Updated: 8:15 a.m. Monday, June 30, 2014 | Posted: 7:00 a.m. Monday, June 30, 2014

EXAMINING GROWTH & IMPACT OF 7-ON-7

Growth of 7-on-7 football game-changer for high school recruiting

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A look at the rules and formations used in 7-on-7 football.
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Kyle Cabra (center) celebrates an interception by Tyler Gordon (right) during 7-on-7 football practice at Palm Beach Central in Wellington, Florida on June 19, 2014. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

By Anthony Chiang

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

WELLINGTON —

Just two weeks after Dwyer won the Class 7A state title and four months before the start of spring practice, more than 50 of the area’s top high school football players made their way to a park in Wellington.

A Sunday during Christmas break might seem like an odd time to begin offseason training, but high school football has turned into a year-round sport. So the area’s best gathered Dec. 29 to try out for the BallerNation Football Club, a local 7-on-7 team that participates in tournaments around the state in the spring.

“You have to get out there and you have to compete during the offseason,” said BallerNation founder Dennis Abbate, an assistant coach at Palm Beach Central High. “You can’t just play football four months out of the year.”

The emergence of 7-on-7 football has given athletes around the country an opportunity to continue playing organized football in the months leading up to spring practice. And as soon as spring practice ends, 7-on-7 tournaments resume for the summer.

The one-hand touch version of football played in T-shirts and shorts might remind you of the game played in back yards, but its speed and sophistication make it a big-time sport.

Using a 40-yard field, games are played with a running clock of 25 minutes. A team has just three downs to make a first down.

The offense has a quarterback, five receivers and a center (who is not allowed to go out for a pass). Defenders can’t rush the quarterback, who under typical rules must pass to one of his five targets in four seconds.

In the summer, the skill-position players for most high school teams get in extra work together by participating in 7-on-7 tournaments. The Florida High School Athletic Association lets teams play together as long as players don’t wear helmets or pads or engage in physical contact.

But it’s the spring 7-on-7 circuit that has transformed prep football by creating new showcases for top players. In the spring, players can team up with their area’s best to form football’s version of American Legion baseball or AAU basketball all-star teams.

“It put my name on the map big time. It brought my rankings up,” said FSU signee Travis Rudolph, a former Cardinal Newman wide receiver who played for the South Florida Blur and the South Florida Express before his senior season.

“Every big-time role model will tell you that a high school coach is not going to get you into college. You have to build a brand for yourself. You have to do it on your own with the books and on the field.”

Tournaments around the state, including the IMG 7v7 National Championship in Bradenton and the B2G Sports 7-on-7 tournament in Fort Lauderdale, attract Florida’s top players. This year, Alabama commits Calvin Ridley and Shawn Burgess-Becker — both from Monarch High in Coconut Creek — led Miami’s Florida Fire to the IMG title.

Some of Palm Beach County’s best also played 7-on-7 in the offseason, including Boynton Beach four-star quarterback Lamar Jackson, Dwyer three-star wide receiver Tavares Martin and Royal Palm Beach three-star linebacker Charles Perry, who has an oral commitment to attend Miami. This spring, they all joined the county’s lone independent 7-on-7 team, BallerNation Football Club.

“It’s great,” said Park Vista running back Zander Bernard, who also played for BallerNation. “You get exposure everywhere you go. All of these practices get you better. I’m not going to lie, it helps a lot. It keeps you on your toes and it keeps you conditioned.”

It also helps with recruiting, as 7-on-7 gives players — particularly quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs — an opportunity to produce additional highlights for college coaches who crave film.

“Wide receivers and cornerbacks are allowed to do a lot of the things you would evaluate if they were in full pads, like running routes, catching the ball, dropping your hips and backpedaling,” said Mike Farrell, a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.

College coaches may watch video of 7-on-7 competition, but the NCAA prohibits college coaches and members of college coaching staffs from attending 7-on-7 games. In addition, NCAA member schools are not allowed to host, sponsor or conduct 7-on-7 events at their facilities.

According to the NCAA’s website, its enforcement staff is monitoring 7-on-7 events to learn more about the craze. The staff is trying to build contacts in the world of 7-on-7 football so it can head off illicit recruiting by the kind of so-called street agents who have tainted youth basketball.

“As long as the NCAA controls it, which they have, and makes sure this doesn’t turn into AAU basketball, then I think it’s helpful,” Farrell said.

University of Miami football coach Al Golden believes 7-on-7 is changing the product you see on television on Saturdays and Sundays. He thinks it could be prompting bigger players to more frequently become receivers.

“It’s almost like, all the guys that used to be fullbacks, linebackers and tight ends, now they’re playing receiver or kind of a Jimmy Graham tight end spot,” Golden said. “It’s an interesting dynamic.”

Golden pointed to Hurricanes signee Tyre Brady from South Dade High as an example of this trend. Brady is 6-foot-3 and almost 200 pounds, but he was recruited as a wide receiver.

“If you look at him, you would say, what’s the difference between him and a lot of the guys that play at linebacker?” Golden said.

The difference for many is 7-on-7 football, whose growth is expected only to increase.

BallerNation hopes to grow along with it. Abbate plans to have at least one player from every high school in the county on his team, and hopes next year to play in tournaments around the country.

“This is the best show in town,” he said. “If you want to compete at the highest level, you have got to be a part of this. If you’re not, you’re missing out.”

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