Kevin Plank, the former Maryland football walk-on who founded Under Armour, didn't seem concerned on Saturday that the U.S. Army All-American Bowl had a seven-year head start on the fledgling Under Armour All-America game.
"It couldn't have gone any smoother," Plank said before the first Under Armour game kicked off at Walt Disney World's Wide World of Sports. "And the one thing that's certain is that Year 2 will be better than Year 1. If there is any competition out there, then players will be choosing to be a part of this game."
Meanwhile, in San Antonio, the U.S. Army game was about to kick off for the eighth year. The game had the nation's top prospect, Jeannette (Pa.) dual-threat quarterback Terrelle Pryor, and an audience on NBC ready to see blue-chippers pick hats from a table to announce their college choices.
So was Plank boasting or making an accurate prediction? The market can support two premiere high school all-star games. The line between recruitniks and run-of-the-mill fans continues to blur, and college fans will take their football fix any way they can get it. (Raise your hand if you at least peeked at the GMAC Bowl.) But who will get the best players?
Though the reasons may sound somewhat trivial, the educated guess is that the Under Armour game, which is in partnership with ESPN, will siphon more talent from the Army game next year. High school football players, for the most part, want to be on TV, and they don't want to wear Russell.
The Under Armour game (broadcast on ABC) used the same three-hat routine for players to announce their commitments, but it managed to get more air time by broadcasting practices on ESPNU during the week and a skills competition on ESPN2 the preceding day. The U.S. Army game may as well have been an NBC infomercial for Notre Dame -- 14 Fighting Irish commitments -- but it was less a made-for-TV event. At least the fans at the Alamodome could see the game. At Disney, the bleachers were so low that fans couldn't see over the players on the sidelines. But it looked good on television, and that's all that matters these days.
The U.S. Army game has some built-in advantages. It has history, a great venue and a heavily attended junior combine that allows recruiting Web sites to identify the top prospects in the next year's class. But it also has some weaknesses that the Under Armour game has already tried to exploit.
The first is exposure. NBC posted some interviews on its Web site but did little else leading up to the game. ESPN, on the other hand, needs fresh content to feed its TV/radio/Internet monster. So the players get to be on TV, and everybody's happy -- especially the UCLA fan who can sit in his boxers and watch eight future Bruins run through drills.
The second is gear. During his booster circuit speeches three years ago, Florida coach Urban Meyer crowed about how much effort his players would give if they knew there was a pair of mesh shorts or a new T-shirt in store for them if they met certain goals. He wasn't exaggerating. Teenage boys love gear, and they are brand-sensitive.
On Saturday an Under Armour employee bragged that players in his game were sending cell phone photos of their uniforms to friends playing in the U.S. Army game, which outfits its players in less desirable Russell Athletic uniforms. Organizers of both games must adhere to fairly strict NCAA rules regarding how much gear they can give each player, but the swag bag each player at the Under Armour game took home had a personalized practice jersey, several T-shirts, shorts, sweatbands and sets of warm-weather and cold-weather under-uniform gear.
It may not sound like much, but when the invitations go out next year, you might see more top players forgetting the Alamo and going to Disney World.
Despite all the recent turmoil in Tallahassee, Virginia Beach (Va.) Bayside quarterback E.J. Manuel remains firmly committed to Florida State. Manuel said Saturday that despite the academic scandal that could force dozens of his future teammates to miss the first three games of next season, he still intends to sign with the Seminoles next month. The only news that gave Manuel a moment's pause, he said, was the possibility that FSU offensive coordinator and head coach-elect Jimbo Fisher might leave to become West Virginia's coach.
"I definitely called [Fisher] when I saw it on SportsCenter [late last month]," Manuel said Saturday after the Under Armour game.
Manuel said he wasn't terribly worried, but he needed to talk to Fisher just in case. "In the back of my mind, of course, I've got to think," he said. "You never know what could happen."
Fisher, who had spent the Sunday before Christmas contemplating West Virginia's offer, told Manuel he wasn't going anywhere. Fisher's decision to stay may also have kept Manuel from looking elsewhere. "If he had left," Manuel said, "I would have taken my visits."
Dayton (Ohio) Northmont offensive lineman Zebrie Sanders came to the Under Armour game set to announce a commitment to Florida or Georgia. The 6-foot-6, 275-pounder had hoped to commit on ABC like Josh Jarboe, a Decatur, Ga. receiver who picked Oklahoma over Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. But a pair of phone calls changed the plan.
"I was supposed to commit today," Sanders said after the game. "I called Florida up and I called Georgia up. Coach Meyer and [Georgia] coach [Mark] Richt both told me that right now wouldn't be the right time."
This came on the same day that the Gators got a commitment from Seffner (Fla.) Armwood High offensive lineman Matt Patchan and Louisville (Ga.) Jefferson County lineman A.J. Harmon switched his commitment from Clemson to Georgia during the U.S. Army game.
So what gives? Why would the schools take those commitments and not one from Sanders?
This could be a "slow play," meaning Florida and Georgia coaches are encouraging Sanders to wait as they sort out their scholarship numbers and determine if they have room for him in their classes. NCAA rules allow schools to bring in only 25 new players a year, and some may not even have enough open scholarships to sign that many. So Sanders will wait until Sunday before announcing his final decision.
"Now I'm sort of thinking," Sanders said. "Maybe I should open it up a little bit more. I'm definitely committing Jan. 13. Coach Meyer is going to come to my house."
If the identity of his house guest is any indication of his first choice, it means Sanders may start a family rivalry. His mother, Ulanda, has a computer science degree from Georgia.
Of course, if the Gators don't have a scholarship, the Bulldogs still might. After committing in San Antonio, Harmon told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he is "kinda sure about Georgia" and may still consider Clemson.