7 on 7: Recruiting’s new battleground

When Ahmad Dixon attended a BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camp in Las Vegas in March 2009, he was already well known in recruiting circles.

Then a-senior-to-be at Midway High School in Waco, Texas, he was regarded nationally as one of last year’s top safety prospects and committed to the University of Texas.

Dixon didn’t need to attend the camp, but like other top recruits from Texas he went to participate in the team competition against highly touted West Coast recruits such as Jake Heaps, Dillon Baxter and Kenny Stills.

“There were tons of players there,” said a person familiar with the camp.

But the camp’s real action and biggest danger was off the field, where reputed “street agents” lurked. That’s where Dixon for the first time met Will Lyles, who later would take him on unofficial visits to colleges. Also there was Baron Flenory, co-founder of New Level Athletics and BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camps. And Sean Nelson, who went along on the unofficial visits with Lyles and Dixon.

Back then, no one thought anything of Lyles, Flenory and Nelson being together, but all three are now under scrutiny by the NCAA. Also, the NCAA is looking into whether people were paid to bring players to the BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camps, according to a source.

It also has asked Flenory about the involvement of third parties in college football and NCAA enforcement officials have attended his 7-on-7 camps this year. A message left on Flenory’s cell phone was not immediately returned Saturday.

The NCAA is also looking into Lyles’ relationships with Oregon redshirt freshman tailback Lache Seastrunk and Ducks star tailback LaMichael James, according to an ESPN.com report last week. Efforts to reach Lyles were unsuccessful as of Saturday.

Last week, Oregon released invoices for which it paid $25,000 to Lyles in March 2010 for a “2011 National Package” from his business, Complete Scouting Services and $3,745 to Flenory in September 2009 for a recruiting package that he sold to the Ducks.

Oregon maintains it has committed no wrongdoing, and that the purchase of scouting services from Lyles is allowed under NCAA rules. Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said the Ducks are cooperating with the NCAA’s request for documents related to their purchases of services from scouting agencies.

Last month, an NCAA investigator interviewed Auburn redshirt freshman wide receiver Trovon Reed’s former high school coach about Nelson’s relationship with him and another of the coach’s former players, Auburn signee Greg Robinson. Nelson took both players on multiple unofficial visits to Auburn and took Reed to the BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camp in Las Vegas in 2009..

The NCAA is also looking into Lyles’ relationship with Nelson, according to an ESPN.com report last week.

A message left on Nelson’s cell phone was not immediately returned Saturday.

 

AN EMERGING PHENOMENON

 

The presence of Lyles, Flenory and Nelson at the camp illustrates the dangers of the emerging phenomenon of 7-of-7 nationally. College coaches fear it will turn into AAU basketball, a notorious battleground for street agents and other third parties involved in recruiting.

“It’s really not a very healthy situation whatsoever,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said of 7-on-7. “There’s more and more people who have opportunities again to influence and be around these young people. As I keep saying, they don’t always and usually don’t have the young man’s best interest at heart.”

Said Texas coach Mack Brown of 7-on-7, “With more and more outside individuals getting involved, we see a lot more concerns popping up. It’s definitely an area that needs to be looked at very closely and the NCAA needs to find ways to evaluate and manage."

At the forefront of national 7-on-7 is Flenory, who played defensive back at New Hampshire when Oregon coach Chip Kelly was an assistant coach there. Flenory and his brother-in-law, Kashann Simmons, founded New Level Athletics in 2006 and two years later started what is now BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camps.

“I want to be the Sonny Vaccaro of 7-on-7,” Flenory told FOXSports.com in a January interview, referring to the controversial pioneer of grassroots basketball before saying in another interview that he wanted to be like Vaccaro only for the positive things that he did.

This year, there are five BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camps at campuses such as the University of Alabama, University of Michigan and University of South Florida. The top four teams from each of the camps will later be invited to a national championship camp.

Flenory said BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camps rent facilities at the universities where they are held. Before starting the camps, Flenory said he called the NCAA to make sure are compliant with NCAA rules.

Asked who he talked with the NCAA, he said he couldn’t remember.

“We’ll govern it correctly,” Flenory said of 7-on-7.

College coaches are not allowed to attend 7-on-7, which Flenory views as the future of recruiting. Internet recruiting services cover his camps, and video from them has been used by players to help get scholarship offers, Flenory said.

lenory also helps players who attend his camps through his network of college coaches. He declined to identify any of those coaches, but said some are Wyoming coaches whom he formerly played for at New Hampshire.

“When you’re in the business, it’s a small world,” Flenory said. “You just know guys.”

Flenory said his 7-on-7 camps are more beneficial than combines, where players usually participate in strength and speed testing as well as position drills.

“So a parent who got duped into thinking that camp is going to help them, they pay exorbitant amounts of money and they don’t get anything out of it,” Flenory said of combines. “I don’t think that that’s right. That’s exploitation at its finest. That’s wrong. That’s wrong to do.”

But some believe Flenory is the one who is exploiting players.

 

A STREET AGENT?

 

“To those that say I’m a street agent, I’d like them to come and just see,” Flenory said. “I also want to say thank you to them because it means that I’m doing something right.”

Flenory said a benefit for a player attending one of his camps is the “advice” that he can receive after the event.

“I don’t reach out to kids unless they come to our camp,” Flenory said. “From that point, we just make them aware that if you ever need anything, you can call.”

“Ask for advice, I give it.”

When players ask Flenory about which college they should choose, he said the least important factor in their decision should be the coach. He said he tells them to pick a school where they will have fun and emphasizes that a college choice is a “40-year plan.”

“I think the third-party thing, depending on who that third party is, is a very good thing,” Flenory said. “That’s what we’re trying to start and stop, I guess. We’re trying to stop the third parties who are giving all of the bad advice, who don’t understand and they don’t know what’s going on. Our 7-on-7s are built and our company is built to be able to help kids, so the third party I think can be good.”

Flenory’s involvement with Anthony Wallace, a linebacker at Skyline High School in Dallas, one of this year’s top players nationally at his position, spotlights the involvement of third parties with recruits. Wallace signed with Oregon last month.

Flenory said he wasn’t interested in talking about his relationship with Wallace, who he said he met through a mutual friend. But Flenory said Wallace asked him for advice.

“I gave it to him and it was kind of just one of those things,” Flenory said. “It just kind of transferred in to him being my little brother.”

Wallace said he met Flenory through Elzie Barnett, coach of A. Maceo Smith High School in Dallas and the father of Wallace’s friend and Michigan signee Chris Barnett. Wallace said he started training with Flenory the summer before his senior year.

“He started like as a mentor with working out and just giving me advice and stuff like that,” Wallace said. “He kind of turned into my big brother.”

Wallace, who committed to Oregon in late November, said he didn’t know Flenory had played for Ducks coach Chip Kelly until this past season.

“When I talked to Chip, he asked me about Baron and if I knew who he was,” Wallace said.

Flenory said he’s not sure that Oregon was the best choice for Wallace, but said it’s “a good fit.”

“It’s kind of a Catch-22 because I’d love for every kid in America to play for (New Hampshire coach) Sean McDonnell or Chip Kelly,” Flenory said.

But regardless of Flenory’s intentions, his 7-on-7 camps have allowed other third parties such as Lyles and Nelson to have access to recruits.

Dixon, a sophomore safety at Baylor, said he got the money to attend the Las Vegas camp two years ago through a “fundraiser thing,” but didn’t recall how much it cost.

“Basically, it was just do your own way to get your money and all that and make your way down there,” Dixon said.

When Dixon first met Lyles at the camp, he said Lyles was inquisitive about his then-commitment to Texas.

“He was just asking me if I was interested in taking visits and all of the schools that I was interested in,” Dixon said.

Dixon said Lyles specifically asked him if he wanted to visit USC. He said Lyles later took him, Seastrunk and Reed along with Nelson on an unofficial visit to Auburn, where they spent time with Tigers assistants Trooper Taylor and Curtis Luper.

On the way back from Auburn, Dixon said Lyles took him on an unofficial visit to LSU with Seastrunk, Reed and Nelson. Both trips were made driving together, Dixon said.

Dixon said that Lyles asked him to keep him updated on his recruitment, but lost regular contact with him after playing in the Hawaii/Polynesia-Mainland Bowl in December 2009. He said their relationship became a “so-so thing” and that it was his own decision to sign with Baylor.

“As far as a street agent, uh, I don’t know what to say about that one,” Dixon said of Lyles.

In Louisiana, concern has arisen about Nelson’s involvement with BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camps.

Alonzo Lewis, one of the state’s top high school wide receivers this year, who signed with LSU last month, knows Nelson, but only as “Trovon Reed’s daddy.”

Lewis said Nelson recruited him to play on a 7-on-7 team that he coached in the BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 camp at the University of Alabama last April. But once Lewis got to the camp, he said there was a dispute involving money and he left without playing.

“Everything just got messed up,” Lewis said. “Like there was a big bill. Rumors started going around about scams and all that.”

“There were money problems like giving our money to the daddy and all that.”

Lewis said he paid money to Nelson, but didn’t recall the amount. He said it wasn’t much and that he was told the money was for a hotel room.

Lewis said Jarvis Landry, another top high school wide receiver in Louisiana this year, who also signed with LSU last month and was recruited by Nelson to play on his 7-on-7 team, also left the camp without playing because of the money dispute.

Lewis said he trusted Nelson in deciding to play on his team in the 7-on-7 camp and never intended to become entangled with him.

“I’m just up for the challenge for anything,” Lewis said. “I just like playing football.”

In the future, Flenory would like to have more 7-on-7 camps nationally. He said the events are profitable, but declined to provide specifics.

“We make money, but we can make more,” Flenory said.

Flenory said New Level Athletics pays taxes and is registered as a limited liability corporation. But Texas Secretary of State spokesman Randall Dillard said there are no records on file for New Level Athletics, Flenory or Simmons.

Flenory declined to disclose how many employees his company has, but said it does have employees other than himself and Simmons.

“It’s not a camp, it’s a company,” Flenory said. “That’s what people need to understand. It is a company. It’s a legit business. It’s not a recruiting service. It’s a business.”