Two elite high school football recruits from Southwest Florida’s class of 2017 are headed to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon on Thursday to participate in The Opening Finals, a national showcase featuring the best 166 football prospects in the country.
“It’s just a blessing,” said North Fort Myers rising senior Zaquandre White, a Florida State University commit and four-star recruit. “Only the top few in the country get to go.”
“Just astonished to be picked,” said Fort Myers rising senior Darrian Felix, a three-star athlete who was invited to the event in June. “It’s a great feeling knowing all the hard work I put in was rewarded with an invitation.”
The four-day event, held at Nike’s headquarters and produced by Student Sports, a grassroots marketing organization, will measure prospect’s physical abilities as well as challenge their football IQ on the field during a 7-on-7 competition.
Nearly 166,000 athletes from 14 regional events held across the country were whittled down to 166 invitees.
No Southwest Florida player has ever participated or been invited to the camp previously.
“This is something that, over the last handful of years, has changed the face of high school football,” Fort Myers coach Sam Sirianni Jr. said. “If you’re fortunate enough to have an athlete like Darrian, you support him, because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Originally handed a ticket in March following a regional combine in Miami, White was one of just 12 running backs across the nation chosen to participate.
“When you’re a national level talent, just a chance to go out and compete with the best in the country, it’s not only a privilege but a great honor,” North Fort Myers head coach Earnest Graham said.
The 6-foot, 203-pound running back finished with the fourth-best prospect rating at his combine at American Heritage High School, measuring with a 4.58 second 40-yard dash, a 4.24 second shuttle run and a 41-inch vertical leap.
Almost instantly, he received his invitation.
“The biggest thing is his versatility on offense,” said Corey Bender, a high school football analyst for Scout.com who works the state of Florida. “He really gets out of the backfield, has size and has reliable hands. He has good vision and can be a three-down running back who can get in between the tackles.”
Felix, however, had to wait.
The Green Wave running back participated in the very first Nike Opening regional event in February and produced its highest rating that day, measuring in with a 4.56 second 40-yard dash, a 4.09 second shuttle run and a combine-best 43-inch vertical jump.
“He’s a fleet-footed back with good change of direction,” Bender said. “He has nice footwork and what I like most about him is his versatility.”
But the invitation didn’t come so quickly.
The 5-foot-11, 194-pound all-purpose athlete, who has offers from Oregon, Auburn, Tennessee and Miami, was put on a waiting list as other combines took place across the country.
Eventually, he was selected as one of 10 “athletes,” otherwise known as versatile players who can fit into multiple positions, by officials in June.
That process was confusing, Sirianni said.
“I believe he earned the right to be there,” Sirianni said. “I had a conversation with some people wondering whether he was snubbed. If you have the top rating in the country and you win the combine, shouldn’t you get invited?”
But Sirianni also said he understood the process was an inexact science.
“I know it’s not just the results,” he said. “But I also know Darrian is excited and now he’s considered a sleeper who could do very well.”
On June 29, in fact, Bleacher Report published a report of the top 10 sleepers to watch at the camp. Felix was No. 1 on the list.
Felix and White will leave Southwest Florida on Thursday with a parent. While the event provides accommodations and meals, players and their families pay their way to Oregon.
“I’m excited to go so I can build friendships with future teammates,” said Felix, who will take an unofficial visit to the University of Oregon after competition ends. “You never know what schools you might end up at.”
The trip itself will represent not only White’s first cross country flight, but his first experience on a plane.
“I’m scared of planes,” he said. “That’s my worst fear.”
But once on the football field, he said, those fears diminish.
“Once you get on the field, it’s a totally different demeanor,” he said.
White, who committed to the Seminoles as a sophomore and remains firm in those plans, said his biggest adjustment this off season has come from a shift of thinking.
“I think I’ve progressed on my attitude toward football,” said White, who was involved in an on-the-field skirmish to begin his junior season. “I’m just trying to have the right state of mind and I’m trying to grind every day.”
Both recruits, the top two players in Southwest Florida for the incoming Class of 2017, will get a chance to raise their profiles even more in Oregon.