Las Vegas NLA 7on7- A Look Back

Looking back on the first five years of the Las Vegas New Level Athletics Elite 7on7...

On a cold and windy day in Las Vegas five years ago, the premier 7on7 tournament in the West made its debut.

Teams representing several states in the West converged on the practice field at UNLV for one of the first major, non-scholastic 7on7 tournaments in the region.

A California team that, at that time, had a whole slew of USC commits, was the favorite before the tournament even started.

Another team from California that would feature two massive tight ends who would be college teammates, was another intriguing group to watch.

A team from Montana with a 6-8 quarterback who was committed to play basketball at Gonzaga also was in Sin City, trying to show they had what it took to hang with the other big boys from the region (they didn't).

And so began the very first Badger/New Level 7on7 powered by in 2008.

Five years later, the sixth annual event will take place this weekend, with a new venue (Charlie Frias Park), and a much different look than it did in its initial run.

And while there has been a boat load of talent to come through the tournament in the ensuing years, neither Kashann Simmons or Baron Flenory, the founders of the tournament, expected it to blossom like it has.

"When Baron and I put it together, we were told from the beginning, it would fail," said Simmons.  "We literally had to call every kid ourselves.  We grinded and called all of these guys and just hoped it would work that first year."

Cliff Harris was one of the most dynamic players to play in the first tournament in 2008

That team full of USC commits had several guys stick with the Trojans, and several end up elsewhere, but it was loaded with players like Vontaze Burfict (who'd end up signing with Arizona State and now is with the Cincinnati Bengals), T.J. McDonald (an all Pac-12 safety expected to be drafted in April) and Cliff Harris (who'd become an all-American at Oregon) along with Tennessee defensive back Byron Moore, who spent a year at USC.  Their quarterback was Boise State starter Joe Southwick.

Yet the team with all that talent couldn't gel and didn't even make it to the finals.

The "other" California team?  They featured two of the best tight ends in the country that year, Zach Ertz and his Stanford teammate Levine Toilolo.  Their running back was Cierre Wood, the leading rusher on Notre Dame's BCS title game squad from this past year.  The quarterback was Oregon State's Cody Vaz, who split duties for the Beavers nine-win season.

The defense was overshadowed by its offensive counterparts, but featured Oregon State defensive back Sean Martin, UCLA linebacker Todd Golper and Oregon linebacker Michael Clay, who would be the Defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl (in fact, the 2013 Fiesta Bowl MVPs are both alums, and the most dynamic player in that game was also an alum).

The 6-8 quarterback from Montana who was going to Gonzaga to play basketball?  Brock Osweiler, now Peyton Manning's backup with the Denver Broncos, who spurned Mark Few and the Zags to play quarterback for Dennis Erickson at Arizona State.

"Brock Osweiler, Cierre Wood, Levine Toilolo, we had to call each one of those guys and tell them why they had to come to this 7on7 tournament no one had ever done," said Simmons.  "Vontaze Burfict, we had to convince him too.  T.J. McDonald's dad drove an RV with all the guys from Fresno (including T.J., his younger brother Tevin, now a starting safety at UCLA and Harris)."

The first year was set up in a unique format, with players representing their states, seven teams from California, two teams from Utah, a team from Arizona, one from Nevada, one from Washington (who would make it to the finals), one from Colorado, one from Wyoming and one from Idaho plus a team comprised of players from North and South Dakota.

"We thought it would be state by state every year, but now we're at a place when guys bring their own teams.  We went from like 16 teams to now more than 55 teams this year.  We never thought it would come to fruition.  As it evolved, we started nurturing the event.  No more making the phone calls to the players, we had coaches calling us," said Simmons.

Simmons and Flenory said they sit back weekly and watch so many of the former participants dot college rosters and some, NFL squads, like Burfict and Osweiler, rookies this past season.

"I show my son (Brandon Simmons, a four-star defensive back in the 2014 class), all those guys who came through this tournament, guys like Brock and Jake Heaps and Kasen Williams and its phenomenal to see those guys doing so well in their career.  We knew they were good, but shucks, now you see Brock backing up Peyton Manning and Vontaze starting for the Bengals," said Simmons.

Two of Oregon's chief contributors on offense this year played in the same tournament in 2010, neither team facing each other, and neither probably knowing at that time, they would be future teammates.

Marcus Mariota was in Vegas in 2010 and winning the Fiesta Bowl in 2013

Marcus Mariota, who hadn't even started as a junior, led a team named Team 808, paying homage to the area code in Honolulu (and having as many players from Utah and Nevada as Hawaii), coached by Hawaii native and former NFL Mr. Irrelevant, Tevita Ofahengaue.

When reminded that one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football led his team to just one win in the tournament?

"Quarterbacks can't run in 7on7," Ofahengaue wryly replied.

DeAnthony Thomas played with Team Cathedral that tournament, easily the most talented player in the whole field, and a star on the 7on7 circuit because of his ability to play any position.

"It's crazy that Marcus and DeAnthony were there and in the same tournament," said Simmons. 

Thomas would later move to play for 1925 All-Stars, who would make it to the finals of the Badger/NLA National Tournament that summer in Tuscaloosa, with the "Black Mamba" making a name for himself in that event.

"He was one of my favorite players ever in that tournament," said Simmons.  "He was so dynamic, offensively and defensively.  He came down to nationals and he was a freak.  He was just phenomenal.  He was something you'd never seen and was truly one of the best talents I've ever seen come out of the West."

It was the year before, in 2009, that the face and scope of the 7on7 tournament started to change.

With a successful maiden voyage in 2008, sticking to the state vs. state model seemed to be the best approach.

That's what the aim was the following year, which much the same set up from the previous year.

But B2G, a longtime elite program in the Southland, brought a group of players that they trained, to represent one of the California squads as did Team AIGA. 

While they still maintained the California name, B2G's handpicked group of elite prospects from Southern California (it would feature Oregon quarterback Bryan Bennett, Arizona cornerback Shaq Richardson, Colorado receiver Paul Richardson, UCLA safety Dietrich Riley and USC cornerback Joshua Shaw among others)  and AIGA's group (Arizona quarterback Jesse Scroggins, Washington linebackers Princeton Fuimaono and John Timu and USC linebacker Dion Bailey), would become the new model.

"We were going to stick with state vs. state, we thought it would be the best competition and kids want to bring the best competition so that was our vision," said Simmons.  "But then we went down to Florida and the South Florida Express asked if they could bring a team from the Miami area, so that was the first team to truly bring an All-Star team to an event.  Coaches were saying ‘I've got kids from my area and we'll bring teams from our own area.'  It made our jobs easier and we were still bringing the talent in regardless.  Coaches went to the first event and said they wanted to come back and try and win this thing.  They saw the media coverage and it blew up."

B2G didn't have much success that year despite a talented roster but AIGA would win the 2009 tournament.

And smarting from their humbling loss in 2009, B2G would win the tournament in successive years, beating Team Utah in the 2010 finals and topping the 1925 All-Stars in overtime in 2011.

In fact, Washington State receiver Gabriel Marks and USC tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick were on both of those teams, the only players to win twice in Vegas.

Gabriel Marks (at left), won two NLA 7on7 tournaments before heading to Washington State

When B2G won it in 2010, they did it in a year where just about every team represented a training group or select team.  1925, led by former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson and Super Bowl winner Brian Kelly, made their first appearance (that summer, they would make it to the finals of nationals, despite finishing in third place at the Vegas 7on7).

Then there is the case of Team Utah.  Coached by one of the finest coaches in the state, South Jordan Bingham's David Peck, Utah has made it to the semifinals each of the last four years, losing in the finals to AIGA in 2009, losing in the finals to B2G again in 2010 and losing to B2G in the semifinals in 2011.

Finally, in 2012, Utah broke through and won the title.

"Coach Peck knows how to coach and they know how to compete," said Simmons. "He takes the best players from Utah and coaches them up.  They play physical and they play methodical, they play solid defense and the finally got over the hump. If you had to place your bets this year, put it on Utah."

Several former NFL players have comprised teams since Johnson and Kelly.  Chris Claiborne, the 1998 Butkus Award Winner out of USC and a first-round pick of the Detroit Lions, leads the Frat Boyz and Eastbay Gamebreakers under his University 55 foundation.  Another former USC linebacker, Willie McGinest, brought a team a year ago, the former NFL All-Pro taking a group of guys made up of several Long Beach Poly players, where he prepped.  Chuck Levy, the former Arizona Cardinal, will bring a team from the Phoenix area.  Taylor Barton, a former Washington quarterback, will bring squads from Oregon and Washington.

And this year, the Snoop Dogg All-Stars, yes, the traveling 7on7 team of rapper Snoop Dogg (which features Najiel Hale, the son of the late rapper Nate Dogg), will also be in Vegas.

While the tournament has exploded beyond either Simmons or Flenory's expectations, they still think back to the first few years.

"I still say the best and most dominant player I ever saw at the Vegas 7on7, in terms of the 7on7, was Zach Ertz," said Flenory.  "He was the most dominant 7on7 player of all time in Vegas and they won the championship because of him."

And neither was surprised when he was an All-American this year.

"He catches everything," said Simmons.

In fact, in naming their top five, there are four names that are on both lists.

Both agreed on Ertz and also each had Cliff Harris and Vontaze Burfict.  Chris Martin, who's now at Kansas, but has had a much-traveled career, was another favorite.

"I ended up coaching the team with Kenny Stills and Chris Martin, and Chris was just a freak.  He was so good and we took full advantage of him being a mismatch," said Simmons.

Flenory chose Deontay Greenberry, now at Houston, and a relative unknown, for his team fifth spot.

"Nobody knew who he was when he got there," said Flenory.  "Everyone knew who he was when he left."

Simmons went with six, DeAnthony Thomas and Kasen Williams, now at Washington, rounding out his group.

"DeAnthony was phenomenal," said Simmons.  "And Kasen was just a freshman that first year and was killing guys two years older than him.  Just killing them."

Su'a Cravens (USC), Bryce Treggs (Cal), Jordan Payton (UCLA) and Gabriel Marks (Washington State) were other favorites of Simmons while Flenory was a fan of Mariota, Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington), Ahmad Dixon (Baylor) and T.J. McDonald (USC).

"Brock Osweiler, his team wasn't very good, but he was one of my favorite prospects ever," said Flenory.

Brock Osweiler was a commit to Gonzaga for basketball when he was at the 2008 tournament

And both said Burfict was easily the most physically imposing player they have seen in Vegas.

"Vontaze just scared people," said Flenory.  "I think at first he thought he was supposed to be in pads.  He was a freak.  He was intimidating.  He hit one kid and the kid almost died."

Simmons and Flenory are eager to see what a new venue and more teams will bring.  But the early years, when they were establishing the premier 7on7 tournament in the region, give them confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

"We look back at pictures of that team that won it and these guys are now reaching the cream of their college career, the best in their positions, and when we wonder ‘how did this happen', we remember, that when you're persistent with something you can produce some great things," said Simmons.

Brandon is in his ninth year with and FOXSportsNext, currently as a National Recruiting Analyst and West Regional Manager. Prior to joining the Scout Recruiting Team, he was a team recruiting writer.  He's been covering recruiting for the Scout Network since 2003.
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