Unregulated high school football camps and combines proliferate as showcases for college recruitment

July 19, 2011

The start of high school football practice remains a few weeks away, yet many of the area’s top players have been spending their weekends at camps, combines and 7-on-7 passing tournaments across the region.

The proliferation of these unregulated events, many of which are promoted as showcases for college recruitment, has drawn the attention of the NCAA and left many high school coaches feeling marginalized. At least one prominent area college coach is calling for more regulation, and parents are also uncertain about which, if any, events to attend.

The proliferation of summer football showcases for high school players “has been a strain on us,” said Sue Kmetz, whose son, Colton, is a defensive end at Urbana, where he is a rising senior and holds scholarship offers from Pittsburgh and Kent State. “How do you determine which camps or combines you need to get to?”

Some are run by college football coaches who use the events to make money and as recruiting opportunities. Many operate with little oversight or regulation, raising questions about safety and whether they aid players in the recruiting process or simply put money in the pockets of organizers.

Among college and high school coaches and administrators, there is a sense that offseason football and its impact on college recruiting is becoming more like basketball, where unregulated third parties with their own interests have become vital players.

“That is some of the concern, where did we go wrong on the basketball side and try to stop it on the front end here,” said the NCAA’s Rachel Newman Baker, who shares oversight for investigations as managing director of enforcement.

Locally, two dozen members of the Maryland Football Coaches Association met with new University of Maryland Coach Randy Edsall in April, attempting to find ways to limit players’ participation in events such as combines run by third parties or all-star 7-on-7 teams traveling to tournaments around the country.

“It’s gotten out of hand,” Edsall said. “The biggest thing amongst us college coaches is we don’t want to see this turn into AAU basketball.”

In basketball, travel teams – commonly referred to as AAU teams, though not all participate in the Amateur Athletic Union – regularly criss-cross the country from April through August and beyond. In many instances, travel-team coaches play larger roles in college recruiting than a player’s high school coach.

“Look at what AAU has done to basketball,” Edsall said. “Talk to any basketball coach.”

High school coaches have to be certified, approved and hired by educational entities; summer-league coaches lack any central oversight or accountability.

Edsall and high school coaches said they are not against offseason training or passing leagues. The MFCA and several local coaches associations run their own combines — usually at lower costs, with only drills but no head-to-head competitions.

In recent years, however, other entities saw openings to create different activities. Instead of playing 11-on-11 with contact, 7-on-7 tournaments — sometimes called passing leagues — play like flag football and have gained in popularity. Combines can measure a player’s physical ability in a series of tests or drills, similar to the way the NFL holds an annual combine to judge college prospects.

Parents often pay money for these events — it costs $590 per player for a three-day event in Williamsburg this weekend, not including travel expenses — hoping to raise the recruiting profile of their prospective college player. However, the NCAA five years ago banned division I-A coaches from attending these events. The Southeastern Conference went one step further this spring, banning its schools from hosting 7-on-7 tournaments held by promoters not affiliated with a school.

Still, these events continue to multiply.

“Parents think this is a way to get a scholarship, but it’s a sham,” said Good Counsel Coach Bob Milloy, who has four players scheduled to attend the Top Gun all-star camp in Williamsburg. “The college coaches are against it. The NCAA is against it. But these kids are getting up and driving to [events in places like] Frederick with no real purpose to it. Ludicrous!”

Mel Kiper Jr., who made his name by compiling meticulous reports on NFL draft prospects before that event gained in popularity, this past winter partnered with Virginia businessman Jim Boone, founder of the company 7 on 7 University. The Mel Kiper Jr. 7on7U National Tournament Series conducted qualifying tournaments around the nation, culminating in this past weekend’s 24-team tournament at Poplar Park in Chantilly, with many teams from the Washington area, as well as teams from Iowa, Florida, Mississippi, New York, Arkansas and Delaware. Teams are composed of players from the same high school.

“When I started the draft reports, why? To make money,” Kiper said, making a point to say he will not evaluate players who participate in his tournaments. “I’m looking at it from a business standpoint. Strictly business. This is a great business opportunity for Mel Kiper Enterprises. That’s what we’re doing here.”

In Maryland, the Playmaker Recruiting Report, run by former DeMatha player Donnie Zimmerman, holds a series of camps and combines, including the Top Dawg Showcase at North Point High earlier this month in Waldorf. Zimmerman, whose business provides scouting services to college teams, also has an agreement to process the data from the MFCA’s own combine. Many high school coaches believe Zimmerman’s services are valuable because of his contacts with college coaches and because his events often bring coaches from the NCAA’s division I-AA, II and III.

The lack of regulation, however, has also raised safety concerns about some events. At a Northern Virginia event in March, Lamont Baldwin, a rising senior at Carroll, suffered a severe concussion and a fractured skull when he collided with two other players. Baldwin is at least two months away from being cleared to return to football, Carroll Coach Rick Houchens said.

“Ultimately, what we need to all keep in mind is what is best for the student-athlete, who is the person the student-athlete trusts who will actually provide them with good information and doesn’t have vested interests in that process,” Newman Baker said. “It’s an age-old problem in terms of people inserting themselves into the recruiting process.

“We definitely are looking at how these outside events play into the recruiting structure. . . . Interestingly enough, when we talk to parents and student-athletes at events, they enjoy going to them and the competition that is there.”

Indeed, most events have few problems filling their slots.

“Now they have them for eighth-graders or seventh-graders,” said John Kmetz, Colton’s father and the freshman football coach at Urbana. “It’s ridiculous. [Most] parents just don’t know what to do. You can easily drop five grand [that] amounts to nothing.”

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