Florida State is actively recruiting a middle-school football player, and if that doesn’t seem like big news to you, it’s because offering athletic scholarships to junior highers has become the “Buzzfeed quiz” of the sports world.
It’s annoying and undignified, but everybody is doing it and there’s no way to stop them.
The Orlando Sentinel has done some good reporting on this, most recently on Rashad Williams, an eighth-grade running back from Charlotte, who has been on Florida State’s radar since Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Bucker saw a highlight video of Williams and passed it along to Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher’s staff.
Williams will attend Florida State’s junior day on March 1.
"I just want to see the field,” Williams told 247 Sports. “I want to meet the players and talk to Jameis Winston. I want to have fun and get the experience.”
Nobody can be blamed for thinking that sounds like a dangerously early age to be making superstars out of people or for being something of a reckless recruiting strategy. Nonetheless it is an increasingly common experience for the most prodigious middle-school athletes and football, believe it or not, has been one of the holdouts.
In soccer, basketball and baseball, it is common for coaches to recruit kids at 13, 14, 15 years old. It has happened a handful of times over the last few years in football, but it now appears to be a growing trend.
In Jacksonville, 14-year-old Tyreke Johnson, an eighth grader, has scholarship offers from LSU, Vanderbilt, Florida International, South Florida, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. And his dad expects an offer from Georgia any day now, he told the Orlando Sentinel.
And this is great news in the Johnson household, except that Tyreke’s recruitment is now overlapping that of his older brother De’Andre, whose recruitment began at age 15. De’Andre, a junior, is committed to Florida State.
The way it works in recruiting is once a school like LSU offers you a scholarship, all of a sudden everybody offers you a scholarship. LSU offered on Tuesday, which means from now until he signs a National Letter of Intent.
Four years from now.
Technically, NCAA rules prevent schools from offering scholarships until September of their junior year, but you don’t have to be particularly clever to think of a hundred ways of getting around that. It’s nothing but semantics.
The NCAA could try to legislate its way out of this trend, but if there’s anything we’ve learned about NCAA recruiting rules over the years, it’s that they’re no more likely to stop behaviors as they are to push them further into the shadows.
The only people with any agency to put a stop to it are the coaches themselves and the parents of the players. But what parent wants to hold back his kid, and what coach is willing to put his program at a competitive disadvantage?
It is tempting to analogize these young ballplayers to child stars and warn about the subversive effects of surreal adulation on a young psyche. But if it is true that this recruiting phenomenon is indeed an unstoppable trend, then the analogy fails. Because there are only a handful of child stars in the world at a given time. The extreme novelty of being Michael Jackson, Corey Feldman or Justin Bieber is what decalibrates their sense of reality.
But if getting a scholarship offer in junior high is no longer a signal that you are some sort of prodigy? If it’s just the way the game is played?
Well, then, you’ve got to play the game if you want to play the game.