Early Decisions: More College Coaches Are Getting Into Middle-School Recruiting
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.
"I haven't heard of it happening in the Houston area yet, but it's clearly just a matter of time with the talent base in the area," he says, alluding to the fact that, other than Los Angeles and Miami, no major metropolitan area stockpiles more future NFL players than Houston.
Sellers's Rivals.com database shows verbal offers out to class of 2018 recruits in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Louisville and Memphis, among other cities.
"It's happening in California, Florida and Louisiana, and it's happened elsewhere in Texas."
The most high-profile Texas eighth-grade commitment is, like Moses, committed to LSU. Zadock Dinkelmann of Somerset, in the San Antonio area, is a quarterback who has yet to take a high-school snap. However, he has two things going for him.
First, he's one of those freakish eighth-graders who are already 6-foot-4. Second, he's the nephew of 1990 Heisman winner Ty Detmer. Size and genes were enough for Miles to offer Dinkelmann. The lure of Baton Rouge was enough for Dinkelmann to commit.
Upon his nephew's commitment, Detmer said, "The pressure's really off at this point."
To the contrary, according to Sellers. Committing this early only amps up the pressure on a kid at an age when he's likely not equipped to handle it.
"When a kid that young commits to a school, the scrutiny and pressure to live up to the hype is crazy," Sellers contends. "You have to wonder how much of it being an actual game and having fun goes out the window when all of your peers and opponents know you as 'that kid who got offered by school X already.'"
Recruiting scrutiny is fueled by the negative side of human nature. Compliments turn into nitpicking, underrated becomes overrated.
"The biggest question that pops into my head every time I hear of these early offers is if the kid will even still like football four years down the road," Sellers says.
It's now June 2014.
Four years after committing to USC and Kiffin, David Sills is heading into his senior year at Maryland's Eastern Christian Academy. The scrawny kid in Steve Clarkson's 2010 uploaded YouTube video is now a young man.
The future All American that Lane Kiffin saw at age 13 has not developed as Kiffin had foreseen. Far from a blue chipper, Sills has become a decent but flawed high school quarterback, rated more highly by some than by others. (Sellers's Rivals.com site has Sills as one of the top 250 players nationally. Scout.com doesn't have him in its top 300.)
However, Kiffin's opinion of Sills doesn't really matter at this point. Kiffin was fired by USC in 2013.
The new staff at USC has no ties to Sills, no ties to his verbal commitment, underscoring the massive flaw in this whole process — the supposed "commitment" from Sills isn't binding on either side. Either the player or the school can change course at any time up until the player signs his letter of intent in February of his senior year.
The "offer" and "commitment" that so many high school players and college coaches are building their lives and teams around are, ironically, as flimsy as "going steady" in eighth grade.
Steve Sarkisian, Kiffin's replacement, is recruiting next year's class as if Sills barely exists. He recently secured a verbal commitment from five-star quarterback Ricky Town and has offers out to a handful of other senior signal callers.
The reality that Sills's commitment to USC has all the validity of a fifth-grade promise ring has set in.
Trampled by the whimsy of college football recruiting, not to mention the recklessness of attaching any part of one's future to the nomadic Kiffin, David Sills decommitted from USC on June 28.
Four years of "commitment" down the drain.
Sills will land somewhere eventually, likely a school far less prestigious than USC — maybe a little bit wiser, hardened by the fallout from a process that needs a major overhaul.
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