Commentary

How early is too early?

Recruiting progressing to offering, accepting commits from junior high kids

Updated: July 26, 2012, 11:49 AM ET
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

Coming soon to a middle school near you: The latest in hot recruiting buzz.

The University of Washington on Tuesday added an oral commitment from quarterback Tate Martell of San Diego, high school graduating class of 2017, just as word spread that LSU offered a scholarship to linebacker Dylan Moses of Baton Rouge, La., another promising soon-to-be eighth-grade prospect.

David Sills
Courtesy of the Sills FamilyClass of 2015 quarterback David Sills committed to USC as a 13-year-old.
OK, how young is too young?

Early commits are all the rage in college football. Last week at the Elite 11 finals in California, 24 of the 25 quarterbacks in attendance had pledged to schools before their senior seasons of high school, including two who gave their word last year.

Not even a decade ago, such preliminary decisions were considered revolutionary.

How far we've advanced. Or perhaps, regressed.

The practice of offering scholarships and taking commitments from 14-year-old football players, on the surface, is harmless. Really, it's for show more than anything.

Who could expect Martell, 14, to stick to his word in 4 years, when UW may or may not run the same offense with same coaches? This year alone, four new head coaches are set to patrol the Pac-12 sidelines. Just three coaches in the league have run their programs for more than three years.

Look how much college football has changed since 2007. It's no easy task to predict how the game will look in 2017.

And likewise, Washington's offer is contingent that Martell continues on his current track. And that he even wants to play football in college. His personal coach, California QB guru Steve Clarkson, compared Martell on Wednesday to Fran Tarkenton and Brett Favre, which is slightly less ridiculous than the moment some coach decides to extend an offer to a toddler.

But stories like Tate Martell's are not going away. Two years ago, USC accepted a commitment from David Sills of Elkton, Md., also a Clarkson pupil and friend of Martell, as an eighth-grader.

According to Clarkson, it's the wave of the future. Athletes are more specialized today, often spending three times as many hours per year on football than the players of a generation ago. They ought to be ready to make such decisions much earlier, he said.

"The next time a sixth- or seventh-grader commits," Clarkson said, "you've already been doused with the frozen water, so the shock is gone."

Clarkson said programs like his, which identify and groom quarterbacks barely into their teens, are growing in prominence as high school football loses some of its power in recruiting.

The high school game remains the main avenue to college, but because of economic concerns in many states, emerging offseason programs and 7-on-7 training, other effective methods exist to prepare kids for college football according to Clarkson.

In the end, he said, only the most fit high school programs will survive.

It's a depressing forecast for sure, and one that would likely deprive many players otherwise on track for college of a chance to make it. Not everyone, of course, can be like Sills or Martell.

And even the prodigies, while no doubt blessed with remarkable skills, often fail. The hit ratio on recruits rated highly as seniors hovers only around 60 percent. Imagine all the additional variables in trying to predict college stardom for a middle-school legend.

The last thing we need is a whole batch of young players who fall victim to the pressures that befell Todd Marinovich, the former QB prodigy groomed from a young age who never made it big past college and spiraled into drug addiction.

That's not to predict failure for Sills, Martell or Moses. But the more of these players offered before they play a down in high school, the more likely that one develops into a sad story, avoidable if our recruiting culture didn't push so hard, so soon.

When Trey Griffey, son of the former baseball great Ken Griffey Jr., was born in 1994, the Seattle Mariners' management mailed him a contract dated 2012. Trey quit baseball as a sixth-grader and will begin his freshman season in football at Arizona this fall.

That contract from the Mariners was a joke.

These latest early offers are not. Or are they?

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