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.
Offensive tackle Abraham "Nacho" Garcia weighs every ounce of 347 pounds. How do I know? Check out the photo on the right.
The NCAA rulebook can be a bear. Express players were supposed to take unofficial visits to Florida State, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Florida during the trip. On an unofficial visit, coaches and players can meet with recruits. Basically, the only difference between an unofficial visit (the recruit pays his own way) and an official visit (the school pays) is who foots the bill.
At FSU, the coaching staff had even planned a dinner presentation. Express coaches and players would have had to pay for the food, but they would have gotten plenty of face time with the staff. A last-minute check of the rules by FSU officials scuttled the plans for the unofficial visits at every school except Florida. Why? Because the rules state that programs cannot host a team traveling to a competition. Meanwhile, it is perfectly legal to host teams returning from a competition.
Express coach Brett Goetz couldn't believe the stupidity of the rule, but he was more frustrated that coaches at four schools didn't check until the day the trip began. In defense of the coaches, this isn't an issue college football coaches face often. A basketball coach probably would have immediately told Goetz to schedule any unofficial visits after the tournament, because basketball coaches deal with traveling teams all the time.
The football coaches will have to deal with them more as elite travel football grows. Goetz, meanwhile, will know better next year. He'll take his team to the tournament first, then to the schools.
Blue-chip defensive back recruit Wayne Lyons can sleep in any conceivable position. Lyons proved this time and time again on the bus. As soon as the wheels turned, Lyons' eyes drooped. It didn't matter if he was sitting up, reclined, or laying across the seats with an armrest jammed in his back; Lyons let nothing stand between him and his beauty rest.
You may already have read about Lyons. He has a 5.0 weighted GPA at Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but he takes mostly college classes now. His specialty is engineering, and he has a particular love for robotics. A school looking for a future Rhodes Scholar would be wise to recruit Lyons, and dozens have. When he returned from the trip with the Express, Lyons narrowed his options to 14 schools.
They are, in no particular order: Auburn, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Miami, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Stanford, Vanderbilt, UCLA, South Florida.
There is a reason Alabama has recruited so well since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. Saban knows how to stay ahead of most of his competitors. Remember thevideo conferencing? It wasn't an accident that the first BadgerSports national tournament took place at Alabama's football complex. Though NCAA rules forbid a school hosting such a tournament from entertaining players with unofficial visits, the tournament still served as a weekend-long advertisement for Alabama's program.
So guess where next year's national tournament will be? That's correct. Tuscaloosa.
Who says kids these days don't like to read? Express players were more than happy to read the subtitles of Shottas, a 2002 Jamaican gangster flick in which the actors speak almost entirely in Patois. They also want to know why co-star Spragga Benz didn't win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
The bus ride on the first day was long; eight hours from Hollywood, Fla., to Tallahassee, Fla., then almost three more from Tallahassee to Milton, Fla. As we left Florida State, the players weren't exactly thrilled about the idea of more time on the bus. But once Shottas appeared on the screen, complaints ceased.
I learned more Patois from the movie than I learned in two trips to Jamaica. Unfortunately, it was a gangster movie, so my Patois-speaking ability is limited pretty much to swearing. (By the way, Jamaicans with phlebitis must get very offended when they go to the doctor. Don't understand? Click the link above and check the B section of the glossary.)
I worried about how Plantation (Fla.) High linebacker Ryan Shazier would fare in the Fastest Man portion of the tournament's skills competition after he downed 18 ribs earlier in the day at Tuscaloosa's Dreamland Barbecue. I really worried when, after we pulled into our hotel, Shazier sprinted off the bus and into the bathroom.
The fears proved unfounded. Shazier, a 206-pounder who projects as a linebacker in college, blew past everyone in his position group and finished second overall. Later, he said he thinks he can run the 40-yard dash in the 4.3-second range.
So maybe ribs are Shazier's personal rocket fuel. Who knew? If Shazier winds up at the NFL's scouting combine after his college career, he'll know the surest way to prepare to run his way to millions: find a good barbecue joint.