Rivals.com and the other recruiting sites won't release preliminary rankings for another few weeks, but college coaches already know the identities of some of the best players. They know about De'Anthony "Black Mamba" Thomas of Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, a 5-foot-9 speedster who might be more fun to watch on film than any player on the West Coast. They already know about Bubba Starling, a dual-threat quarterback from Gardner, Kan., who already has drawn interest from most of the Big 12. They know about Tampa, Fla., back James Wilder Jr., who won the MVP of the U.S. Army All-American Combine last month. They definitely know about Wayne Lyons, a safety from Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who has already received scholarship offers from most of the Top 25.
Most of these skill-position studs will hit football recruiting's version of the AAU circuit this spring. Last year, SI.com introduced you to a series of seven-on-seven tournaments that ape almost every key concept -- for better or for worse -- of the travel-ball circuit that runs college basketball recruiting. This year, travel football is only going to get bigger.
Late last month, more than 100 of the best high school players in South Florida converged on a field in Miami Beach to compete for 24 spots on the South Florida Express. The team will play in March at the Badger Sport Elite 7-on-7 Tournament in Tampa. Similar tryouts took place across the country as coaches assembled teams for Badger Sport events in Piscataway, N.J., Las Vegas, Knoxville, Tenn., and Ann Arbor, Mich. The players will have extra incentive to light up the scoreboard at this year's tournaments. Series founder Baron Flenory said his company would donate $1 to Haiti earthquake relief efforts for every point scored during the tournaments, and Flenory hopes to convince local sponsors at each stop to match the donation.
It's doubtful any of those tryouts -- with the possible exception of one an hour north in Boca Raton, Fla. -- could match the sheer talent level of the Miami Beach tryout. Only about 20 college programs can select from a talent pool as deep as the one available to South Florida Express coach Brett Goetz. At the tryout, quarterbacks Jerrard Randall (Hollywood, Fla.) and Teddy Bridgewater (Miami) showed off their arms while Lyons covered receivers such as Avery Johnson (Pompano Beach, Fla.). All are already known commodities with scholarship offers that have come from schools in the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Big East.
Though a football recruiting landscape that more closely mirrors basketball has its drawbacks, it does have a major plus. It allows off-the-radar players to prove themselves against elite competition.
At the Miami Beach tryout, Plantation (Fla.) High safety Jeremy Cash stood on the sideline. Cash, who has already received offers from Florida State, Miami, North Carolina and Ohio State, had decided not to try out for the Express, but he wanted to scout his competition for scholarship offers. "If you want a story," Cash said, pointing at a one-on-one pass coverage drill a few feet away, "write about him."
Cash had singled out a receiver who wore a backward cap bearing the word "Cinco." Cash explained that in the time he had watched the drill, no defender had successfully covered the kid with the backward cap. After a while, the defensive backs had to resort to tactics that would draw a pass interference call because they couldn't keep backward cap from getting open. Backward cap's name is A.J. Sebastiano. The receiver from tiny North Broward Prep in Coconut Creek, Fla., is nicknamed Cinco because he wears No. 5.
No one knew Sebastiano going into the tryout. By the end, he had made the team. Next month, he'll play in Tampa against the best skill position players in the South. If he plays well, the recruiting service reporters at the event will spread his name far and wide, and interest from colleges will pour in.
"At North Broward Prep, we're only Class 2B; we don't have many big names," said Sebastiano, who might be the only Class of 2011 recruit who has Bob Seger playing on his YouTube highlight video. "But I feel like coming out here, it's a diamond-in-the-rough effect. I feel like I can play with the best of them."
As the year goes on, we'll find out how Sebastiano stacks up against the rest of the stars in the class of 2011. Meanwhile, those stars will entertain offers from some schools and chase offers from others. In a little less than a year, Black Mamba, Bubba, Lyons and the rest will sign letters-of-intent. But that's the destination.
The fun part is the journey.