Zone Read: Showcase or Simply for Show?

Arizona Sports News online

Schools are out, 7’s are in.

Welcome to June high school football in the Valley of the Sun.

Two weeks ago “Zone Read” deep dove into college offers, what they actually mean, and why, in some cases, they can entitle little for players hoping to continue playing beyond high school.

Last month droves of college coaches made their way to Arizona to eye prospects. Now, many of those prospects are returning the favor.

In the ever-evolving, seemingly non-stop recruiting cycle, dozens of Arizona high school players are currently hopscotching from one college campus to another, ready to flash their skills in front of numerous programs in a small window of time.

Camp Confident(ial)

As mentioned above, prospects and colleges essentially trade playing hosts when most high school academic years conclude – usually in mid-to-late May.

These showcase events provide opportunities for players to meet and develop relationships with coaches or, in some cases, build an even stronger bond if said school has already offered a scholarship.

Some decisions come with potential pitfalls for both sides.

“Every school that’s recruiting you wants you to go to their camp,” Corona del Sol head coach Jake Barro said. “A lot of schools started to figure out, kids would have to pick and choose which camp they would go to and, if you weren’t their first choice, you might miss out on getting to see that kid, and get to talk to him.”

The mega camps, which players must pay to attend, are beneficial to smaller colleges in the area who may not have the same recruiting budget as the big university host school. 

In many instances, these events are a win-win for everyone involved. 

“It’s good for the colleges because they get a lot out of it, and it’s good for the kids, too,” Barro continued. “You spend four hours and you get seen by [in some cases] close to 100 college staffs…generally speaking, the camps that are on college campuses are beneficial.”

Saguaro head coach Zak Hill has seen it from both sides.

The former Boise State and Arizona State offensive coordinator has been a camp coaching participant at both the prep, and college, level.

“I think it’s [beneficial] to both,” Hill said. “It’s great for the colleges because those guys can go to a location and see a bunch of kids. On the other side of it, from a parents and kids who want to get recruited perspective, you can have the opportunity to get in front of a lot of different coaches from a lot of different schools and not have to hit the one-off camps. For a kid, it’s easier to hit one place that’s going to have multiple schools and multiple coaches.”

Hill noted, while each school has their own recruiting philosophy, it’s not uncommon for prospects to be offered from these college showcase events after concluding their workouts..

VIP Invitee

College football can be filled with dirty little secrets tucked behind the scenes from fans, players, parents, even coaches who don’t fully understand “the system.”

Mega camps held each summer at high-level programs are no different.

In many instances, the players who attend these camps aren’t necessarily competing on a level playing field when it comes to getting a fair evaluation through their reps. 

“At these mega camps, there are kids who are ‘VIP invitees,'” one Valley head coach said speaking off the record. “They will get the majority of the reps or they will get pulled off to the side to get their own workouts. That’s absolutely happening…it’s not like these coaches don’t know who these kids are. They’ve done their spring evaluations and they know who’s coming to these camps. Do you know what I’m saying? They’re not coming in blind.”

Fair or not, it’s a who’s who mentality. The “experts” put stars next to player’s names for a reason.

Always have, likely always will.

But is that camp bias fair to the other, non-VIP players, who are paying the same entry fee and hoping to get an equal opportunity in the spotlight to impress the coaches in attendance? 

“Yes, I do think it’s fair,” one Valley head coach, choosing to speak anonymously. “It has to do with the [host] school’s recruiting, right? They’re going to see the guys that they want to see. They can’t see all 600 kids. Now that we’re in June, colleges can get kids on campus and do personal workouts. They can test them, see what position they’re in, and try to get a better feel if they’re a good fit for them or not.”

GA Pay Day

Graduate assistants in college football work extremely hard, often for modest pay (most somewhere in the range of $25,000-60,000 a year) when compared to full-time staffers in their own building.

Nick Saban was a GA at Kent State. Dabo Swinney’s first college job was serving as a graduate assistant at Alabama under Gene Stallings. Lincoln Riley’s first paid gig was on Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech. 

They all started somewhere – handling mostly non-glamorous tasks late into the night, and often into the wee hours of the morning. Some would argue GA’s grind just as hard, if not harder, than their handsomely salaried peers.

However, as the summer temperatures go up, so too can a GA’s paycheck.

“One opportunity for GA’s to make more money is by running camps,” one head coach explained speaking off the record. “You have the GA’s run the camps. They get the revenue generated from that camp. So, what happens is, [they] want to get as many kids to the camp as possible. The more kids that attend, the more money they get for the program.”

The grad assistants are also frequently tasked with ensuring the top players attending the camp, who the host school is actively targeting, are part of the VIP invitees listed above.

GA’s running mega camps are approved by the NCAA, and serves as the perfect “loop hole” for head coaches to reward their staffers who sit at, or near, the bottom of the coaching hierarchy.

Social Distortion

While the NCAA prohibits college coaches from publicly promoting recruits on social media until they have signed their letter of intent, it certainly doesn’t preclude the opposite.

The evolution of Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other platforms have enabled high schoolers to create, manage, and run, essentially, their own personal football PR firm from a small group of apps on their iPhones.

Regardless of how they performed at the showcase, a quick picture and post with a high-profile college head coach or coordinator has become commonplace. 

Does recruited perception actually lead to recruited reality in some instances?

“I don’t think it helps,” Basha head coach Chris McDonald said without hesitation. “I think at one point it did. When you had the trailblazers of kids that understood how to market themselves at the beginning. The masses do it now, right? These college coaches are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to evaluate kids…everybody already knows who they’re recruiting and who they’re going after.”

Hill believes the onslaught of social media posts is simply too much.

“It’s absolutely watered down,” he said. “Unless you’re a highly recruited kid, you have to be patient. I think that’s tough in today’s society because everybody wants to feel like they’re getting attention in the social media world. Everybody’s trying to get some sort of piece of that.”

Know When to Say When

So many camps.

So little time.

The process can be overwhelming, especially for the wide-eyed prospect who wants to flash at every summer event possible in hopes of either landing on college coaches’ radars, or further cementing their place on recruiting boards.

This can be slippery for families mapping out their camp schedules, and in most cases, travel budgets.

“You have to be very careful,” McDonald said. “I say, please contact me if there’s a camp you’re interested in that you’re feeling [unsure] about. There’s just a ton of money grabs out there. It’s a moneymaking thing. It’s not just college showcase camps.”

McDonald continued.

“I’m seeing a lot of younger kids. Freshmen. Sophomores. They’re attending these showcases. They’re attending these college camps. Don’t put the cart before the horse here. My advice to them first is, you want to make sure you’re being evaluated by your coaches at your high school. You want to make sure you’re going to make a rotation on a varsity squad.”

“What good is it to go to any of these camps if you’re going to play JV?”

The overarching advice is simple: live in the present and be realistic with your camp expectations.

Your agenda may not align with a college, and that’s okay. 

There may be a better opportunity elsewhere.