South Carolina is keeping up with the Joneses. And the Malzahns, the Goldens and the Harbaughs.
The Gamecocks this spring offered football scholarships to two eighth-graders, joining the growing trend in recent years of courting prospects in earlier grades.
“With so many schools offering kids earlier and earlier, each school kind of has to do it,” Scout.com national analyst Chad Simmons said. “It once was, you were offering sophomores, and then it got to freshmen. And here we are at eighth grade.”
A closer look at what’s happening and why:
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WHY OFFER A MIDDLE-SCHOOLER?
Being the first school, or one of the first, to offer a scholarship is a longstanding leverage point in recruiting. The gesture means more in the long run to some prospects than others, and you’ll sometimes hear a recruit cite that early offer when he commits to a school.
Offering someone before or during his senior season nowadays can be considered late in the process, so there’s added pressure on coaches to make earlier evaluations on prospects. If there’s any inclination that a young football player could be the next big thing, schools are jumping at the chance to make that offer and start building a relationship.
WHAT DOES AN OFFER THAT EARLY MEAN?
In most cases, no college is offering an eighth-grader expecting or wanting a commitment any time soon. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Hey, we like you,” Simmons said.
These newly minted teenagers are Class of 2019 prospects who are just starting the recruiting process and aren’t in a hurry for it to be over. Colleges also want to make sure the player develops physically as he gets older. Making that offer gets a school in the mix in case there is mutual interest down the road.
“Is there a rare case where a school might take a commitment that early?” Simmons asked. “It’s possible, but how likely is it that the kid will end up signing with that school four years later?”
WHO DID USC OFFER?
The Gamecocks’ two middle-school offers were made through G.A. Mangus to a pair of 14-year-old prospects in the Atlanta area.
Owen Pappoe, who attends Couch Middle in Grayson, Ga., is a 6-foot-1, 194-pound linebacker who could grow into a defensive end. His offer list started with Boston College and is up to eight schools, including USC, Tennessee, Michigan and Auburn. He will attend Grayson High in Loganville, Ga., the same school that produced USC linebacker signee Daniel Fennell.
USC in March was the first to offer 5-foot-11, 165-pound athlete Dominick Blaylock, who attends Dickerson Middle School in Marietta, Ga., and will be at Walton High this coming season. Mangus and current Gamecock safety D.J. Smith are both Walton alums.
Blaylock was invited to visit Florida, Auburn and Alabama, his stepfather, John Woods, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and USC remains his only known offer.
ACCORDING TO THE KIDS
Pappoe, who is already nicknamed “the Freak,” knows a handful of other eighth-grade prospects, including Blaylock. As you might expect, having the attention this early is fun for the young men and a source of pride for parents.
“I'm enjoying it,” Pappoe said. “It’s exciting to have Division 1 schools coming after me this early. I think I’m going to get better and better, and this exposure is going to be good for me.”
Pappoe said colleges are encouraging him to take his time in making a decision. That’s what he plans to do, he said, even though his 247Sports’ profile page for Pappoe already projects him to be a Tennessee commitment sometime in the future.
“That’s funny,” he said. “I really like Tennessee, but you never know what can happen in four years.”
ELSEWHERE IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Ohio State. Florida State. Alabama. LSU. Auburn. Michigan. Miami. Tennessee.
That’s not the top of a projected Top 25. Those are schools that have offered a middle-schooler in recent months – or recent years.
LSU offered hometown linebacker standout Dylan Moses in the summer of 2012 after his seventh-grade season. Moses, who is from Baton Rouge, La., committed to the Tigers more than a year later as a 15-year-old ninth-grader. Today, 247Sports considers the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Moses a five-star prospect and the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017.
Miami has six offers out to eighth-graders, four of them from the South Florida area. Coach Al Golden told The Miami Herald that the Hurricanes have to keep up with other programs even though he’d rather wait until recruits are more physically and emotionally mature.
“I don’t think any of us is comfortable with how much it’s been expedited, but we run a fine line, a slippery slope, between early-offering someone and not offering and then having a kid that has seven or eight offers and we’re the local team and don’t get involved and then we get pounded because the kid loses interest in us because we were focused on the junior and senior classes,” Golden told The Herald.
THE USC PERSPECTIVE
USC has been offering high-schoolers of all grades for years, and entering the realm of offering eight-graders is “no big deal,” coach Steve Spurrier told The State in April.
“You do it, but you don’t know what is going to happen two or three or four years down the road,” Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks have 16 offers out to prospects coming out of their ninth-grade seasons, according to 247Sports, and two of those have already committed to other schools. The number grows to 56 offers to sophomores who are about to be juniors. The latter time frame is the threshold at which the Gamecocks have shown comfort in taking an early commitment.
USC took pledges from Class of 2015 signees Shameik Blackshear and Dexter Neal in the last month of their sophomore year in high school, then got pledges from Sherrod Pittman and Jerad Washington the summer before their junior years started.
Among their Class of 2016 commitments, Conway receiver Bryan Edwards said he was 13 years old when USC offered him as a high-school freshman. Edwards committed to USC in March.
AN EXPERT’S TAKE
The only reason to offer a middle-schooler, Scout’s Simmons said, is to keep up with the other colleges that are doing the same thing.
“I don’t think it carries a lot of weight. I think it’s more negative than positive,” he said. “There’s so much that can happen with a football player between middle school and when they actually sign four and a half years later.”
One downside, Simmons said, is that a young prospect might avoid competing on the camps circuit because they already have offers from top schools.
Simmons is based in Atlanta and is aware of Pappoe and Blaylock and the attention they’ve received. He has always appreciated coaches and mentors who might tip him off to a rising prospect.
“The kids are excited. They have a right to be. If that was my kid, I would be excited as a dad,” Simmons said. “There is just so much that changes in the next four years, especially the physicality, the development, the coordination, how they grow. It’s hard to project a kid that far out in advance.”
FOUR NAMES TO KNOW
247Sports has 40 profile pages for eighth-grade prospects (and less than five for seventh-graders and none for sixth-graders). Here are four eighth-grade names of interest to USC or the SEC to know for the future.
1. Owen Pappoe, 6-foot-1, 194-pound linebacker. From Couch Middle in Grayson, Ga.; will next be at Grayson High in Loganville, Ga. His offers include USC, Tennessee, Michigan, Boston College, Auburn, Miami, Kentucky and West Virginia.
2. Dominick Blaylock, 5-foot-11, 165-pound athlete. From Dickerson Middle School in Marietta, Ga., and will be at Walton High this coming season. Gamecocks are his only known offer. Was MVP of Elite Junior Classic game in Georgia and is the son of former NBA star Mookie Blaylock.
3. Anthony Solomon, 6-foot-1, 185-pound linebacker. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., prospect has 11 early offers, according to 247Sports, including Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Tennessee. He will play for South Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas, which produced current Gamecock Al Harris Jr.
4. Blake Hinson, 6-foot-5, 200-pound wide receiver. From Daytona Beach, Fla., Hinson is a rising prospect in football and basketball. His offer list of seven schools includes Florida, Florida State, Kentucky and North Carolina. Several have offered in both sports.