University of Miami

Football programs (including Miami) look to middle schools for next star

PRIZED CATCH: Eighth grader Kenny McIntosh, center, framed by his brothers, Richard Jr., left, and Deon. Kenny is one of five eighth graders offered scholarships by UM in the past three weeks.
PRIZED CATCH: Eighth grader Kenny McIntosh, center, framed by his brothers, Richard Jr., left, and Deon. Kenny is one of five eighth graders offered scholarships by UM in the past three weeks. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Kenny McIntosh caught the attention of University of Miami football coach Al Golden the first time they met in the kid’s Fort Lauderdale living room. He is the youngest of three football-playing brothers. The eldest will join the Hurricanes this fall. The middle brother is weighing a UM offer.

Kenny is 6-1, 185 lbs. and plays safety/wide receiver at University School in Davie. He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds. Golden dissected his games on video, and two weeks ago, offered the youngest McIntosh a scholarship to play for the Canes.

Kenny is in eighth grade. He won’t get to college until 2019.

He is one of five eighth graders offered scholarships by UM in the past three weeks.

McIntosh announced the news on Twitter: “I am truly blessed to receive my first offer from the University of Miami as an 8th grader. Many more to come.’’ He received his second offer from Rutgers a week later.

Yes, this is legal under NCAA rules, and it is part of a growing trend in college recruiting. Coaches race to lay claim to prospects as early as possible for fear of losing them later.

Granted, these scholarship offers are just verbal and non-binding, meaning the school can opt out at any time, and the player is under no obligation to accept the offer. NCAA guidelines say coaches cannot initiate contact or make formal scholarship offers to student-athletes until their junior year, and recruits cannot sign a binding National Letter of Intent until their senior year.

But social media, loopholes in NCAA rules, online recruiting services, and the preponderance of video footage available of young players are allowing the courtship to begin earlier than ever.

Rivals.com, a popular recruiting website, now includes profiles of a few sixth graders. There is a listing for Class of 2021 “pro style quarterback’’ Daron Bryden, a sixth-grader from Enfield, Conn., who stands 5-2 and 105 lbs. His dad is 6-7, so college coaches may take note.

Bryden’s parents started a blog to chronicle his career when he was 8. His Twitter handle is @DaronQB, his bio says he has appeared on the Today Show and ESPN, and he updates followers with practice and game videos. May 19 he wrote: “Worked hard today with my footwork and wide base stance with my dad’’ and included a video of himself dropping back in the pocket.

What’s next? Recruiting in kindergarten? Hospital maternity wards?

In Carrollton, Ga., 13-year-old seventh-grade quarterback Tee Webb was offered a scholarship by the University of Louisville two weeks ago. Within days, there were 10 to 12 college coaches showing up at his middle school spring practices.

The heated race among colleges to secure younger recruits has accelerated over the past five years. Coaches are making seven-figure salaries, and under increased pressure to win. Youth football has become more professionalized. The advent of video websites like Hudl.com, exploding with 3.2 million users, 2,500 college team subscriptions and more than one billion video clips, enables coaches to watch raw footage of younger prospects.

Every coach wants to be the first suitor in the hopes that kid will remember who was there first when he is sifting through scholarship offers later.

But this trend troubles many high school and college coaches, including Golden, who worries “it could get out of hand.’’ He said he was much more comfortable recruiting under the old system, when scholarship offers were extended later in a prospect’s high school career.

“The genie’s out of the bottle, and we have to decide how to proceed, and what safeguards to put in to maintain the integrity of the game and protect these kids,’’ Golden said.

“I don’t think any of us is comfortable with how much it’s been expedited, but we run a fine line, a slippery slope, between early-offering someone and not offering and then having a kid that has seven or eight offers and we’re the local team and don’t get involved and then we get pounded because the kid loses interest in us because we were focused on the junior and senior classes.’’

Golden said he would prefer to wait until players mature physically and emotionally before talking about scholarships, but UM has to keep up with the other Division 1 programs on the recruiting trail. The Hurricanes “were way behind,’’ Golden said, so they doubled their recruiting staff from three to six over the past 12 months.

“What we don’t want to do is start sending frivolous offers that have no meaning,’’ Golden said. “So, I think it’s important that we continue to evaluate, do our due diligence and make sure whatever offers we extend are committable.

“We’re talking about the outliers, the elite of the elite. If we have three, four, five offers out to kids 14 and 15 years old, it is because it is extraordinary what kind of players they are. In our case, for the most part, it’s because there’s familiarity with them and you have the evidence now in terms of going online and watching video of their games.’’

Golden said they stress to early recruits that the scholarship is pending their high school performance in the classroom, on the field, and in the community.

In addition to McIntosh, UM recently made offers to eighth-grade running backs James Cook (Miami Central), Nayquan Wright (Miami Carol City) and Owen Pappoe (Loganville, Ga.), and 6-5, 200-pound tight end Blake Hinson (Daytona Beach). Neither the college nor its coaches can discuss unsigned recruits by name, but the news got out through the middle school coaches and social media.

The NCAA is well aware of mushrooming early offers, but there are no immediate plans to curb the trend.

“While popular, verbal scholarship offers are not recognized by the NCAA and in no formal way commit a coach to a recruit or a recruit to a school,’’ said NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham.

“The NCAA membership has expressed concern over verbal commitments, considering these commitments are not binding for either the prospect or the institution. The membership, however, has not embraced proposals that advocate for further limitation of verbal commitments.’’

The recruiting of younger athletes troubles some high school coaches, who see freshmen arrive on campus acting like celebrities before playing a single high school game.

“I’m totally against this whole thing,’’ said Miami Killian High coach Cory Johnson. “The kids are being distracted by these offers. Instead of focusing on busting their butts in high school, being the best they can be in athletics, being best they can be in the classroom, it’s bringing another distraction to kids that are already distracted by social media, music, and television.

“They’re bringing all the fantasy and red carpet to it, which is supposed to be at the higher level, once you’ve earned right to be there.’’

David Brooks is the athletic director at Carrollton (Ga.) High School, where seventh-grader Tee Webb has worked out with the varsity. He is watching carefully as Webb draws attention from college scouts.

“My biggest concern is that they don’t take the kid’s entire high school experience from them, that the kids start worrying about where they’re going to college before they need to start worrying about that,’’ Brooks said.

“I don’t think those kids have a clue about college that young. It works both ways, though. I don’t think coaching staffs really know if this is the guy’s going to pan out, if this is who they want or not five years from now. Heck, coaches at the college level don’t even know if they’re going to be there five years from now.’’

Case in point: One of the first highly publicized early scholarship offers came in 2010, when the University of Southern California got a verbal commitment from David Sills, a seventh-grade quarterback from Bear, Del. The coach who recruited him, Lane Kiffin, was fired in 2013. Sills signed with West Virginia, where he will be a freshman this fall.

“When the USC thing happened, I remember thinking, `Boy, is that legal? Are you allowed to offer kids that early?’’’ Golden said. “We have to take a deep breath and look at this thing in its totality and say, `What do we want to do here?’ Maybe we could put safeguards in, something like no offers until the end of sophomore year. But to proceed under the old rules is like talking about typewriters and touchtone phones. Times have changed, and these are dangers we need to address.’’

NCAA rules do not allow coaches to call or text prospects until junior year, but they do permit coaches to receive calls from prospects (and those too young to be classified as “prospective student-athletes” by the NCAA definition of ninth grade — in basketball the age was dropped to seventh grade). Additionally, prospective student-athletes may visit a school’s campus at their own expense any number of times, and can arrange meetings with coaches.

Kenny McIntosh admits he was “a little shocked’’ to get a scholarship offer so early, but he had developed a good rapport with Golden through the recruiting of his brothers. “I knew the UM coaches from all the times they came to our house to talk to my brothers,’’ he said. “When I got the offer, it made me more motivated to do well in high school. I want to be great, and now I know the college coaches are watching me, so I don’t want to let them down.’’

Not to mention, he’ll have 6-5 and 290-pound big brother Richard, an incoming UM defensive lineman, keeping tabs on him.

“I already told Kenny that just having one or two offers isn’t enough, that he has to keep working hard, and not show off or brag,’’ Richard said. “A lot can happen over four years. If I see him getting lazy, I’ll put him in his place.’’

Mom and Dad will also be watching. Kyria McIntosh says she keeps “Mr. Wonderful’’ grounded by continuing to make him take out the trash and get good grades. Richard, Sr., who played on Dillard High’s 1989 state championship team, told his youngest son: “Just because you have a college offer doesn’t mean you’ve done anything yet. You’re just beginning to open the door.’’

Despite warnings from parents and coaches, Johnson, the Killian coach, worries that this generation of teen athletes, lured by instant gratification and celebrity status, will suffer.

“If you feel you’re reached the pinnacle now, where’s the hunger?’’ he said. “I’m not saying kids shouldn’t get their due credit. But let these kids grind it out, have sleepless nights dreaming about the game they love, making sure their schoolwork is done because they don’t want the game taken from them instead of giving them scholarships so young, then they find hats and t-shirts and take pictures and say I’m committed to this school and blah, blah, blah.

“You have a lot of great youth players that didn’t pan out in high school. High school players who didn’t pan out in college. Great college guys who didn’t get drafted in the NFL. You want to set a kid up for success? One formula always works: Hard work brings the best results. That’s not what’s driven home when you got kids being told how great they are at 13.’’

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