Over the weekend, college football fans and analysts discovered two Rivals.com player profiles for the class of 2021. Not the college class of 2021, but the high school class of 2021. These are kids who were born in 2002 and 2003.
"Tyson Thornton and Daron Bryden will be the first sixth grade prospects the website will actively monitor," says the website. "Thornton is a 5'11, 167-pound running back with great explosiveness and surprisingly good body control for a kid his size and age. Bryden, a small quarterback with a big arm, is incredibly composed and very polished, and he can make every throw. And with a father standing nearly 6'7, he may soon have the body to match his arm."
Not surprisingly, this led to worries that Rivals is rating and ranking sixth graders. That part's not happening. Rivals national analyst Mike Farrell said the site has no plans to rank players that young, and that the youngest players to receive ratings will continue to be sophomores.
There's a reason. Due to its physical nature, football is ill-suited for prepubescent rankings. Despite players in baseball, tennis, and basketball being rated as middle schoolers, and sports like gymnastics being scouted even earlier, it's just not a good fit for football.
The idea that top recruits can be identified at this age is suspect. For every Dylan Moses (6', 218, 4.5 40-yard dash at 13 years old), there are hundreds of Pop Warner legends who never become high school stars. It's one thing to profile a player who already looks like a top high school recruit, but projecting a 5'2, 105-pound QB throwing a tiny football is another thing entirely.
So what is Rivals doing? It's covering recruiting. And with colleges increasingly offering younger recruits, that means keeping a watch list of players who are not yet in high school. Quarterback David Sills famously committed to USC when he was 13, though he ended up at West Virginia. Moses was offered by LSU and Alabama as an eighth grader. Chris Leak, who quarterbacked Florida to the 2006 BCS Championship, was offered in the eighth grade.
Middle school crootin'!
Rivals' information on middle schoolers comes from the NextGen All-America Camp, run by Brent Williams, who spent 11 years in the NFL.
"I started to see this trend that colleges were recruiting kids earlier and earlier. Whether I agreed with that trend or not, it's pretty much irrelevant," Williams said. "We started NextGen with the hope of creating an environment where kids could go in and compete and see how they measured up against other kids on a national basis and be evaluated, because we realized that [major college football programs] were identifying kids at a younger and younger age."
Williams told me there were some kids with starter beards at his recent Massachusetts showcase. He wondered how much they'll develop in the coming years.
"Both of these young players were so impressive they were moved up to compete against the eighth grade prospects," Rivals said of the camp performances by Thornton and Bryden.
Williams said players are not ranked at the camps and no awards are given.
"That can't be stressed enough," Williams said. "The reason we don't want to be a party to that type of mentality is that we don't want a middle schooler coming through our camp and coming away saying, 'I'm a five-star.'"
NextGen does advertise that top players will be recognized on Rivals.
What's everyone getting out of this?
Players, and perhaps more importantly parents, are getting perspective from people familiar with what it takes to become a top recruit. If a player is one of the tops in his age group and position in the 40-yard dash or the vertical leap, he might be on track to become a top prospect. Or parents might be disillusioned that their son might be a football star, when he doesn't yet measure up.
"The kids generally handle this stuff pretty well," Williams said. "The parents, though, are a different story. What they're finding out is that sometimes little Johnny isn't the player they thought he was against his peers. We're not trying to crush dreams or slam kids, but we are trying to educate parents about what it takes to be successful."
They also get information on the recruiting process, including how to gauge a college's true interest. Players who are good enough to be profiled by Rivals get publicity, the value of which is debatable. Players also get more comfortable with the combine-style testing they'll encounter as they get older.
NextGen's gain is obvious. It charges a $99 entry fee.
What Rivals gets might not be so obvious: relationships. "To establish early relationships through NextGen seems to be the next step," Farrell said.
Rivals makes money providing recruiting coverage for fans who pay subscription fees. There's not a market for updates on players who aren't old enough to earn letterman jackets, but by making these profiles, Rivals is establishing a relationship with these families early. Cultivating that relationship now could mean later on the kid is more likely to pick up the phone call of a Rivals reporter or attend a Rivals camp.
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What this all means
NextGen is hardly the only camp for middle schoolers. In fact, the camp series is behind another group that has been doing this for years: colleges.
College coaches begin tracking recruits at a young age via their own football camps over the summer for elementary and middle school ages. When a player gets weighed and measured at State U's middle school camp, lists his shoe and glove size, and tests in the 40-yard dash, the school doesn't just toss that information aside. The school evaluates and tracks it. Players who stand out get asked back next year.
Some, likely a lot more than the public realizes, even get scholarship offers. Many never get publicized because recruiting media doesn't bother to cover middle school camps, schools don't want to broadcast they are offering young players, and offers are difficult to verify due to their verbal nature. But schools absolutely want to establish early relationships with players they believe will become elite recruits.
The real change is not the camp evaluation of players that young, but the introduction of media publicity.
Even without a ranking, it's easy to see the notoriety of a sixth grader having a Rivals.com profile going to someone's head. Being recognized this early, while impressive, is no guarantee a player will become a top prospect.
The flip side is also troubling. Not being recognized as one of the top performers could dissuade a kid from chasing his dream, which might be a mistake. Everyone experiences puberty on a different timetable.
And even if an eventual star recruit is identified at such an early age, it's still worth asking: is this attention at this age taking away from his ability to be a kid?