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Prep football’s version of AAU creates opportunities for players, some argue, and animosity from its detractors

By: Scott Burnstein, April 28, 2015, 7:40 pm

    The emergence of 7-on-7 offseason football, a genuine phenomenon in the nationwide college recruiting scene in the past decade or so, has also become a lightning-rod subject, eliciting firm opinions from players and coaches around Metro Detroit on its benefits and drawbacks.

    Akin to AAU basketball, 7-on-7 is a non-sanctioned travel and training entity, and is privately funded. Teams compete in the offseason, mainly in the spring and summer. Essentially it’s touch football in helmets staged in a competitive format, similar to summer high school passing camps but the latter doesn’t cost the student-athlete anything more than what he or she is obligated to pay (pay-to-participate, for example) as a member of that high school program.  

   The trend began in the early 2000s in the southern states and out west until gradually making its way to Michigan and other Midwest and east coast states.

    The Michigan Elite Football Network, co-owned by George Yarberry and retired professional players and high school assistant coaches Mill Coleman and Ron Rice, was the first local club to pop up in 2009. Coleman (Farmington Hills Harrison) played collegiately at Michigan State and in the NFL with the Chicago Bears; Rice (U-D Jesuit) at Eastern Michigan and the Detroit Lions.

    Since the formation of the Michigan Elite six years ago, other like-minded organizations around the state have arisen, most prominently Maximum Exposure and Rising Stars.   

    Although college coaches can’t attend the series of 7-on-7 tournaments held across the country in the spring and summer months, scouting services and the media can, leading to the reporting of which players are excelling and often resulting in college scholarship offers from Division I programs based almost solely on performances at these tournaments and other showcase events that don’t have individual high school or Michigan High School Athletic Association participation.

    A significant difference between AAU basketball and 7-on-7 football is money. The cost of participating in AAU is minimal at best. Often players are afforded shoes plus free travel, meals and lodging. With 7-on-7, players and their families often fork over hundreds of dollars per offseason training and touring cycle.

   Yarberry views one of the biggest positives of 7-on-7 in this area is the leveling of the playing field when it comes to recruiting. One must bear in mind that many southern and west coast based prep prospects are afforded the benefit of participating in spring football.

   “This is all about getting kids the most exposure as possible, (and) getting them scholarships to college,” he said. “Before 7-on-7s came to this area, we were hearing from college coaches, yeah, you’ve got great athletes in Michigan, but they’re not polished and we can’t see them go up against elite competition. Well, now we can take a group of kids down to a tournament in Florida and they’re being tested against all (Southeastern Conference) recruits.”

   The tournament schedule is far from the only point of emphasis for Yarberry’s Michigan Elite.

    "The focus is really more on the training to get to that point when you’re in front of the coaches (one-day college camps) and the scouts in the summer, not as much as the tournaments themselves," he said. "We’re all about preparation and refining technique and providing these kids the tools to shine at the right time.”

    Orchard Lake St. Mary’s sophomore receiver K.J. Hamler received his Michigan State scholarship offer last summer from his 7-on-7 effort without having played a single snap on the Eaglets’ varsity yet.

    “It helped a lot in my recruiting process,” said Hamler, a speedy 5-foot-9, 155-pound slot specialist of his 7-on-7 experience. “There are reporters and scouts that attend those tournaments and workouts and what they write holds a lot of weight with coaches. These things can gets you those looks you might not otherwise get.”

    Hamler proved more than worthy of his pre-varsity hype, breaking out as a star pass-catcher for St. Mary’s 2014 Division 3 state championship squad last fall and currently boasting over a half-dozen scholarship offers (Michigan State, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pitt and San Diego State among them), with more on the horizon.

    Southfield junior running back Matt Falcon (6-1, 225) who recently committed to Michigan is the owner of over 20 scholarship offers. He credits his four-star ranking, at least in part, to his 7-on-7 participation last offseason.

“Mostly, it helped get me ready for the camps where I had to perform well,” he said. “I think it was very useful to me in that aspect and that helped me get as many offers as I have.”

Some local high school coaches feel that 7-on-7s are deceiving when it comes to talent evaluation.”

    Oak Park coach Greg Carter does not approve of this brand of training. He said it doesn’t provide a realistic facsimile of the game he’s coached for over 30 years.  

    “I don’t like it a bit,” he said. “It’s not real football. A lot of kids can look good running around in gym shorts. People can make plays in that environment that can’t during live competition in the fall.”

     Carter, as well as many of his peers, say that increased specialization in youth sports can be bad.

    “We’re getting too specialized, whatever sport you play, the regular season is grueling, especially football, I believe you need a physical and mental break from it at some point,” he said. “I’m in favor of taking that time to participate in other school activities, get in the weight room more, play baseball. In my opinion those kind of activities serve them better.”

     Southfield coach Tim Conley, fresh of a trip to the Division 2 semifinals, echoes his border-rival’s sentiments.

    “We tell our kids to do a play, join the chess club, get involved in winter and spring sports,” he said. “Those things (7-on-7s) can sometimes be more hype than reality.”

     Walled Lake Western coach Mike Zdebski runs a program that hasn’t had a ton of kids go the 7-on-7 route. Instead, most stay “in-school” for their offseason activity, and still land scholarships.

    “We haven’t had a great deal of 7-on-7 kids,” Zdebski said. “We push them to play multiple sports and concentrate on learning to compete and skill develop no matter if you’re playing football, basketball, wrestling, power-lifting or baseball. I tell kids and their parents, get your money’s worth, don’t get caught up in someone telling you pay us this and we’ll get you this many stars for your ranking and this many looks. If you’re a real player, the offers are going to come regardless.”