Decade after national breakthrough, 7-on-7 all-star events still rub some coaches the wrong way

Photo: Butch Dill, USA Today

Decade after national breakthrough, 7-on-7 all-star events still rub some coaches the wrong way

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Decade after national breakthrough, 7-on-7 all-star events still rub some coaches the wrong way

Adidas held what is considered first national 7-on-7 football championship in 2007 and the sport has grown exponentially since. Over the past 10 years, scores of big-time corporate players got into the act, including every major athletic shoe company.

While 7-on-7 has become a common part of the high school football landscape, all-star 7-on-7 events still cause friction between high school coaches, players, and event organizers. High school coaches don’t want their sport to become like high school basketball, where AAU events hold more sway with elite recruits than their regular high school seasons and outside parties involved with spring and summer basketball have a major impact on recruiting.

Earlier this month, five players from St. Augustine (San Diego) were dismissed from the school’s football team because they broke team rules by participating in all-star 7-on-7 events. After two team meetings, the players were allowed to return to the team, but with penalties that included preventing them from being seen when college coaches visit St. Augustine, and a suspension from the team’s first scrimmage and first fall game. Then, after discussions with parents, Principal James Horne intervened and the penalties were lifted.

One of the four players initially dismissed is the son of former Major League Baseball all-star David Justice, wide receiver-defensive back R.J. Justice. To David Justice, the decision to dismiss players went overboard.

“OK, they broke a team rule,” Justice said. “I played professional sports, I understand team rules. Make them clean your office, make them get a trash bag and clean up around the school. Make them run extra. But if you’re saying, if they play 7-on-7, they won’t be able to play their senior year, you put us in a predicament, because these schools could take away a son’s future. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”

St. Augustine coach Richard Sanchez, while not naming the players he suspended, said his rule was there to prevent injury and the influence of outsiders who may not have his players’ best interests at heart.

“I allow kids to do camps if it makes sense,” Sanchez said. “But with these 7-on-7 teams, you’re just letting people into the program to influence kids and some of these people don’t have an educational background. You want to protect your kids and it’s hard to protect them if you don’t control the situation.”

Sanchez said the scholarship opportunities for 7-on-7 are overblown.

“In the past, these guys who are playing 7-on-7 and get offers already have offers,” he said. “These coaches don’t look at film in 7-on-7. They don’t care how you play when you’re playing in your underwear. “

Players, coaches cite recruiting benefits to events

College football coaches, per NCAA rules, are not allowed to attend 7-on-7 events. However, that doesn’t prevent players from sending video of their performances to coaches and the events are well attended by various recruiting services.

St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale) football coach Roger Harriott said the all-star 7-on-7 teams can be divisive and effective.

“All-star 7-on-7 teams have become a source of contention for some interscholastic high school coaches and an invaluable blessing on those who benefit from its ability to enhance the intercollegiate recruiting process,” Harriott texted. “The truth is participants are procuring actual attention from college coaches by way of various media and recruiting sources that give detailed reports on individual performances.”

St. Thomas Aquinas head coach Roger Harriott sees 7on7 tournaments as divisive but effective (Photo: Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports Images)

There are several reasons why 7-on-7 keeps growing, including the players’ desire for more recruiting exposure.

“These kids are being offered scholarships out of 7-on-7 now,” Justice said. “My son had two offers on Jan. 2. He goes and plays for Premium L.A. and in a matter of two months, he has 23 offers now. That tells you the benefits of playing 7-on-7 if you want to get your kid exposure in today’s game.”

Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) football coach Bruce Rollinson, while initially against 7-on-7 all-star events, has changed his mind, with reservations.

“I was in that other camp for years,” Rollinson said. “I would say, ‘Don’t do it. I’m against it. You’ll get hurt and then you’re going to want us to rehab you because your club coach doesn’t have those facilities. You’re spending money.’ All those things that are still semi-wrong with it.”

Then, about four years ago, Rollinson said he asked his players why they were going against his advice to play in the 7-on-7 events.

“The first answer every kid gave is, ‘Coach, we get to play football on the weekends.’ I thought about that and I thought about myself. When I was in high school, I would play football, any day, any night, on the beach, on the street, if someone wanted to play. … The No. 2 reason was, maybe we could get some additional exposure and No. 3, they liked the gear they got. In essence, I couldn’t fight this battle.”

Two years ago, Rollinson began coaching his players in 7-on-7 events, as a club team not affiliated with Mater Dei, so they could compete as a unit against all-star teams.

“I became part of the parade,” Rollinson said. “I was right in there with all of these all-star teams and we’ve had success the last two years, probably because of conditioning and discipline. I’ve seen everything that’s bad about it, but I’m just not going to fight that battle. Why should I be against a kid going out and playing football?”

Programs try to work with high school coaches

Jwan Banks, coaches the Metro VA Trained 2 Go, the No. 2-ranked all-star team in the National 7V7 Football Association (NFA). Banks said it is important for 7-on-7 coaches to keep good relations with high school coaches.

“We always tell kids that their first priority is with their high school teams,” Banks said. “We work with a lot of the high schools, so it’s not a big deal. The kids are getting more reps against competition, so it helps them in the long run. We have a couple of coaches here who don’t really like it. People view it as a recruiting thing, but I’ve never recruited a kid or swayed him toward a certain school.”

The Midwest Boom, a 7-on-7 organization that operates in Chicago and St. Louis, won the last year’s NFA national championship at IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) and the Pylon National title in Dallas. J.R. Niklos, a former NFL fullback and general manager of the Midwest Boom, said the group can usually win over high school coaches to the advantages of having their players play for an elite 7-on-7 team.

“We’ve invited coaches to come to our practice,” Niklos said. “All of our coaches have coached in the pros or college, so there’s a good resume underneath us. Coaches may have their feelings prior, but then they see our practice, which is highly organized, with stations, and individual and group periods. They see how structured it is and the elite level that is at our practices.”

Niklos said he does his best to show doubters that 7-on-7 works with, not against, high school football.

“We’ll still get the coaches who will forbid their players from playing (7-on-7),” Niklos said. “I don’t understand it at all. We practice only on Sundays. We encourage them to play baseball and run truck. We’re very flexible with other sports. … It’s not like AAU basketball or club soccer that can fully replace high school sports. We could never do that. It’s 7-on-7, it’s never going to replace high school football. We’re a supplement.”

There are several states where coaches have tried to adjust to 7-on-7 by forming high school-based team tournaments. USA Football held the first national 7-on-7 tournament last summer purely for high school teams and is holding four national 7-on-7 series events this July. Texas has had a state 7-on-7 championship every summer since 1998. California has several team-based passing leagues for 7-on-7.

St. Augustine’s R.J. Justice got his first scholarship offer last June while playing for his high school team in the San Diego State Passing Tournament, a one-day 7-on-7 event. On June 10, Justice and his teammates, including the rest of the St. Augustine players whose suspensions were lifted, again will compete in the event as a team.

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