On any given weekend, from January to July, a football tournament featuring some of Arizona’s biggest high school stars is taking place at a sports complex somewhere.
These are guys with 5 stars next to their recruiting profiles. Guys like Scottsdale Saguaro cornerback Kelee Ringo and Tucson Salpointe Catholic running back Bijan Robinson or safety Lathan Ransom, who last Saturday in west Phoenix teamed up with 2020 Elite to win a Pylon regional championship trophy that was handed out by Pylon founder Baron Flenory.
Most high school coaches stay away. College coaches can’t attend. Parents are there in force.
But there is always someone videotaping spectacular plays and posting them on social media where the views grow in the thousands.
It’s not tackle. It’s 7-on-7 passing, and the Pylon events that Flenory began 13 years ago are a way to pit all-star teams from various states to play in showcase regional and national tournaments.
Flenory called all of the top players in the beginning to get them together to play some 7-on-7 tournaments for trophies. Now there are sponsors and gear and teams have established nonprofits to help fund expensive tournament fees and travel costs.
“It has grown, but it’s not been overnight,” Flenory said. “Everybody is doing it. The growth of it has been exponential. It’s been insane. I think over time it’s kind of changed the purpose and focus. In the beginning, it was for recruiting.”
Flenory said he started Pylon because his college recruiting out of a Dallas high school was derailed when he said he ran a bad 40-yard time. He ended going to New Hampshire, where he was an All-American.
“I could play football but I couldn’t run a 40,” he said. “I wanted kids who once they got scholarship offers, not to get lazy and be doing stuff. But I didn’t want them doing stuff that would hurt them. Seven-on-seven is what I came up with. There were no teams. They didn’t practice. They just come together. Now that there are teams, a lot of it is about exposure, and development. Pylon will always be a platform for recruiting. I don’t care who wins games.”
But the kids and coaches who lead the teams care.
On this overcast Saturday in west Phoenix, Robinson and Lathan teamed up with some of the Valley’s most recruited juniors to win the Pylon regional that includes Tucson Turf, and the Force Academy that featured Elite 11 regional MVP quarterback Jack Miller of Scottsdale Chaparral.
Robinson lines up at slot receiver on this team that has some of Arizona’s top 2020 prospects, several of them from six-time defending state champion Saguaro. Hence, the team’s name, “2020 Elite.”
All-Arizona safety Jaydin Young of Peoria Centennial, Phoenix Pinnacle wide receiver Marcus Libman and Chandler outside linebacker Malik Reed all joined Elite 2020.
Clad in skin-tight shirt and shorts, they break up passes, make spectacular plays, and chest bump each other.
“I think it’s more competitive than actual football,” said Robinson. “You don’t have a helmet on. You’re face to face.”
‘Preying on dreams’
How has this impacted high school football? Is the football real? Do college recruiters pay attention? Is this fertile ground for street agents? Is the landscape ripe for potential Arizona Interscholastic Association prior-contact violations with transfers? Does it provide a landscape for underclassmen to be steered to certain high schools?
The answer to each of those questions is “certainly”.
That’s why not all high school coaches like it.
“Club 7-on-7 is yet another example of people preying on the hopes and dreams of high school student-athletes, especially in football, where they are going to be recruited out of their high school,” Pinnacle coach Dana Zupke said in an email. “Most coaches will tell you that while 7-on-7 can be developmental, it also tends to produce bad habits.”
Recruiting kids to various high schools is a legitimate concern, Flenory admits.
“I have seen it, but not on the scale that makes it like it’s super-scary,” he said. “They have state athletic associations that kind of keep kids from transferring. When those things happen, it’s usually nipped in the bud pretty quickly. I don’t think that’s a major cause for concern, at least not in my opinion.”
There are benefits. Timing, chemistry in the passing game comes together. Pass defense is getting reps.
But Phoenix St. Mary’s coach Tommy Brittain believes the “negatives far outweigh the positives.”
“If, as coaches, we are genuinely concerned about the risk of repeated concussions, surely such competitions must give us a cause for concern,” he said. “Certainly the helmet is a double-edged sword. It protects the head but also increases the speed, and therefore the violence, of the game.
“The lack of helmets during 7-on-7 is similarly problematic. The players are certainly more cautious but it is inevitable that high-speed collisions to the head will occur while a player is not protected by a helmet.”
The AIA has been trying to tackle the high rate of transfers every year. High school coaches believe club showcases won’t reel that in and could make it worse.
“The exposure that young men will inevitably have to other coaches, and other schools, will increase the already rampant pace of transfers as athletes and their parents relentlessly pursue the next best thing,” Brittain said.
It’s partially why Chaparral offensive coordinator Tim Kohner joined the Force coaching staff. That team practices once a week at Mesa Red Mountain to get ready for an all-day Saturday event. Kohner said he wants to make sure his quarterback is being coached right.
“I look at is as a way to break down defense and working on my mechanics,” said Miller, who is committed to Ohio State. “I love the group of guys, too. We’re having fun, playing football that we all love. It’s worth it.”
David Lawson, who helps out the football program at Red Mountain, coordinates the Force Academy 7-on-7 team, he says, to develop the kids when they go back to their high schools teams and become “better versions of themselves,” and to provide some recruiting help with colleges.
College coaches may not publicly praise the 7-on-7s, but there are recruiting services like 247Sports and Rivals, ESPN and Bleacher Report writing up evaluations at the Pylon camps. Those evaluations get to college coaches.
“If anyone says 7-on-7 doesn’t help recruiting, they’re fooling themselves,” Lawson said. “I’ve seen it myself how 7-on-7, if done correctly, can help kids get offers. But you still have to be good. You still have to have good Hudl film. You have to play well on Friday nights.”