- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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BEAVERTON, Ore. -- A drone equipped with a tiny GoPro camera buzzed the playing fields last week outside the Tiger Woods Center at Nike's world headquarters as 17-year-old football players on the flawless turf below showcased their skills on ESPNU and mingled with multimillionaire NFL stars.
Ten years ago, Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson wowed the recruiting world with near unfathomable power and precision. Their size and talents translate favorably, of course, to today's game, but much around the recruits in that Class of 2004 bears little resemblance to what was on display last week at The Opening.
Events like that aren't just a camp, combine or a competition. They are none of the above and all of it at the same time.
It's more a carnival -- the World's Fair or Comic-Con of recruiting. So at what better place to ponder the future?
What will the landscape of recruiting look like 10 years from now? It's intriguing and a bit scary.
Consider this: The Opening began with a three-day quarterback festival, the Elite 11 finals, featuring 19 QBs who completed hundreds of physical repetitions, then took hundreds more, replicated with incredible realism, on iPads via Axon Sports' cognitive training program.
Axon employs neuroscience research to develop its product, already in use by the NFL and Major League Baseball. This is no video game, folks.
The mind, you know, is the most pliable part of the human body -- a theme worth noting as recruiting plunges into the generations ahead.
How fast are things moving? Well, The Opening has been around just four years. The iPad was introduced in 2010. ESPNU launched in 2006.
Chicago Bears quarterback Jordan Palmer said he often observes an emerging product at developmental levels of football and doubts the ability of such innovation to effectively impact the game.
"That seems impossible to me," said Palmer, a leader of the Elite 11 program, "which means it'll happen in two years."
With that, here's my vision of the recruiting world in 2024:
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As several top athletes in the Class of 2015 unveiled their college decisions amid the beauty of Nike's campus, surrounded by tributes to the company's professional pitchmen and women, it makes sense that these two entities of the sports world merge in some form. And 10 years might be a long estimate for this one. The rules of amateurism are fading fast in the courtrooms and on playing fields. Bylaws mandated by states like Michigan that prevent participants at The Opening from taking home the gear for competition issued by Nike are long-ago outdated. The day of reckoning is coming for college athletes and prospects alike. And if schools can't create a system to compensate amateur football players, apparel companies could make it work in a fair-market system.
The military influence
Don't scoff. The drone that hovered over the fields at Nike last week is powered by a battery that doesn't allow it to stay aloft long enough to provide an efficient method to capture extensive footage for use in scouting. Give the innovators time, though, and it will. Picture the Alabama and Auburn drones fighting for air space above the game of a key recruit. Additionally, it won't be long before something like SportVu equipment invades recruiting. At work in international soccer and the NBA, SportVu cameras use Israeli missile-tracking technology to capture movements at a rate of 25 photos per second. Important people in recruiting are looking at how to make use of Computer Vision, a similar technology. In a nutshell, we're talking about computers that see, learn and could interpret data for coaches.
Bigger, faster, stronger
Peterson measured 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds as a high school senior 10 years ago; Johnson was 6-4, 210. Considering their dominance at the next levels, it's difficult to process that at their pre-college size among today's prospects, these modern-day NFL stars would merely look big; not like men among boys. Many of the cornerbacks this year at The Opening are nearly the same size as Peterson in 2004. In 10 years, Peterson and Johnson could just look average. And the freakish specimens of today, like 6-foot-4 1/2, 240-pound defensive end Josh Sweat, who ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash and recorded a vertical leap of 39 inches, will be more commonplace.
Data and verified science
Despite advancements in performance testing such as the SPARQ ratings and the ease with which college coaches can obtain video footage of prospects, recruiting remains something of an art form. It's on track soon to cross the threshold into science. Guess what's set to happen with the aforementioned flood of information available from Computer Vision or another emerging piece of data-gathering technology? Coaches will make more informed decisions. Let's say a recruiter wants to compare the 10-yard acceleration rates of three defensive end prospects against shotgun offenses over 100 plays in the third and fourth quarters. Technology can make it happen. And will.
Think European soccer. In the new world order of the NCAA -- or whatever body administrates college football in 10 years -- the old rules of competitive balance will be out. Frankly, they've been gone for a while, but bigger changes are coming to a stadium near you, perhaps to include junior-level football programs. Imagine Art Briles at Baylor with the opportunity to craft quarterbacks and receivers in his system from the U10 level. With the emergence of academies like IMG in Florida, unaffiliated with college programs, how far, really, are we from college coaches and their staffs of scouts recruiting on the elementary school fields?
Psychology of sport
Herein lies a crossover point between the future of recruiting, as dictated by anticipated shifts in the regulations that govern college football, and the future in accordance with societal trends. We've seen in the past decade a movement toward training quarterbacks in the mental aspects of the game as much as the physical. It was on display this year at the Elite 11 finals, as the program's leaders again proved ahead of their time by testing the quarterbacks' ability to handle uncomfortable situations away from the field. The results reveal much about leadership and compatibility -- key components in team-building. Likely with more access to prospects in the recruiting process over the years to come, college coaches will capitalize on this concept, working with more precision to construct the pieces of a championship puzzle. Call it scientific matchmaking, recruiting style.