Yes, Youth Must Be Served -- But At What Cost?
By Keith Mills
So, it has come to this.
Louisiana State University football coach Les Miles has offered a scholarship to Dylan Moses -- a 14-year-old heading into the eighth grade.
Tate Martell is also 14 years old. He'll be home schooled this year after attending seventh grade at the Innovations Academy Charter School in San Diego. He committed this week to play football at the University of Washington -- in 2017.
Two young teenagers, two schools, two football teams, and one question -- have Miles and Washington coach Steve Sarkisian lost their minds?
Believe it or not, it is a sign of the times. Moses and Martell aren't the first, and won't be the last, phenomenal young athletes to be recruited before they even get to high school.
David Sills is now a 16-year-old rising sophomore quarterback from Elkton who attends the Eastern Christian Academy. Three years ago, as a seventh-grader, he was so impressive at a quarterback camp in Las Vegas that Lane Kiffin, who had just replaced Pete Carroll as coach at the University of Southern California, offered him a scholarship to attend USC.
The quarterbacks coach Sills worked with at the DeBartolo Football Academy in Vegas was Steve Clarkson, currently one of the most respected instructors in the country.
Current Southern Cal quarterback Matt Barkley is a Clarkson protégé, as are Matt Leinart and Matt Cassel, two former USC quarterbacks, and Steelers All-Pro Ben Roethlisberger.
Sills verbally accepted the USC offer, though he will not be able to sign a national letter of intent until 2015. Moses and Martell, if they still wish to attend LSU and Washington, will not be able officially to sign their letters until 2017.
Sills has dealt with the pressure of being a pre-high school recruit well. Last fall, as the quarterback for Red Lion Christian Academy in Bear, Del., he threw for four touchdowns during a season-opening win against powerful Ursuline of Ohio. One week later, he led Red Lion to a 41-6 win against Annapolis Area Christian School during the Patriot Classic at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
One week later, Calvert Hall handed Sills and Red Lion their first loss, a 28-27 setback at Calvert Hall. In all, Sills threw 28 touchdown passes during his freshman year.
Red Lion rolled back its football program this year and the Sills family moved to Elkton so Sills could attend Eastern Christian Academy. In early July, he led Eastern Christian to the national 7-on-7 championship.
Time will tell whether Moses and Martell are as lucky.
Both players have the physical skills to project as major college players, or Miles and Sarkisian would not have opened themselves up to the scrutiny and second-guessing that comes with recruiting 14-year-old boys. NCAA rules allow high school sophomores to commit verbally to schools, but they are not allowed actually to sign until their senior years.
Moses lives in Baton Rouge, La., and has been on LSU's radar for some time. He's 6 feet tall and 205 pounds and plays both running back and defensive back. At last month's LSU football camp, dozens of the region's premier college prospects were either invited or attended the camp, including many blue-chip sophomores and juniors.
Moses stood out. When the LSU coaches matched Moses with many of the older players, he more than held his own. Not long after the camp ended, Miles and his staff informed Moses' father, Edward, that they would be offering his son a scholarship.
"The coaches told me they were offering, and they were serious," Edward Moses told ESPN.com. "I thought they were playing."
Dylan Moses will attend the LSU Laboratory School beginning next month, which is located on the LSU campus. He will not be eligible to play for the school's football team until next year.
Tate Martell is a 5-foot-8, 180-pound quarterback who attended a camp run by Clarkson earlier this year. Like Moses at LSU, Martell drew attention from a variety of college coaches, including Sarkisian, another former student of Clarkson's.
Sarkisian was an outstanding quarterback at West Torrence High School in Southern California and originally attended USC before transferring to Brigham Young. Now in his fourth year as coach at Washington, he offered Tate a scholarship after the Clarkson camp.
Al Martell, Tate's father, gave Sarkisian and his staff a verbal commitment last week that his son would attend Washington when he is eligible in 2017.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of recruiting Martell and Moses so young?
There are no real disadvantages for LSU and Washington, other than dealing with the natural public relations nightmare. Both programs have already been subjected to hundreds of college football blogs and newspaper editorials slamming Miles and Sarkisian for exploiting a pair of 14-year-olds.
In their defense, most other coaches in the country would do the same.
Neither school is obligated to make good on their verbal offer. Every other school in the country can also recruit both youngsters, but Sarkisian and Miles do have an advantage in getting both to sign a letter of intent. They are the first coaches to make the offers and show Moses and Martell they are serious about recruiting them when they become sophomores.
More often than not, the first coach to show serious interest in a young athlete today, in any sport, is the coach that gets the commitment.
As for the players, the disadvantages far outnumber the advantages. How will they keep the next five years in perspective? So many young players today who are coddled and treated like royalty in middle school get so caught up in the adulation and hero worship they drown in their own egos by the time they finish high school.
There's also the issue of how Martell and Moses deal with the endless scrutiny, expectations and pressure.
To think there will be no pressure on these kids is naïve. They are simply not emotionally mature enough to deal with what's to come -- constant attention with a big, fat bulls-eye squarely on their backs. From now on, every time they take the field, every game they play, every time they touch the ball, every win or loss will be analyzed and scrutinized by a variety of rival coaches, newspaper reporters, alumni and boosters, and rival and average fans, who now have the power of the written word through the Internet.
Those people can be flat-out brutal. No matter how little pressure their families place on them, Martell and Moses will not be allowed to fail when they begin their high school careers next year. If Martell throws an interception, or if Moses fumbles with the game on the line, they'll both hear it from fans, classmates, even some teammates, and read about in the local paper or online.
How's this for a headline?
"LSU Recruit Rushes For 100 Yards, But Fumbles Late To Cost Team The Game."
"Huskies Future QB Throws 4 Interceptions."
That has become a major problem in youth, amateur and high school sports. Young athletes today are not just allowed to play, have fun, make mistakes and learn. They are often under so much pressure to impress college coaches that they play with a fear of failure and simply quit playing long before they reach their potential.
At Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium last September, Sills was impressive. He led Red Lion to a big win against an Annapolis Area Christian team that eventually won the MIAA B Conference championship. He showed why Kiffin and his staff were so impressed with Sills when he was 13.
Yet after missing wide-open receivers on back-to-back plays during the game, he took a verbal beating from a group of fans sitting to the far left of the Red Lion bench. Their criticism was not targeted at his mistakes, but at his future, as to how he was going to get brutalized at USC.
It was sad to hear, but, again, a sign of the times.
David Sills has held up under the pressure pretty well. Time will tell whether Moses and Martell do the same.
Posted July 30, 2012