Through the Trifocals

Football "combine" camps are springing up all over the country, giving high school athletes and college coaches an opportunity to find each other. Illinisports discusses both the positive and negative aspects of these camps in this article

A relatively new concept in college football recruiting is the growth of big "combine" camps where large numbers of high school athletes can meet in one location and show their wares for college coaches. Copying the large combine that precedes the NFL draft each year, these specialized camps test for overall athleticism and offer advantages for both the athletes and colleges. The athletes can improve their chances of getting college scholarships, and the college football coaches can find more options for their future fortunes.

Some of these are elite camps with attendance by invitation only. Potential superstars can test their developmental level by doing one-on-one work with players of equal or greater ability. Others are open to all comers and give footballers from large and small schools alike a chance to compete with their peers. More than one "diamond-in-the-rough" has been found by this method, players who otherwise might be ignored by the major colleges due to the size, location, or poor records of their high school teams.

The elite combines are fun for the players because they can test their abilities against top competition. If they do well, they know they will have all the top schools in the country after them. Of course, it is an even better arrangement for the top college programs because they can converge on one spot to gain access to top prospects they might otherwise miss. It helps the rich get even richer with less financial or physical expenditure.

The smaller, regional combines offer the same opportunities for less talented but deserving athletes. Those who can afford to travel to these events can gain major scholarship offers if they excel. Of course, even Division II and Division III schools can find quality individuals for their programs by watching them perform at these combines.

However, despite all the obvious advantages to these camps, there are also some drawbacks that can, in the long run, neutralize some of the advantages. Those athletes who are not as fast, strong or flexible as the naturally gifted superstars still wish to make a good impression. Many of them are now hiring personal trainers, strength coaches, and/or running experts to help them improve their "measurables".

Ultimately, this can evolve into something analogous to a Cold War "arms race". Lesser athletes build themselves into a maximum performance, so the best natural athletes then need to hire trainers and/or do major workouts to maintain their advantage. Each step along the way, more money is spent and more effort is expended. The combine camps may eventually become more a measure of who has done the most preparation or spent the most money rather than who is the best football prospect.

A good example is 40-yard dash times. Most college coaches have certain minimum 40 times they insist upon for each position on their teams. For example, they may only recruit a running back, defensive back or wide receiver with a 4.5 or better time. All high school athletes who play these positions know these minimums as well. In the past, they or their coaches would claim that time whether true or not in the hope they would obtain the best scholarship offers. Now, speed trainers help improve an athlete's 40 time by teaching a quicker start and better form while running a straight line for 40 yards.

As a result, a higher percentage of high school skill position athletes are running 4.5 or better. However, this minimizes the value of the 40 yard dash for testing purposes. Those athletes who cannot afford special training or who enjoy participating in other sports and have less time for speed training can end up falsely labeled as too slow for their positions. Players who pass on the chance to be timed, due to injury or some other complication, may be evaluated as less capable than they really are. The stigma may follow them throughout the recruiting process simply because it is easier for coaches and recruiting experts to accept others' reports than to examine the athletes themselves.

In addition, almost no movements on the football field are straight-line running. The start of a 40-yard dash must be ultra quick, but running backs and wide receivers may need to read the defense before accelerating. Or, they may need to make quick directional changes to reach the openings in the defense. None of these movements are measured by a 40-yard dash.

Since many football movements are lateral, there is also a shuttle test that measures how quickly an athlete can move side to side. This is likely a much better test of a player's athleticism, quickness and hip rotation for lateral movement, but even then it can be practiced to perfection because the precise space and distance requirements are known in advance. This practice can include knowing how to make weight and directional changes at the appropriate times through repetition to obtain a better shuttle time. So again, athletes who can afford the specialized training can look better when compared with others. Of course, athletes who practice for the shuttle event are not practicing a movement that is performed exactly this way on the football field.

Strength is measured at these camps by testing repetitions of lifts of specific weights. Certainly, the strongest individuals can be measured this way. But some athletes develop really early in their lives and are naturally stronger than their later developing peers. Some have longer arms that have less mechanical advantage for lifts but may be ideal for holding off onrushing opponents. And some young athletes are workout warriors who spend years developing strength through specialized training.

Those who develop early may max out before they reach college. So while they may be the "winners" at these camps, they may eventually be unable to compete with later developing athletes once they reach college. And those who have devoted all their high school lives obsessed with maximizing their strength may eventually burn out on the process and may be unable or unwilling to repeat the process when their college coaches make demands on them to do so.

Some of the saddest cases of burnout have resulted from "stage dads" who take charge of their sons' training at an early age and push them to exhaustion in the name of a future professional contract. Former USC quarterback Todd Marinovich comes immediately to mind. He had the benefit of nutritional counselors, quarterback coaching, and weight training. His father was knowledgeable but also ambitious, and he must have pushed too far too long. For once he got to college and away from his father's close watch, Todd did everything he missed out on when he was young. Needless to say, his career careened downhill from there.

Todd Marinovich was a high profile example, but nowhere near the only example of burnout secondary to overwork and overemphasis while young. Given the multimillion dollar contracts in the NFL, there are likely a number of parents around the country who see their sons with rose colored glasses as future stars. Greed may cause a parent to hold his or her son back a year in school to gain an advantage over his classmates, seek legal and illegal supplements to help build his muscle mass, and hire personal trainers, counselors and the like to maximize his potential.

Some may even befriend self-proclaimed recruiting "gurus" in the hope their sons will be given a good review and perhaps noticed by or pushed toward better schools. A few of these recruiting experts may be tempted to take bribes in exchange for a better rating. After all, they are normal fallible humans, and some may replace integrity with dollar signs.

The pressure to excel is great, and it becomes even greater when more and more athletes are going this route to keep up. The more pressure there is, the more likelihood that illegal substances will be used to gain an advantage. Growth hormone, anabolic steroids and other designer substances are plentiful and available if desired. Fears of illegality or health contraindications lessen as physical improvements become noticeable. If not careful, an athlete can destroy his body and mind in a vain attempt to become a football hero.

Some will dislike such negative talk, but there is always a down side to everything positive. Hopefully, only a few will succumb to temptation and use illegal substances. Hopefully, only a few will possess an unwillingness to recognize and accept the consequences of their actions and will prefer to earn their scholarships in an honest fashion. But there is no doubt the pressure to go to extremes will increase as these combines are relied upon more and more by college coaches for finding players worthy of college scholarships.

Thus, it is up to the college coaches to look beyond combine results and evaluate individual athletes over time and through a variety of different situations. Summer camps at the various colleges are available for individual instruction, and some of these are used as tryout camps. The more camps an athlete can attend, the better likelihood he will show his best effort and obtain that precious college scholarship.

Also, coaches should hold off making final decisions on players until they can see them perform in several games their senior seasons. Far too many scholarships are being offered and accepted before the beginning of an athlete's final high school year. The late bloomers are more likely to play best during their senior seasons. And some who looked great as juniors may be on a downward spiral as seniors as the late bloomers grow beyond them. Five of the nine Illinois high school athletes drafted by the NFL this past month were late bloomers who were not highly recruited, so this method will help coaches find the best prospects for college.

More than anything, college coaches should meet and get to know their prospects. Besides learning about age, academic motivation, goals beyond high school, attitudes, etc., coaches should find out whether any of their prospects had temporary limitations that adversely affected their effort during the combine camps. Some might have been sick or injured, some might have been exhausted after a long drive, some might have been unnecessarily tight and couldn't give a peak performance, some might have had to run on a slow surface, etc.

Special consideration should be given to those athletes who cannot afford long trips to camps and campuses. Skyrocketing gasoline costs alone prevent some families from driving their sons to numerous distant locales. An inability to attend camps and combines should not be used against any prospect. After all, some might be working jobs to help their families survive. Instead, college coaches should make more effort to evaluate tapes of these players, talk to their coaches and teachers, and otherwise do the background spade work necessary to place disadvantaged youths on equal footing with their richer peers.

And multi-sport athletes may not have the time to attend camps and do specific football workouts because of involvement with other sports. This diversity of interest makes these young men more adaptable and thus more likely to succeed in school and life because they are not limiting themselves to a narrow focus. And multi-sport athletes often improve markedly once they focus on just one sport in college. These athletes by definition are hard workers because they are practicing one sport or another all year, so that dedication can make them outstanding college players.

A good coach will plug all these variables into the equation and make scholarship offers on much more than just the physical "measurables". Even the best athletes may lack motivation or resist a regimented program. If they are difficult to coach or unmotivated to continue their growth and development, they will never be able to use their ability to best purpose. Future football success depends on recruiting student-athletes who can and will compete for grades and football wins and have the potential to improve. A failure to recruit for these variables can lead to problems for the athlete and the school.

Right now, the football combines are exciting for the players and coaches, so everything is good. But it is human nature to push the limits, especially if there is fear of being left behind. Eventually, what is a good thing can become a bad thing. Let's hope the bad is minimized by coaches and combine organizers who are wise enough and forward-thinking enough to consider the long-term needs of the athletes.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com


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