- Former Stanford star Christian McCaffrey and former LSU star Leonard Fournette aroused controversy with their decisions to skip bowl games at the end of last season. Will high school players follow in their footsteps?
When Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette opted to skip their teams’ bowl games at the end of the 2016 season, fearing injury right before the start of their professional careers, critics said it would hurt their draft stock.
Try again. Not only did Fournette (No. 4 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars) and McCaffrey (No. 8 to the Carolina Panthers) get picked early in the first round, but they are likely to have started a trend that we’ll see more and more in college football.
What I want to know: Will we see a trickle down effect with high school football? Could a high-level high school prospect decide to sit out an all-star game for fear of getting injured before he heads off to college? Would a college coach ever encourage a prospect to stay on the sidelines of a showcase event? Are highly ranked prospects going to skip 7-on-7 tournaments because they’re worried about injury? Could a player potentially sit out games during the regular season of his senior year of high school for the same reason?
Players probably won’t sit out regular-season games (unless a severe injury occurs). But sitting out big-time all-star contests, which don’t really affect players’ recruitments, might be the next logical step. To dig deeper, I called representatives from the two most prestigious all-star games out there: The U.S. Army All-American Bowl and the Under Armour All-American game.
Both reps I spoke to said they’ve never had a kid directly turn down an invitation to play due to fear of injury. Typically they say no because they’re playing in the other game (due to schedules, big-time prospects typically play in either the Army bowl or the Under Armour game, plus their local all-star showcase). Occasionally two-sport athletes will decline invites because they don’t want to miss basketball games. John Schmid, who has worked with the U.S. Army All-American Bowl for 11 years, says he is careful when talking with prospects who have suffered a major injury during their senior season because “we don’t want them making the Army All-American Bowl their rehab assignment.”
“We haven’t had a kid say that directly, but if a kid doesn’t want to participate, that’s their choice and we respect it and honor it,” Schmid said. “If we do see that trend, we’ll discuss it. But for us, most college coaches support their kids playing in the game.”
“Playing in these games, it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience,” says Steve Flaherty, who works with the Under Armour game. “For our game, it’s not just about the gear, but about the alumni base we have, too. We’ve had Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Jameis Winston Jadeveon Clowney—it’s pretty cool to put your name in that category.”
If anything, Flaherty says, we might see more all-star showcases in the coming years. This year, Under Armour has expanded its game to include the UA Camp Series, a series of 10 one-day camps around the country featuring the top-150 prospects in a given region. Flaherty calls it “a direct extension of the game.” It gives UA coaches and evaluators an opportunity to see recruits up close, and it gives younger kids an opportunity to show off their skills. UA has included middle school camps in the nationwide tour, a necessity in a sport where “it’s just amazing how early kids are getting offered, how early colleges are talking to them, how skilled and mature they are at an early age,” Flaherty says.
“There are so many talented kids throughout the country,” he says. “There’s room for even more games.”
We won’t know for awhile if this will become a major trend. But anyone contemplating sitting out a big-time game because they’re scared would be wise to listen to Stanford coach David Shaw, who has been talking about this issue a lot in the wake of McCaffrey’s decision.
“Someone said something that was really interesting: If you want to be a football player, you play football,” Shaw said. “Saying, ‘This game is not important to me, I don’t need it’ is different than saying, ‘I don’t need [this game] to further my career.’”
So for now, we wait—while watching the next up-and-coming sixth grader.
Welcome to the second week of our new recruiting column, which I have affectionately dubbed the Recruiting Roundup because I love alliteration. Each week I’ll bring you a variety of recruiting-related items, including a topper on a particular person or trend, a Q&A with someone involved in the recruiting world, a news-y item so you can be in the know and a look back/update on a recruiting story from the last 15 years or so since we started following this whole craze. Of course, I want to hear what YOU want to read about so at any time, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jokes and recipes appreciated, too. Click here for last week's installment.
Q&A with Yogi Roth, Pac-12 analyst, Elite 11 coach, former USC assistant and documentarian extraordinaire
SI: A lot of people find recruiting exhausting and complicated to follow. You seem energized by it. Why is that?
Roth: If you’re a college coach, you’re building your roster. When I was at USC, other coaches around the conference would talk about, “It’s really hard, recruiting has changed so much, it’ really frustrating.” But we looked at it differently—building your team, how exciting is that? And look at the big picture. Just in the Pac-12, Stanford changed the game in recruiting. Suddenly you could be smart AND one of the top players in America. USC changed the game because of the competitive depth on its roster. Chris Petersen at Washington, he’s changing the game because he’s not going to have any crazy last-minute moves. But then you have schools that do finish with a flurry, and have a brand for that, like Oregon. It’s really exciting to look around the conference, and the country, and see different styles of recruiting.
SI: Many college football fans are obsessed with their teams’ recruits, especially those teams' future quarterbacks. Why do you think fans love thinking into the future so much, especially when, No. 1, they often already have a good quarterback and, No. 2, we’re not sure how these quarterbacks will develop as college athletes?
Roth: College football has become 24/7. The beauty of the game is that it continues to grow. Media exposure has increased but also, people realize it’s the ultimate team sport. There is not a comparison. In basketball, you can have a couple good players and have a chance. In baseball, you can have a dominant pitcher and have a chance. In soccer, you can have a great goalie and a couple guys who can move the ball. But in football, on every snap, you need the majority of your guys to do their job well to have a chance … and as the game grows and evolves, and kids get looked at and evaluated younger and younger, you want, as a fan, to learn who these guys are even earlier.
SI: You used to be a college assistant, and you worked with Pete Carroll, one of the most charismatic people in football. What was the most valuable thing he taught you about recruiting?
Roth: Wow. Well, he is the best listener I’ve ever been around, so you can imagine going in someone’s home and connecting with them. I think the best thing about him is his core, and his core is based on competition. He told every student athlete they’d have a chance to play from day 1. And after signing day, we’d have this tradition where we’d have a team meeting and show off all the highlights from the incoming class. That would get the guys hot. They’d be yelling, “He can’t play!” “He ain’t taking my job!” But then Pete would say, “Hey, I told him he’s getting reps with the 1s right away.” What happened is, we allowed our players to prove if they were ready or not, based on the opportunity all of them got. Pete was honest with kids in their living rooms, then they’d show up on campus and he’d let them do it, let them try. That’s what made him an anomaly. Pete Carroll changed the game because now everybody talks about competition in recruiting.
SI: You work every summer with the top quarterbacks in the country through the Elite 11 competition. What one lesson do you hope those guys take away it?
Roth: We start each year with the same sentence: you either love what the game does for you, or you love the game. And we hope when you leave, you walk out and understand that the position (of quarterback) has gravitas that can not only change their lives but change a locker room, change a culture, change a community. Trent (Dilfer) has this great phrase: Embrace the burden of influence. If you want to play this position, there’s good and bad that comes with it. What we try to do is make sure they’re aware they’ve got a beautiful opportunity to impact people. We want them to realize what the power of the jersey and the position can do. Our question every year is, can we influence the influencers to impact the masses?
SI: If you could tell every college football prospect in the country one thing, what would it be?
Roth: We all know the numbers about how few college kids go to the NFL, right? Well I would tell them to remember that, and pick a university where they can evolve as a young man, not just a player … Clearly playing is a huge part of it—roster, depth chart, crowd size, all that. But really, college is a safe haven where you can grow from a young man into a real man in four to five years. So don’t make your choice solely based on your position coach.
Ten years ago, when Alabama persuaded then-Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban to leave the NFL behind and take over in Tuscaloosa, the hire was met with jubilation. The Tuscaloosa News’ banner headline told readers it was, “SABAN TIME” and hundreds of fans greeted him at the airport. Then-athletic director Mal Moore said Saban’s hiring, “signifies a new era of Crimson Tide football.”
The same could be said last week, when Alabama announced that Saban was getting a raise, and in the 2017 season would make a staggering $11 million. Saban signed a contract extension, and got a $4 million signing bonus, which means his salary won’t stay that high.
Still, it’s an incredible figure. His success speaks for itself, though. And, as Moore predicted, it didn’t take long for the new era to start. The five years prior to Alabama hiring Saban, the Crimson Tide never signed a top-10 recruiting class. In fact, the highest-ranked class they had came in 2005, at No. 16. Saban’s first recruiting class at Alabama—which was technically the 2007 class, though he’d only been on campus about a month—wasn’t much better, ranking No. 22. But in 2008, after Saban’s first full recruiting cycle, the Tide shot up to No. 1. Since Saban’s hiring, Alabama has brought in the No. 1 or No. 2 recruiting class in the nation a whopping SEVEN times. That includes three of the last four years. (In 2015, the Crimson Tide finished second behind USC.)
This is why you often hear coaches say recruiting is the biggest/most important part of the job. It’s also where you can get the most payoff—literally.