They won't wear helmets or pads, and there will be no college coaches in attendance, but this weekend will include one of the most important events in the recruitment of eight local high school football players.
South Jersey Elite, a team based in Egg Harbor Township, will be among 23 teams competing in a New Level Badger Sport 7-on-7 National Championship Series qualifier tournament today and Sunday in Birmingham, Ala.
The 13-player team, comprised of three sophomores and 10 juniors, includes eight from the Cape-Atlantic League: Holy Spirit juniors Nigel Jones and Matt Rubino and sophomore Ethan Gambale; Oakcrest juniors Brandon Bell and Mark Clements; Atlantic City sophomore Jarren McBryde; St. Augustine Prep junior John Barillo; and St. Joseph junior Darryl Smith.
All of them are being recruited by NCAA schools, ranging from high-majors (Jones has offers from Rutgers, Temple and Western Michigan) to Division III schools.
While NCAA rules prohibit college coaches from attending the event, it is covered extensively by the "Big Three" recruiting websites - Scout.com, Rivals.com and ESPN. College coaches across the country are known to use those services.
"I'm just looking to get some college recognition, get a scholarship, hopefully, and just get my name around," said Barillo, a 17-year-old running back and linebacker from Ventnor. "I get to showcase all my abilities. There's going to be a lot of talent."
The top three teams in Birmingham will qualify for the national championships in Dallas on July 2-3.
The games are one-hand touch rather than tackle, on a 45-yard field. There are no linemen, and rather than a pass rush, there is a four-second limit on passing plays before they are blown dead.
"It's like street ball," said Jones, an 18-year-old running back and cornerback from Pleasantville. "Like when you're kids. You just play and throw the ball around."
Still, it is considered by many to offer an accurate representation of players' skills.
One of the team's four coaches, former NFL player John Stone, said college and pro teams use 7-on-7 drills frequently in practice.
"It's a fairly accurate look at catching ability, speed, arm strength, coverability," said Stone, 31, a Mainland Regional graduate who now works at Oceanside Wellness and Sport in EHT, which sponsors the team.
Barillo, who has been contacted by several schools including Miami and Pittsburgh, said he has heard of players getting scholarship offers on the spot after 7-on-7 tournaments.
"You can tell a football player by the plays they make, especially a (skill-position) player," Jones said. "If a skill player does something good, you can tell, with pads or without pads."
Another of the coaches, former Holy Spirit player Uriah McClain, noted that the pass-heavy style is a unique opportunity for wide receivers and defensive backs.
"A lot of times (those) kids don't have a chance to get featured," said McClain, 30, who until recently was the coach at Moorestown and previously was an assistant at Spirit. "The Cape-Atlantic League is a heavy running league."
While it might seem challenging to have a team full of individuals each trying to get noticed, Stone said that's not necessarily a bad thing because football is a game of individual battles, every one of which contributes to a play working.
"It's just like an NFL player in a contract year," Stone said. "The better they do, obviously, the better the team's going to do."
The street-ball analogy may accurately describe the style of play, but there's no mistaking how seriously the players are taking it. They've had six practices and trained hard.
"The whole theme of this has been a business trip," McClain said.
The trip is costing each player $250, with some help from Oceanside, whose president is Stephen Rubino, father of Matt Rubino.
That investment will seem like nothing if it helps garner college scholarships.
"Anything that you can do to expose yourself to college coaches is a good thing," McClain said. "College coaches are notoriously busy, and they rely on these (recruiting) services. We're just trying to get our kids noticed."
Note: The tournament was scheduled to be held in Tuscaloosa but was moved due to the deadly tornadoes that tore through that city and much of Alabama this week.
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