By Jeff Balke
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By Angelica Leicht
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By Craig Malisow
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It was February 2010, and Lane Kiffin had just taken over the reins of the University of Southern California program. As its brand-new head coach, on the heels of the Pete Carroll Era, Kiffin was tasked with maintaining and building upon one of the most successful eras in school history.
Having been the offensive coordinator under Carroll during some of the Trojans' most prolific years, including 2004, when USC won a national championship with Heisman-winning quarterback Matt Leinart, Kiffin knew what "good" looked like at the quarterback position.
Quarterback guru Steve Clarkson, who to this day is still the private skills coach for numerous decorated passers (including Leinart), sent Kiffin an uploaded highlight video of his most recent young pupil, an East Coast kid named David Sills.
Kiffin was smitten from the time he hit PLAY.
For his age, Sills's footwork, his form, his poise were all off the charts, so much so that Kiffin called Clarkson back 30 minutes after getting the link to tell him he was ready to offer Sills a scholarship on the spot. That's all it took — a few good snaps on YouTube were Sills's gateway to a six-figure private education.
Oh, did I mention Sills's age in that footage? He was 13 years old.
As you might imagine, Sills and his family happily gave a verbal commitment to Kiffin, and the rest was the beginning of a jagged history that's still being written to this day.
You don't have to be a hotshot quarterback recruit (or male, for that matter) to understand the unpredictability of hormones and personal growth.
Think back to when you were in eighth grade, and then think back to the person you ultimately became when you were 18 or 19 years old. I would imagine those two images represent two very different people.
Physically, emotionally, maybe even academically.
Now take the most physically vicious sport, and in the case of Sills, the most mentally demanding position in that sport, and imagine trying to project how a scrawny, barely pubescent teenager will stand up in the face of Alabama's pass rush in six or seven years.
Now imagine Lane Kiffin trying to make that projection.
College football recruiting is already a glorified crapshoot, essentially a game of talent-evaluation blackjack. Offering scholarships to eighth-graders? Well, that's blackjack with both of the dealer's cards face down.
How will the kid develop physically from 14 to 18? How will the kid do academically? How will he adjust socially? Will he still like football at age 18?
These are all variables that are almost impossible to forecast in a 12-month window, let alone a hormone-fueled 48- or 60-month window.
Recruiting is a wildly unpredictable process that's been given a voyeuristic center stage by the Internet, our 24-hour news cycle and the sports bloodlust of college football fans. It's bad enough that high school senior football players catch hundreds of Twitter bullets from anonymous web knuckleheads when they verbally commit to the "wrong" school.
When it's 14-year-olds catching heat from strangers over their commitment, it's downright creepy.
Yet within recruiting, despite how plain wrong Kiffin's 2010 offer to Sills felt at the time, it was more of a harbinger than a punch line.
"You used to hear of a school every once in a while [offering eighth-graders], but it generally happened when the prospect had some sort of ties to the school, like a father or older brother that was a star at the school," says Rob Sellers, longtime publisher and recruiting expert for Rivals.com, the gold-standard website for recruiting "command centrals" that cater to rabid college football fans.
"Over the last couple of years, though, it's started to happen more with kids who simply excel in their age group."
Take Dylan Moses, for example.
Moses is a 6-foot-2, 220-pound beast of a running back who runs a 4.46 40-yard dash. Hailing from Baton Rouge, Moses plays his high school football in the shadows of Tiger Stadium and grew up watching LSU football.
Moses just finished his freshman year of high school, and has already been verbally committed to Les Miles's Tigers for nearly a year.
Miles was one of a handful of major college coaches to offer a scholarship to Moses in the eighth grade after a YouTube video of his youth football exploits began making its viral rounds on the Internet. In the footage, Moses was a certifiable monster, a Sasquatch in pads who looked as if he were choke-slamming the entire Culkin family.
The challenge for LSU with a kid like Moses isn't so much whether he will grow. He's already grown. It's how he will grow.
"Moses is a tremendous athlete, but he's already on the high end of size for a running back. No one really knows what he will grow into yet," Sellers says.
The college football graveyard is full of stud high school running backs who grew into average to below-average defensive ends or linebackers. In this game of roulette, even the surest of things is one big walking question mark.
This practice of offering kids scholarships three years before they can even drive hasn't grown roots in the Houston area quite yet, but Sellers says it's coming.