Havon Finney Jr. has a decision to make. He can catch passes or he can defend them. He has enough speed to achieve separation or to close ground, and the much-prized ability to adjust to a ball in flight.
“He’s a fast kid,” said Mike Evans, the former University of Louisville defensive back. “His IQ is on another level. He has great hands, great instincts. I think he’s going to be a defensive back. He’s a great receiver, but I think he’ll be a Division I cornerback.”
In the frantic race to establish ever-earlier recruiting inroads, Finney is the pint-sized embodiment of college football’s progressively premature extrapolation. Unofficially the youngest recipient of a college football scholarship offer – extended last month by the University of Nevada — Finney already owns an Instagram following of 21,000 and the unenviable burden of possibly peaking in fourth grade.
He is the latest preteen prodigy to emerge from Evans’ Southern California training program called Laced Facts, which previously produced Bunchie Young, a 10-year-old reportedly targeted by the University of Illinois. And though these long-range scholarship offers are non-binding, and the coaches making them may be working at different schools when their promises come due, the competition to establish early claims to elite talent continues to intensify.
At least since former USC coach Lane Kiffin offered a scholarship to 13-year-old quarterback David Sills in 2010, college coaches in numerous sports have repeatedly reset recruiting’s limbo bar to see how low (young) they can go. Three years ago, the University of Maine obtained a verbal commitment from seventh-grade hockey player Oliver Wahlstrom. Former Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson reportedly offered a scholarship to Matt Carlino in the third or fourth grade, though Carlino would not graduate from high school until three years after Olson retired.
“It’s a little comical,” University of Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino said Wednesday afternoon.”I think some of it is driven by certain coaches (who) want their name in the paper and, you know, saying, ‘Yeah, we offered this guy, he’s 8 years old.’ I don’t really get it.
“… One of the players we’ve recruited this year said, ‘Yeah, our high school had the top running back in the 2021 class.’ I’m thinking, ‘How would you possibly know who the top running back is in the 2021 class?’ … That’s the thing that I don’t get is how you make that statement. And I’m thinking, if I’m alive in 2021 (and) recruiting, I’m good.”
Yet while Petrino describes the early recruiting trend as “a little bit out there,” his program has been a willing participant. Two years ago, former U of L assistant Garrick McGee became the first college coach to offer a scholarship to seventh-grade quarterback Tee Webb of Carrollton, Georgia. Monday, Olmsted Academy eighth-grader Kiyaunta Goodwin tweeted that U of L had joined the Universities of Kentucky and Georgia in quasi-formal pursuit of his 350-pound frame.
Whether this kind of attention is healthy for impressionable and immature athletes — or for the coaches who court them — it is increasingly unavoidable. Those coaches who resist the pressure to forge relationships with grade-school athletes do so at the risk of losing them to rival schools. With basketball age-group rankings now available for first graders via middleschoolelite.com, the ground rules have never been less grounded in restraint.
NBA star LeBron James called it “crazy” that his son, LeBron Jr., had received scholarship offers by the age of 10, and says it “should be a violation” to be recruiting athletes so young. But though the NCAA Division I Council agreed in April to prohibit recruiting contact in men’s and women’s lacrosse until September 1 of a prospect’s junior year in high school, coaches in other sports are largely unconstrained.
The NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee recommended last week that coaches not contact prospective student-athletes before ninth grade, but specific legislation on that score remains limited.
Barring a formal ban, coaches can be expected to exploit any available opportunities to get in on the ground floor with promising players. Though recruits cannot sign a National Letter of Intent until their senior year in high school, coaches are sure to be selling whenever a window opens.
“It’s not crazy,” said Evans, a nickel back on Charlie Strong’s 2010 and 2011 U of L teams. “At 9 or 10, you can see what a kid is going to be. If you look at a Teddy (Bridgewater), an Eli Rogers, a Charles Gaines, a DeVante Parker — all these kids were great in Pop Warner. These dudes were Pop Warner legends.’’
Superior athletes often stand out soon after they can stand upright, and the competition to attract and promote them starts long before they take their first steps on a college campus. Prompted, at least in part, by parents chasing scholarship money, the NCSA recruiting service says more than 60,000 athletes have created profiles prior to entering high school. Rivals.com began tracking sixth-graders in 2015.
“Anything that helps kids want to get to college is positive,” Mike Evans said. “A lot of the kids we have come from the inner city. They know the streets. We want to get them away from that. A lot of our kids who have had offers have been in the facility more than they ever have (before). They dream about this thing forever. Then, for it to happen at a young age, that school has motivated them.”
Perhaps youth is wasted on the young. Plainly, recruiters are undeterred.