Inside the World of 7-on-7, College Football's Explosive New Recruiting Trend
George Yarberry pores over his computer deep into the Michigan evening, editing film cut-ups of a high school football player with the precision of a Hollywood editor creating a movie trailer, hoping the mix of highlights and pulsating background music will catch the eye of a college recruiter.
Some 1,200 miles to the south, in the shadow of Florida State University’s Tallahassee campus, Terrell Logan sifts through e-mails of college coaches and checks YouTube to prepare to upload video of what he thinks might be a college program’s next big star.
And another thousand miles to the west, in Texas, Kashann Simmons stares at a big board that could pass for an NFL draft war room as he updates rosters with player names and scholarship offers.
High school coaches? Assistant coaches? Recruiting video services? Parents?
None of the above.
The people mentioned above are all central figures in a growing phenomenon in the college football recruiting world known as 7-on-7 football, the proliferation of which has been both a boon to players and recruiters, and a bane of existence for those who decry a few overzealous coaches and compare 7-on-7 to the ugly underbelly sometimes associated with Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball.
Bob Winstead, coach and head of the Carolina Elite 7-on-7 program, explains the rise of 7-on-7:
“The fans of the No. 1 spectator sport in the world get a taste of their favorite sport year-round, college coaches get a better opportunity to evaluate and recruit, high school coaches start the season with better-prepared athletes, and athletes have the opportunity to improve their skills and get more college looks," he said.
For those not in the know, 7-on-7 is exactly that: seven offensive players taking on seven defensive players. Offenses have a center, a quarterback and any combination of running backs, tight ends and wide receivers to yield five eligible receivers. Defenses have two or three linebackers and four or five defensive backs.
Once no more than a regular part of practice and an offseason exercise for local high schools, 7-on-7 football has become a national phenomenon thanks to the formation of all-star teams that compete in regional and national competitions.
“This is all about exposure and development,” said Bryan Fischer, a former national college football and recruiting writer for CBSSports.com and now a senior correspondent for Pac-12 Digital.
So why have 7-on-7 competitions exploded?
“You know how recruiting is,” said one Atlantic Coast Conference college assistant coach. “We can’t go watch them, but seeing the buzz and the kids putting in work and getting their name out there is a big deal. We have to monitor the news just like [the fans and media] do to see how these dudes are doing."
Indeed, that’s one of the ironies of 7-on-7 football. College coaches are not allowed to attend 7-on-7 camps or tournaments and, thanks to 2012 NCAA legislation, colleges are also barred from hosting 7-on-7 events on campus.
But recruits, or others acting as their proxy, can send tape of their 7-on-7 performances to college coaches.
That's where people like Yarberry, Logan and Simmons come into play. Yarberry, who is based in Detroit, is the co-founder of the Midwest Elite Football Club and director of its 7-on-7 tournament. Logan, out of Tallahassee, is the co-founder and manager of the Big Bend Elite team in northern Florida. And Simmons, who operates out of Dallas, is the co-founder of New Level Athletics, one of the biggest organizing bodies of the all-star 7-on-7 movement.
“We wanted to get all the stars together,” Simmons said. “You have best-on-best. We wanted to create that not only for the kids, but for the media. It gives a kid who is not a 4-star, 5-star kid a chance to compete to get to that next level.”
“We wanted to offer an offseason type program to players who wanted to improve their game,” Yarberry said, noting that 7-on-7 is Michigan’s version of spring high school football in the South. “Obviously, everybody is trying to get to the next level and this offers the opportunity for them to work out year-round.”
JC Shurburtt, recruiting expert for 247 Sports, agrees.
“I think the positives are all about exposure and also simply having another football-type activity for players to participate in,” he said. “From an exposure standpoint, it's about getting media, which leads to your name being mentioned, which leads to college coaches at times giving you a look for evaluation.”
Through media accounts and word of mouth, college coaches keep track of who has performed well and who has improved through the 7-on-7 season. But there are no massive coach gatherings to watch top prospects.
For lack of a better term, 7-on-7 football has served as something of a courier between high school football and the collegiate level.
“It’s not as good as game film,” says Gary Beck, the football coordinator of support services at Oregon State, “but it is certainly better than combine numbers."
But does it work? Do 7-on-7 events help high school players get to that next level?
Three-star WR and 2014 Tennessee commit Neiko Creamer says yes.
“I can see the improvement,” Creamer says, noting the difference between competing in 7-on-7 and then going back to his high school team.
Matt Sokol, a 2014 Michigan State commit at tight end, has also reaped the benefits of the 7-on-7 circuit. He plays for Yarberry’s Michigan Elite Club and, according to the recruiting services, is an unranked prospect. Yet Sokol has several offers, including from three Big Ten schools, thanks to his play in 7-on-7.
Why? The 6'5", 225-pounder isn’t a tight end. Or, at least, he isn’t at his high school.
Sokol is a quarterback for a high school program that uses a run-based veer offense. Sokol runs the ball well for his team and throws when he can, but colleges had not seen him play tight end. Enter Yarberry’s 7-on-7 cut-ups that show Sokol doing just that, coming off the ball, running routes, catching with his hands, getting open against quality opponents and proving that he can perform as a tight end, even if it is without pads.
Possibly the best example of a player riding 7-on-7 success to national notoriety is 2012 5-star receiver Deontay Greenberry. He originally committed to Notre Dame last year before pulling a shocker and signing with Houston on National Signing Day.
“We first noticed him at a 7-on-7 in Las Vegas,” Shurburtt said. “Here's this kid from Fresno, good size, good speed, good ball skills that's an absolute playmaker on both sides of the ball. He has one offer, I think, from an FCS program. Greenberry eventually became a 5-star prospect. Had it not been for his emergence at 7-on-7 events, I doubt he would have reached the lofty status as a prospect that he did.”
These 7-on-7 events supplement a sport that has a relatively small sample of games from which to evaluate talent. Three seasons of varsity football often yield fewer than 40 games for colleges to view. Throw in defensive backs playing against teams that run the option or wide receivers playing in the Wing-T, and there is not much to see. Factor in the games against bad teams and the number becomes even smaller.
Offseason combines, where lifting and running take center stage, have been a part of the recruiting scene for quite some time. Now 7-on-7 is growing into another vein through which information can be obtained. The games themselves are almost exclusively passing affairs played with time limits on a 40- to 45-yard field.
There is no tackling, no press coverage, and overly physical play will result in penalties and disqualifications. Additional penalties are assessed for pass interference, on both sides. Quarterbacks have four seconds to get rid of the football. When that time is up, the play is dead and the offense starts from the original line of scrimmage.
While it is non-contact, passing-only football, it is still a brand of football that asks players to read and react to situations.
It's better than combines for assessing football acumen, but not as good as the real thing that comes on fall Friday nights. It has not replaced the combines or the one-day camps that populate the college football recruiting calendar. And that's where some people continue to miss the mark, recruiting analyst Shurburtt said.
High school still matters. Game tape still matters.
“The most asinine comment I ever heard was that a prospect could get a scholarship offer based on 7-on-7, and then sit out his senior year of football,” he said.
Still, the acknowledgement that high school is still king hasn’t quelled the criticism of 7-on-7. For all the good these tournaments can do for recruits and coaches, there is still a very real dark side.
In covering 7-on-7 events, Shurburtt said he has seen coaches cursing players on the field after losses. Simmons said he sees some 7-on-7 coaches and program directors who are in it for themselves, whether that’s for name value or the money—however modest it might be.
“You can go to church and have a bad pastor that doesn’t have the best interest of his congregation,” Simmons said. “There’s always going to be somebody who’s in it for himself.”
Such instances and other similar behavior have created a black eye for 7-on-7 in the minds of its critics and helped to draw comparisons to AAU basketball, whose excesses have received similar scrutiny and criticism. Moreover, some high school coaches believe offseason 7-on-7 camps and tournaments serve as glorified all-star teams and can be a detriment to some players who are learning one thing at 7-on-7 and another with their high school team.
“You have some people who just don’t do things the right way,” West Charlotte (N.C.) High School football coach Marcus Surratt said. “The hope is that at these elite programs they are teaching the same things across the board and basically teaching the fundamentals and letting the kids have fun.”
While 7-on-7 can be an outstanding way for quarterbacks to establish a rapport with receivers, Surratt also points out that many high school teams still use run-first Wing-T, Veer and Flexbone offenses. So spending the offseason in pass-happy 7-on-7 events does not necessarily help offensive players to excel in those run-first systems, and it certainly doesn't help defenders learn good habits for stopping the run.
In acknowledging some of those concerns, Yarberry said he tells all his players that "your main responsibility is to your high school team.”
That said, many players who compete in 7-on-7 show marked improvement once their focus shifts back to their high school team. Both Yarberry and Logan note that some quarterbacks, for instance, come back in the fall after throwing to tighter windows and tend to flourish against regular high school competition. Defensive backs who’ve been facing elite wideouts over the summer step onto the field ready to compete against regular high school players as well.
But much like the sport itself, the relationship between high school and 7-on-7 officials and coaches is evolving.
“There are so many facets of recruiting,” Winstead said. “It truly takes a village to make it happen.”
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand.
Lead image courtesy of 247sports.com.
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