes home the MVP award. VTO Sports is all about winning the day, and they reward the top performers for doing just that.
And here is where the anonymity comes into play; these coaches have no knowledge of the players' identities when selecting the standouts for the day. It is not about boosting a kid's standing with recruiting services, or elevating a guy’s stature to help him get offers. Rather, they look at what they have witnessed in the few hours they have worked with the individuals and select based upon that.
A bad day for an elite guy means he is sitting in the crowd as some no-star walks up to be recognized.
To the victor go the spoils, and in this case the spoils are mighty damn good. The top performers in each group get invitations to the VTO Sports NFL Prep 100. The Charlotte winners will be headed to Baltimore in April, while the winners of other VTO Elite Prep 100 events, such as New Orleans, will go to Houston for their NFL Prep 100 experience.
It is a pretty sweet deal that gives kids the opportunity to compete again. This time around, not just against kids in their own state, but against some of the elite competitors from a larger region.
Spending St. Patrick's Day out at Mallard Creek High School for the VTO Sports Prep 100 was a treat. The event had a very collegiate feel to it, likely aided by the former NFL and college players who man the stations and coach up the athletes. Having that knowledge base to give to kids, information on what it takes to get to the next level, not just be high school good, is a plus.
"What's more important than football?"
Silly question? Not when you hear how Hess Hempstead posed it to his group to end the day.
The knowledge of the coaches carries over to the very end as position groups get together to wrap things up with a chat. The chat is not about who did what right or what you players need to work on. No, the talk is about reminding kids that they have to do everything right to get to that next level.
Enter Hempstead's question.
"What's more important than football?" Hempstead asks his group. "Family? Sure. Your faith? I hope so. School? Yeah. But what after that? Friends? Friends can wait. Girlfriend? She should want you to be the best you can be. Part-time job? Maybe, your situation means you have to work, but if not..."
It's a conversation that most people who decide to be good at something have with themselves at some point in their lives. What are you going to let stand in the way of your dreams? What are you going to spend your time on?
As a guy that's been to where these kids want to go, Hempstead, along with fellow coaches Mike Ingersoll and Mo Collins, can help give them the blueprint. Part of that blueprint is understanding that being good at football is not a part-time activity. You either want to be the best or you don't, you cannot sometime it. In other words, if you want this, this scholarship, this state championship, this chance at the NFL, then you have to go after it everyday.
The event was rooted in football. They taught football, honed players' football skills and competed using football moves. It was unashamedly football and that's likely why it works so well.
Thanks to everyone at VTO Sports for pulling back the curtain for me. Special thanks to Dena Cecil, Otis Lloyd, Vince Jacobs and Vince Jacobs II. Photos courtesy of VTO Sports via TBrookerphoto.com.