It's a typical hot and muggy June morning when the bus from Mount Pleasant pulls into the parking lot at Cane Bay High School.
The 30 or so players who have made the hour-long drive up from Wando High School step off the bus, equipment in hand, and make the slow walk to the practice fields behind the school. A heavy rain fell the night before, and large puddles on the field have yet to recede.
"It's gonna be a slogfest," one Wando player says to a teammate.
Once a week, for three straight weeks in June — normally on Thursday mornings, depending on the weather — Cane Bay High School head football coach Russell Zehr plays host to teams from around the Lowcountry for a morning of 7-on-7 games. What started out seven years ago as a trio of Berkeley County teams — primarily Cane Bay, Goose Creek and Timberland — getting together for a couple hours of 7-on-7 matchups has swollen into nearly a dozen squads from five counties.
No score is kept and there won't be any statistics published in the following day's newspapers or highlights on the local TV stations. There will be no wins and losses that count in the standings, only the sound of a horn when the 25-minute game is complete and the teams meet at midfield, shake hands and rotate to another field and another opponent.
There are also no college coaches watching intently from the sidelines, so no scholarships will be offered on this morning.
However, that might be changing in the not-so-distant future. As the popularity of 7-on-7 football has exploded across the country, especially in the South, this non-contact hybrid sport could become a main conduit for high school football players hoping to catch the eye of college recruiters.
While prep sports might be as popular as they've ever been in the United States — record numbers participated this past academic year — playing for your local high school may no longer be the best avenue for prospects hoping to get noticed by college coaches.
The days of college coaches combing the hallways and classrooms looking to land the next blue-chip athlete is a thing of the past. The influence of high school sports when it comes to college recruiting has gradually ebbed over the past two decades. That role has been taken over by club or travel teams in almost every sport — baseball, basketball, soccer and volleyball.
Want an athletic scholarship? Playing only for your high school team probably isn't enough
The holdout has been football, where travel and club teams have yet to gain a foothold. High school football still reigns supreme, with prep coaches still holding tremendous sway in terms of determining who receives athletic scholarships.
There are no official participation numbers kept nationally or even on a local level for 7-on-7 football, but it's potential influence cannot be denied. The proponents of 7-on-7 football believe it's another pathway to earning a college scholarship and a chance to face some of the nation's top-level talent, like in AAU basketball, during the spring and summer circuits.
But critics worry that it will go the way of AAU basketball, which is an unregulated sport with no governing body at the national, state or local levels. AAU basketball has earned a deserved reputation of being plagued with street agents, middlemen and so-called "mentors" who are in it not for the athletes, but for their own personal gain. Or worse, 7-on-7 football will eventually end up under the scrutiny of federal law enforcement like AAU basketball did this past fall when coaches, apparel companies and parents were caught up in a cash for players scandal.
"As coaches, we hope 7-on-7 doesn't turn into AAU basketball," said Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. "I think that there are certain pockets in some of these bigger cities — Miami, Atlanta, Houston — where you're seeing a lot more of the 7-on-7 teams, but it still doesn't replace the actual Friday nights. I think in basketball, sometimes the AAU circuit really is probably even more important to the players and maybe even scouting coaches than the high school model. So I think as college coaches and I think as high school coaches, we're optimistic that it'll stay the way it is right now."
What is 7-on-7 football?
Seven-on-seven is not a new phenomenon. It's been around almost since the invention of the forward pass. For decades, coaches from Pop Warner to the NFL have used 7-on-7 as a routine practice tool to sharpen skills in the passing game and create competition among teammates.
"I think 7-on-7 is great for developing a Friday night football team," said Oceanside Collegiate head football coach Chad Grier. "I think it's a great way to get reps and develop some of your skill players, especially quarterbacks and wide receivers. It's also a way for the kids to stay involved with football on a year-round basis because there's no contact."
A 7-on-7 game is typically 20 to 25 minutes in length with seven players on each side of the ball. There are no linemen and there is no tackling. No kickoffs or special teams. Each possession starts at the 40-yard line. The offense has three plays to get a first down past the 25-yard line, three more plays to get to the 10 and another three plays to score.
A team can opt to have a player hike the ball to the quarterback or use a stool where the quarterback snaps it to himself. The stool or center is equipped with an alarm, and quarterbacks have four seconds to throw the ball without incurring a sack or penalty.
"The (Seattle) Seahawks and the NFL were really the first ones to start making every drill in practices about competition," said Summerville High School coach Joe Call. "This is a copycat sport. The colleges saw what the NFL was doing and started to do it, and now it's trickled down to the high schools. I love the competitiveness of 7-on-7."
Not so long ago when Wando High School football coach Jimmy Noonan was looking to break up the monotony of summer workouts, he'd call one of the coaches in the area for an informal game of 7-on-7.
It was an easy way to break up the routine of the summer, when dragging teenage boys out of their beds early in the morning and getting them into the weight room or on the field for "voluntary" workouts can be a daunting task for even the most motivated high school player.
The 7-on-7 version of football emphasizes speed, athleticism and one-on-one matchups. What used to be a practice tool has evolved into nearly the same phenomenon of the AAU basketball summer circuits, which feature five-star travel teams and the nation's bluest of blue chip players.
The only thing missing has been the college coaches, who under NCAA rules are forbidden to go to tournaments off their campuses.
'It's not real football'
The obvious difference between the game that is played on Friday nights and the one during 7-on-7 is that there is no tackling and no linemen on the field. That can clash with a very traditional view held by some coaches, who believe the game is ultimately won in the trenches.
"The game of football is still won and lost at the line of scrimmage, and that isn't going to change," South Carolina coach Will Muschamp told reporters last season. "Unless they outlaw tackling, football is going to be played at the line of scrimmage."
When college coaches come to watch potential prospects during showcase events in baseball, basketball, volleyball and soccer, they are seeing those athletes perform the same sport. Seven-on-seven is so fundamentally different from the game everyone is familiar with, it's difficult for coaches to evaluate players.
"I think you can take a little bit away from 7-on-7," said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. "We do 7-on-7 every day in practice. It's a great way to teach your scheme and to see who can process things. You can see ball skills and things like that, but at the end of the day, it's a contact sport.
"You're not going to last very long if you're making all your evaluations based on 7-on-7 tape. You better see who can play between the lines. That's why the Adam Humphries (5-11, 190 pounds) of the world are playing in the NFL, because at the end of the day, you've got to be a football player."
Noonan couldn't agree more.
"I've seen plenty of All-American quarterbacks in 7-on-7," Noonan said. "But when it comes time to put on the pads, those skills don't always translate to the field on Friday nights because you take out so many of the intangibles of the games."
Stanford coach David Shaw was even more blunt about his assessment of 7-on-7 and its value when it comes to evaluating prospects.
"Seven-on-seven is not football," Shaw told a group of high school coaches last year. "I've never watched a 7-on-7 film. I need to see them with pads on. I need to see the quarterbacks with a pass rush. I need to see the receivers catch a ball over the middle and get hit and break tackles. Seven-on-seven is great for staying in shape and great for working with those guys, but it means absolutely nothing to me as an evaluator. I will also never ever, ever have a recruiting conversation with a 7-on-7 coach."
That's not to say that a player can't get noticed playing 7-on-7.
Take Summerville quarterback Jonathan Bennett for example. The summer before his junior season, Bennett, a raising senior this fall, and the Green Wave attended Georgia's passing camp. Coaches from Liberty University were on hand and noticed Bennett.
"I think the Georgia camp put me on their radar," said Bennett, who verbally committed to play at Liberty next year. "I think it showed them I could make all the throws in 7-on-7."
Grier remembers seeing Ryan Switzer make two spectacular leaping grabs during a 7-on-7 camp at Wake Forest a few years back and the Deacons offering a scholarship on the spot. Switzer eventually signed with North Carolina and now plays in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders.
"No one knew who Ryan Switzer was before that camp, so it can happen," Grier said.
Despite the benefits of 7-on-7, Bennett understands the game he will be playing on Friday nights this fall for the Green Wave is vastly different from the one he plays during the summer.
"At the end of the day, it's not real football," Bennett said.
'Getting out of control'
On the final play of the college football season, Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw the game-winning touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Devonta Smith in overtime as the Crimson Tide beat Georgia for the national title in January.
Sitting on his couch in Ladson, Mal Lawyer, a former Clemson wide receiver, had seen Smith and Tagovailoa play on elite travel 7-on-7 teams and knew their skillset. Lawyer, the head coach of a local 7-on-7 team called the Lowcountry Outlaws, had watched Smith play for the Louisiana Bootleggers, one of the nation's top 7-on-7 teams. He'd also seen Tagovailoa, who was a quarterback for a team sponsored by Nike.
"If you look at the top prospects, the quarterbacks, defensive backs, wide receivers, nine out of 10 of them play on some kind of travel 7-on-7 team," Lawyer said. "It's not a coincidence. I follow recruiting pretty closely, and almost all of them play on 7-on-7 teams."
The 7-on-7 season unofficially ended in June with a pair of national tournaments, including the Pylon 7-on-7 National Championship played in Mercedes Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons. IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., has another popular circuit with the National 7V7 Football Association. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is actively involved with his own all-star 7-on-7 team.
Adidas, Under Armour and Battle have started to become involved in providing equipment for some elite travel teams.
"It's starting to become a big business," Lawyer said. "I can see it becoming like AAU basketball. I'm not sure it'll ever surpass high school football, but it's getting bigger and bigger every year. You see more and more kids starting to play 7-on-7, so I think eventually college coaches will start to get involved too."
One of the top regional tournaments is the Blazing 7-on-7, which was held in Charlotte earlier this month. Mike Newman, who played defensive back at North Carolina A&T in the early 1990s, is one of the tournament's founders and started his enterprise with three North Carolina high school teams in 2014.
This year, with Powerade as its primary sponsor, the tournament had 40 teams from 16 states. Woodrow Wilson High School, out of Camden, N.J., took home the championship and the $15,000 check for the school's athletic program. All the teams in the event were made up of high school teams. No travel or club teams were involved by design.
"What we're trying to do is give the kids a chance to play against elite competition and help them prepare for the upcoming season," Newman said.
This year, for the first time, Newman organized a tournament for club teams as well.
"We've had some success with the high school tournaments and put our toe in the water to invite some of the travel teams," Newman said. "We're not looking to become like AAU basketball with all the street agents. I know there is a negative vibe that surrounds AAU basketball, and I don't want to be associated with that element. If you do it the right way, it should be about the kids who want to play college ball. That should be the extent of it."
In other sports that feature club and travel teams, tournament and showcase organizers understand the NCAA recruiting calendar and put on their biggest events when they know the athletes will get maximum exposure with college coaches. College coaches can come to one event and see hundreds or even thousands of potential prospects in one area.
The NCAA, which didn't want 7-on-7 football to become the next AAU basketball, put a stop to that years ago, forbidding college coaches from attending 7-on-7 tournaments.
"The NCAA saw where this was heading a decade ago and stepped in," said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. "It's a dumb rule to pass because the coaches love the one-stop shopping that allowed them at these tournaments and camps. The reason the NCAA stepped in was because the camp circuits and tournaments were getting out of control. It was too many of them, and too many people started to get involved in the recruiting process. It was starting to become like AAU basketball."
That, of course, hasn't stopped colleges from holding their own 7-on-7 tournaments. The only difference is that no travel teams are allowed to participate, only legitimate high school teams. South Carolina held its own 7-on-7 tournament in June, getting 64 teams from six different states and more than a thousand kids on the USC campus.
"It's such a smart idea because it's a great way to get a lot of kids on your campus at once with little or no cost," Grier said.
While 7-on-7 might never supplant high school football as the main vehicle to earning a college scholarship, one cannot dismiss its growing influence. For now, many college coaches hold the sport in the same contempt that most players have for two-a-days on hot, muggy mornings.
"For some reason, this whole recruiting thing is blowing up. Kids say 'I have to go to this 7-on-7 or do this or this. I've got a better idea. Go become a great high school football player on your team," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "When we walk into that high school, guess what that head coach says? 'Take him.' And you know what we do at Ohio State when he says that? We usually take him."
Practice for the upcoming high school football season started on Friday.
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