What began as a summertime way for high school football teams to prepare for the season has become the latest tool for players to attract college scouts. But 7-on-7 passing camps also have grown into big business for endorsement companies and shady agents and are clearly in the crosshairs of the NCAA.
In 7-on-7, players do not wear pads and typically are dressed in shorts and practice jerseys. The offense has a quarterback and six other skill-position players (running backs, receivers, tight ends), and the defense uses linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks. Since there are no linemen on either side, the quarterback doesn't face a pass rush but has four seconds to throw the ball or the play is whistled dead.
Passing tournaments began to take off about 10 years ago as more high school teams went to the spread offense and coaches looked for ways to keep players in shape during the summer months, when state governing bodies did not allow teams to practice in pads. Now, though, even teams that use predominantly run-oriented offenses compete in passing tournaments.
The quick-pace format began as a way for teams to work on timing and implement the passing portion of their offense and allow defenses to get more reps in covering receivers.
"When we were changing to our style of offense, it started as a way to work on the timing and relationship between our quarterbacks and receivers," said Gordon Lee assistant Charlie Wiggins, who was one of the first coaches in the area to begin competing in the 7-on-7 format when he headed Notre Dame's program. "It was a chance to compete against some good teams and get better. That's what is still good about it at the high school level.
"But I know there are pockets where it's becoming a talent showcase, and you worry about the type person the kids are going to be around in those settings."
Last weekend Signal Mountain hosted its third 12-team tournament comprised solely of area schools. A two-day, 20-team tournament begins today in Dalton. The Southeastern 7-on-7 tournament -- which has invited teams from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi -- will be held at three sites in Dalton.
There also will be a skills combine, with the times and distances from the 40-yard dash, shuttle run, broad jump and vertical jump sent to Internet recruiting services Rivals, Scout and 24/7 Sports.
For the NCAA, many of its member schools and even some high school programs, the concern is about the teams not affiliated with specific high schools. There has been a recent rise in the number of all-star-type teams traveling to tournaments and showcasing players from multiple schools.
That closely resembles AAU summer basketball teams, which often are led by coaches with financial ties to corporate sponsors such as Nike and Adidas. For now, high school football coaches are still very prominent in the recruiting process. But in basketball, many times the AAU coach can influence where a player signs more than the high school coach.
The concern for both college and high school football coaches is that street agents lurk at these events hoping to convince players and their families that, for a price, they can help in the recruiting process. The most recent example of those fears was the University of Oregon paying $25,000 to Will Lyles, who runs a Houston-based scouting service, and who often accompanied All-America tailback Lache Seastrunk on recruiting trips. Seastrunk eventually signed with the Ducks.
Rachel Neman Baker, the NCAA's director for agent, gambling and amateurism activities, told the New York Times, "I think the outside third parties for both [football and basketball] are a huge concern. They really are the problem. They have student-athletes' and their families' ears."
Nike and Under Armour sponsor all-star teams and ESPNU has aired 7-on-7 games and skills competitions that go along with the tournaments.
While all-star teams are still a relatively new concept in Tennessee and Georgia, the trend is expected to grow as parents and players look to keep up with the ever-changing recruiting process. In Florida, 190 players and about 40 reporters, most of whom cover recruiting, showed up for the first day of tryouts last February for the South Florida Express all-star team.
The Southeastern Conference passed legislation to keep such 7-on-7 tournaments off its member campuses and also bars SEC coaches from participating in off-campus tournaments. That means only high school teams can compete on SEC campuses.
"We don't want football to get like AAU basketball used to be in terms of lots of people involved that are outside influences on young people," Alabama coach Nick Saban told several media outlets shortly after the legislation was passed.
Saban hosts a 48-team tournament at Alabama's facilities each summer, but teams participating are made up solely of high school programs and not the all-star teams.
Like many other college programs, Middle Tennessee State University hosts a high school 7-on-7 tournament each summer. This year the field of teams grew to 29, mostly from the midstate area, and none were all-star squads.
"It's a great way to gauge how quickly a quarterback can think and deliver, and you get to see kids compete and judge who can rise above to be a playmaker," said MTSU assistant David Bibee, who recruits the Chattanooga area. "Since there are still a lot of unknowns around the passing leagues, you can only speculate what it will become. But I don't think it will become as big as AAU basketball.
"Those AAU tournaments are held at a time when basketball coaches can go recruit. This time of year we can't leave campus to go out and scout kids yet, so this is a way for them to come to us. It's like anything else, though: If somebody thinks they can latch onto a kid or make some quick, easy money from it, then what is a good thing right now can change."