Last week Bill Conley of ESPN.com/Scouts Inc. wrote an interesting article on the importance of team sponsored summer camps in identifying under-the-radar talent at the high school level. Conley, as I’m sure some of you know, spent nearly two decades as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for Ohio State, finally retiring in 2004 to work as a media analyst. Needless to say, this guy has been around the scouting block a time or two (as opposed, to you know, some washed up backup from a I-AA team.) Conley uses the example of former Ohio State safety and current Tennessee Titan Donnie Nickey as a player who came out of virtual obscurity to impress coaches at a summer Ohio State camp, earning his way to a scholarship and eventually stardom. Nickey’s story, while one of the more prolific examples in recent memory, is not the only illustration of an unheralded recruit who gets a big boost in his recruitment thanks to a strong camp showing, and this summer dozens of rising high school seniors will go through similar situations.
Having attended the Naval Academy’s summer camp as a high school underclassman in 2003 I have some familiarity with the subject, although I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I was ever in a position to be recruited, much less even compete in touch seven-on-seven’s (note to aspiring youngsters; 5’4, 130-lb cornerbacks do not match up well against even legitimate Division III level talent.) Still, despite all too frequent burnadge and an inability to understand even a simple two deep zone coverage, I left with a better understanding of the process and what the older kids (that is those with actual ability) went through in their quest to pick up a Division I-A football scholarship offer. High school camps are still tremendously important in today’s recruiting landscape, but over the last few years we’ve seen a real growth in the prominence of independent Scouting combines.
There’s the NIKE/SPARQ combines, the National Underclassman Combine, and the new look Scout.com/Under Armor combine. Over the course of May, Under Armor and Scout.com sponsored four of these combines, held in the cities of Charlotte, Cincinnati, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. Today another combine will take place in my home town of Baltimore, while combines in Kansas City, Oakland, and Atlanta will take place later in the month. While there had certainly been a good deal of hoopla surrounding the top prospects entering the Under Armor sponsored combines, there have also been some ‘sleeper’ prospects who have really improved their stock in recent showings, just like Nickey did years ago at the Ohio State camp. These players, many of whom came into the month with only a few Division I offers (if any at all) proved their abilities in a series of standardized physical tests as well as one-on-one competition. Here are seven under-the-radar players (all currently 1-star rated prospects by Scout.com) from recent combines who posted strong enough performances to make their case as the next Donnie Nickey.
RB Shane McCullen, Apache Junction (AZ) - This may very well be your first time hearing about the rising senior from Arizona, but I can guarantee you it won’t be your last. Coming into last week’s Phoenix combine McCullen had already established himself as one of the best mutli-purpose backs in the state, but even his already impressive on-field performance in 2007 couldn’t have prepared scouts for what they were about to see. The 6’2, 191-lb McCullen ran an amazing 4.35 40 yard dash (highest at the combine) to go along with a 4.10 shuttle (second highest) and 35.4-inch vertical leap. Already a state track standout in the 100 meter, McCullen had curiously garnered only four offers before the combine, with only one coming from a BCS conference program. With amazing athleticism and plenty of room to fill out his 6’2 frame, expect McCullen’s scholarship offers to double or even triple over the course of the summer.
EDIT: Since writing this, McCullen has picked up offers from Utah and California. See, I told you.
WR/S Steve Hull, Sycamore (OH) - A relative unknown coming into the Cincinnati combine, Hull’s performance and attitude earned him both an on-the-spot offer from the University of Cincinnati and numerous double-takes from the so-called recruiting experts who overlooked him. Already an impressive performer at both safety and wide receiver on tape, Hull posted solid measurables with a 4.44/40 (second amongst wide receivers), 4.16 20-yard shuttle, 7.00 Three-Cone Drill (an agility and quickness test; highest at the combine) and a 9-10’ standing broad jump (second amongst receivers.) More telling perhaps was his performance in the one-on-one drills, where Hull out-muscled and out worked some of the best defensive backs in the area. Illustrating the importance of a good combine, Scout.com analyst Bob Lichtenfels went so far as to say that the single day performance by Hull probably helped him move from being a “MAC type player” to an “upper level Big Ten” prospect at the wide receiver position.
DT Jordan Stepp, Ben Davis (IN) - Is this the next Trevor Laws? Consider for a moment that of the thirteen safeties who ran the 40 yard dash at the Cincinnati combine, only two ran times faster than a 4.62. Now consider Jordan Stepp, who as a 280-lb interior lineman ran faster than those eleven players. Stepp, while undersized at just a hair over 6’0, showed elite level quickness with a 4.41 short shuttle, while posting one of the highest vertical jumps for a defensive tackle at all the Scout.com combines with a 33’ effort. Already being recruited by several MAC schools, Stepp’s strong showing in Cincinnati should garner him increased attention from some of the big boys.
CB Byron Best, Greenwood (SC) - Best came into the Charlotte, North Carolina combine with no FBS offers but sure turned heads when he ran a combine leading 4.37 40-yard dash. At only 5’9, 180 size concerns may have hurt his early recruitment, but aided by his 40 time at the combine and a position leading 38.0-inch vertical leap he has since earned a scholarship offer from North Carolina. Greenwood is a highly respected South Carolina program that turns out FBS prospects with the best of them, so don’t be surprised to see more ACC programs jump into Best’s recruitment over the summer. Other Sleeper Prospects from the May Scout.com/Under Armor Combines to Watch: RB Shad Bride, St. Johns (AZ), WR Kyle Larimer, Green Valley (NV), Joumeel McLaurine, CB Columbus East (OH), S Winston Hines, Pulaski County (KY), WR Luke Swift, Center Grove (IN), RB Ali Alaboody, Dearborn Fordon (MI). Full List of Combine Results: [Charlotte] [Phoenix] [Cincinnati]