Combine: "A Wonderful Opportunity"

STARKVILLE - This past Sunday, college coaches, due to NCAA spring recruiting rules, were not allowed to attend the All-American Invitational combine on the campus of Mississippi State University. But high school coaches did take advantage of the talent-filled gathering in Starkville, Mississippi.

The combine serves as the first step in an evaluation process that will ultimately find the best 78 high school players in the nation. In the end, the fortunate prep players selected will participate in the very prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl Game in San Antonio, Texas.

While the spotlight was on the individual players, high school coaches also attended in hopes of taking a few helpful tips to their respective team. Of course, their main concern was serving as a mentor or chaperone to their own player, or players.

Then the domino effect can continue to trickle down in the fall.

"Man, this is a wonderful opportunity," said Starkville High School head coach Bill Lee, who had several of his players invited to the combine. "This is like if you were in a dark room and you turn on a flashlight of excitement. You get a chance to show what you can do and everybody has the spotlight on you. It's going to move your stock up if you do well. So you can't beat this. It also shows you who you have to compete against during the season.

"I tell you what; I wish I had a lot of these athletes. I have seen some good-looking athletes. It gives a kid something to take back to his team, too. When they go back and tell them what kind of guys we will be competing against, it ought to be a wake-up call."

It's also a win-win situation for the attending players, regardless of what their times were or where they finished on the agility charts.

Just being on the field with skilled athletes paid dividends for all involved.

"The biggest thing is the confidence these kids will get being around the best players in the state," said third-year Kosciusko High School head coach John Perry, who had three players attend the invitation-only combine. "To come over here and showcase their talents will be a confidence-booster. Obviously, the results will then go out and give them a chance to be recruited by a lot of folks. It's a chance for them to show what they can do and it's a fun deal for them."

It's a major opportunity as well for the prep standouts to get their feet in the door.

"It just seems like a lot of exposure," said South Panola High School tight ends coach Arnie Oakes, who brought his son, offensive lineman South Oakes (6-0, 267). "Of course, I've known Gene Swindoll for several years and the invitation and opportunity (he and provided) to get these kids exposed is great. I thought this would be a great opportunity to get these kids' names out there.

"The kids still have to work hard in order to be recognized. That's all part of it. A lot of them are going through spring football right now, which we are, too. So to get this type of talent in one place in May is great."

This type of talent is what will fill hundreds of stadiums on Friday nights across the state of Mississippi. Players can take what they've learned for future improvements. Many of these athletes will be competing for a trip to Jackson and state championship.

So it never hurts to get a leg up on the competition, and see exactly who else will be aiming for a championship ring.

"It's a great atmosphere strictly because it allows the kids to see where they are ability-wise against other kids in this state," said Brock Clay, defensive coordinator at Meridian High School. "It's kind of a preseason-preseason type thing. It's also good, as far as the recruiting process is concerned, of getting kids noticed that don't stand out as much as the higher-profiled kids.

"I think it is a really good thing. I see it continuing and maybe having different levels across the state. Maybe have one for other kids not in the Top 100 and even have one on a smaller level." Of course, highly-touted prospects from the Magnolia State didn't exactly need to travel to Starkville get on the recruiting radar screen. Talented performers such as running back Cordera Eason (6-0, 243) of Meridian and West Point High School lineman Keidric Rush (6-2, 340) have already witnessed the constant flood of letters and calls from college coaches.

For that type of talent, a strong showing at these combines can increase their stock on the national scene. But for players from smaller schools in Mississippi, it is a chance to get noticed, period.

"It's real exciting, especially for kids from the smaller schools," said first-year Coahoma County High School head coach Eddie Maxon, also a former Mississippi State defensive lineman. "We play Class 2A football and have some of the best players in the state. So we get to show off our kids and their talent. And it's nothing better than this for young kids to get to know each other.

"They also get to see where they are with the other talent, see how much better they have to get and how far they can go. This lets them know how hard they have to work to get to where they need to be. This helps to level the recruiting field. It doesn't matter where you came from. You just get out there when you get a chance. It will help kids in the long run."

Sometimes, up-and-coming gridiron players may get lost in the shuffle on their own team. Such is the case at Class 4A Kosciusko High School where receiver and Ole Miss commitment Terry Levy (6-1.5, 195) has received the majority of attention. That doesn't mean the Whippets don't have other skilled athletes.

"You have some kids that fly under the radar," said Perry, who had three of his players invited to the combine. "So they need something like this to showcase their talent. We have a tailback (Amore' Winters) that a whole lot of folks are not recruiting right now. But he is a great football player and today will help him out tremendously. So I think it helps all the kids."

And 10 years ago, getting players like Winters noticed was all but impossible, at least not until his senior season was winding down. But with today's up-to-the-minute recruiting websites, such as, thousands of Division I coaches can access information from the elite five-star members to the one-star sleepers.

"This is a big-time atmosphere," said Philadelphia High School head coach Brian Anderson, a former Bulldog offensive lineman. "Back when I was coming out (of high school), you just played football and just maybe, a college coach would come through your school. Now you get this type of atmosphere with a hundred athletes, coaches standing everywhere and here. It's really unbelievable."

For those not in attendance, they will rely on their teammates to fill in the blanks about this combine. And that can serve as an incentive to possibly be on the selected list next spring.

"Football has come a long way in Mississippi," said long-time Vicksburg High School head coach Alonzo Stephens, a strong advocate of combines and camps like these. "Sure it gets kids noticed, but it also gives the other kids motivation to make these camps. The ones here can go back and tell others of the talent level and so on. Other states have been doing this, so we need these camps to showcase our talent (in Mississippi)."

Of course, football was naturally on everybody's mind on this particular Sunday in Starkville. Casual observers could not help but be awed by the prep football talent in Mississippi.

Yet, it's not just how talented they are on the field, but how well they do in the classroom. And one of the first things's Southeast Scouting Director, Scott Kennedy, the person in charge of the 12 national combines, told the student-athletes in attendance, is they have to do it in the classroom if they want to play on the next level. If they follow his advice, then the reward for some is a scholarship providing a free college education.

"There are so many great recruiting tools out there now," said Anderson. "This is a great thing for the kids and the college as well. It's all about getting a chance to get a free education. Football is a great game, but getting an education is even more important. Football can be a tool for education. I used the tool for a college education. It's great to see kids to be able to go to college, and play football."

So with the help of high school coaches and parents, these athletes took advantage of this extraordinary opportunity. And once they hit the field, literally, running and jumping, the rest was up to them.

"Eventually, it comes down to your individual athletic ability," said Lee. "When they put you through timing, shuttle drills and reaction drills, that is the bottom line. With today's technology, they will find out about these kids. It's just getting your foot in the door. The game now is about finding athletes and they are not going to miss athletes."

Paul Jones is a writer for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by website. Paul, also a sports writer for the Columbus Commercial Dispatch, can be reached by email at

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