Written by Corbett Smith
How soon is too soon? Scholarship offers to middle schoolers a growing trend, concern for high school football coaches
Two weeks ago, when news broke that Lindell Stone, a 6-2, 190-pound middle school quarterback from Southlake, had received an offer from UCLA, Southlake Carroll coach Hal Wasson said he couldn’t “comprehend it.”
Stone had not been through a “hands-on” evaluation by Carroll’s high school staff and was not “ordained” as the starting quarterback of the future in Carroll’s extremely competitive system. Wasson couldn’t believe that any coach would put so much pressure on someone so young.
“I think it’s a crazy amount of stress on the kid,” Wasson said. “Football is a game that puts pressure on the kids. Athletics is pressure. You compound that stress with it in the eighth grade.”
With at least four years of physical and psychological development still to come before signing a college offer, why would college coaches embrace such uncertainty?
It’s simple, said Scout national analyst Scott Kennedy. A middle school offer allows schools to be first in what will likely be a long line of suitors. It creates buzz — both for programs and recruits. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s no risk.
“All those offers are non-binding, so you don’t have anything to lose,” Kennedy said. “Right now, the process has become offer first, then evaluate later.”
In the arms race of college football recruiting, most elite prospects now start getting oral offers at least two years before graduation, in the spring of their sophomore years. No offer is binding until a recruit signs a National Letter of Intent in February of his senior year. Written offers can’t be extended to football prospects until Aug. 1 of their senior seasons, and NCAA rules prohibit initiating contact with a player before his junior year. Nevertheless, young players are courted by coaches while they attend college camps, and the age of those players seems to be getting younger.
Stone’s offer came on the heels of USC offering a scholarship to soon-to-be-freshman wide receiver Nathan Tilford. Fellow freshman-to-be Dylan Moses has received offers from a plethora of colleges — including Texas, Alabama and LSU. Even a seventh-grader, 13-year-old cornerback prospect Jairus Brents, received an offer from Mark Stoops’ program at Kentucky in early June.
The validity of Stone’s offer was disputed by Rivals .com columnist Rob Cassidy, who reported that no coaches from UCLA made contact with Stone or his family; Stone’s father, Ted, did not respond to numerous requests for an interview from The Dallas Morning News.
Regardless, it seems that there’s a youth movement afoot in college recruiting.
“It’s something that I think, unfortunately, is starting to escalate,” Rivals national analyst Mike Farrell said.
But an early offer doesn’t guarantee a college scholarship.
ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said it would be interesting to watch the plight of junior quarterback David Sills, who received an offer from University of Southern California coach Lane Kiffin as a seventh-grader.
“I watch him on tape, and he’s not the caliber of player that you think they’d be interested in,” Luginbill said. “So what does USC do?”
In general, the concept of an offer has been diluted over the last 15 years, according to the experts. It is not uncommon, Luginbill said, for a player to receive an offer from a school, only to discover that the school wouldn’t recognize his oral commitment without other targets going elsewhere. Farrell and Kennedy said they’ve seen a marked increase in the number of programs giving “blanket offers” — schools extending offers to hundreds of players while only actively recruiting 25 to 50 of them.
“Just getting an offer doesn’t mean much anymore,” Kennedy said.
Race for first
Hebron coach Brian Brazil has seen three players over the past three seasons recruited heavily as sophomores: recent graduate Dezmond Wortham (a running back signed with Wake Forest), senior safety Jamal Adams and junior offensive lineman Zach Rogers.
Accelerating the process even earlier would be a mistake, Brazil said. His players, unlike middle-schoolers, were two-year starters by the time offers came, giving college coaches ample opportunities to watch them against high-level competition.
“I think that many of the schools think they have to be the first ones out there to offer, whether they have to or not,” he said. “And that’s what I don’t like about it, from the side of it just making the length of recruiting time go so long.”
DeSoto coach Claude Mathis said that deserving players who prove their mettle on the field as juniors and seniors are often crowded out, with schools holding few if any open spots for the current year’s signing class.
“I get coaches all the time who come in and say, ‘Oh, no, coach, we’re finished with our 2014 class. We are on to our ’15 and ’16 classes,’” Mathis said.
For his players, Brazil said he doesn’t want the worries of the recruiting process to take away from the experience of high school football. When he was heading into his senior year at Pasadena Rayburn, he didn’t have a major college offer, but he was told by his father not to worry about a scholarship and have fun. Brazil received an offer from TCU as a senior, eventually becoming an All-Southwest Conference tackle.
“He told me to go out and play,” Brazil said. “If I got one, great, but if not, I’d still be going to college. That was the best advice he could have given me.”
Staff writer David Just contributed to this report.
Notable early offers
Chris Leak (Charlotte, N.C.) 1998: Patient Zero for early offers. He committed to Wake Forest (and former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell) as an eighth-grader, near the same time his brother C.J. signed with the school. But once C.J. transferred to Tennessee, so did Chris’s allegiance. After C.J. failed to become a full-time starter for the Vols, Chris eventually signed with Florida.
Evan Berry (Fairburn, Ga.) 2009: He and his twin brother Elliott are sought-after three-star recruits from the Class of 2014. Berry, the younger brother of former Vols star safety Eric Berry, committed to Tennessee as a 13-year-old, but has since reopened his recruiting process.
David Sills (Bear, Del.) 2010: He received an offer from Lane Kiffin at USC as a 13-year-old seventh-grader and is still committed to the Trojans. His personal quarterback coach Steve Clarkson also coached former USC starter Matt Barkley.
Dylan Moses (Baton Rouge, La.) 2013: The 6-2, 225 running back and linebacker has been projected anywhere from defensive end to defensive back, depending on his growth. He received an offer as a 14-year-old soon-to-be eighth-grader by LSU after shining at its college camp.