Rod Reis knows the road well between Urbandale and Chicago.
From early December 2015 to late May 2016, he spent Sundays making the 10-hour round trip so his son George could practice with Midwest Boom, a Chicago-based club 7-on-7 football team.
“We knew where every coffee shop was along the way,” Rod laughed.
At the time, George Reis was coming off his junior season as Urbandale’s quarterback. His numbers weren’t gaudy (1,163 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Iowa’s skill position players are overlooked in the recruiting world as it is. According to 247Sports, just 12 of the state’s 64 Division I commits in the past five years were quarterbacks, receivers or defensive backs — the positions most featured in 7-on-7 play.
So Reis thought playing club 7-on-7 — and performing at tournaments in front of the big names from 247Sports, Rivals and Scout — could raise his stock.
One problem: Iowa has no club 7-on-7 teams — unlike most of the Midwest. Unlike a good chunk of the country, actually.
Club 7-on-7 does exist in South Carolina, Louisiana, Colorado, Arizona and Massachusetts — five of the six states whose prep football populations were within 3,000 students of Iowa’s last year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. And according to 2015-16 NCAA data, kids from all five of those states got recruited by D-I schools at a higher rate than kids from Iowa.
“Definitely, it’s been a discussed topic at our school — that we wish we had 7-on-7,” said former Iowa City High defensive back Naeem Smith, who will play for Ellsworth Community College next fall. “I just feel like it can really open the door for a lot of kids around the state.”
Some Iowa high schools hold 7-on-7 scrimmages during the summer, but very rarely do they branch out to compete in club tournaments. And because the IAHSAA limits offseason contact between coaches and players, there’s no high school 7-on-7 allowed during either the winter or spring seasons.
Club coaches don’t face the same restrictions.
Chicago offers the closest club options for much of the state — even that’s too far for most. Reis, a Lake Forest College recruit, is the first Iowan to ever make Boom’s roster.
He played 7-on-7 tournaments in Nashville, Indianapolis, Detroit, Dallas, Milwaukee and Bradenton, Fla., with Boom. NCAA coaches can’t attend such tournaments, but Reis said coaches often contacted him afterward, based on what they saw on social media or what they read from online recruiting services.
Also of note: NAIA and junior college coaches can attend 7-on-7 tourneys.
“The benefits,” Rod Reis said, “we felt were worth the sacrifice.
“The fact is, the more that you’re out there exposed — whether it’s this game, that game, you made a tremendous play on YouTube — (the better).”
“I think that there is a little bit of a myth that, if you just start a 7-on-7 club team and start traveling all over the country, that scholarship offers are just going to fall out of the sky,” he said.
Well, Oliver Martin emphatically proved Iowa could produce blue-chip talent at skill positions. And George Reis said that, based on his Boom experience, a team full of Des Moines-area kids and all stars from around the state could compete for titles in those top-tier tournaments.
Which raises a question…
Why doesn’t Iowa field club teams?
City High’s Naeem Smith pulls in a catch during the Little Hawks’ regional game against North Scott in Eldridge on Friday, Oct. 28, 2016. (Photo: David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen)
The short answer: Not everyone agrees that club 7-on-7 is good for high school athletes.
The Register polled Iowa high school football coaches regarding the topic. Of the 144 to respond to the question — “Do you think playing for a 7-on-7 club football team, and thus playing in regional/national 7-on-7 tournaments, would help skill position players get recruited?” — 43 said no, 40 said yes and 61 said they were neutral about the idea.
How about college coaches? What do they think about club 7-on-7?
You know — those guys who actually hand out the scholarships.
A few were willing to share their thoughts:
Kelvin Bell, recruiting coordinator and assistant defensive line coach, University of Iowa
The Hawkeyes don’t host any 7-on-7 camps, and Bell said the 7-on-7 club scene is “not on our radar.”
“The best evaluation that we’re going to get — and we can’t stress this upon kids enough — is what you do with your teammates in your offseason,” Bell said, “and then what you do on Friday nights.
“The game we play on Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening is a lot different from what goes on with 7-on-7.”
Bell said he’d rather watch a receiver prospect run track or a linebacker prospect wrestle in football’s offseason. Club 7-on-7 could help someone get on the map “to a point,” he said, but “any college football program worth their salt” will rely on high school evaluations above all.
“With the quarterbacks, there is no pass rush,” Bell said. “I sit and I watch 7-on-7 film sometimes, and I see those guys throw those shallow routes across the middle. And it’s, like, ‘Well, you just hit the center in the back of the head with the ball.’
“We’re not taking those performances at those (7-on-7) camps as, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get on this kid because he did good at a Socks and Shoes Olympics.’ That’s not what we’re about.”
Alex Golesh, recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach, Iowa State
Iowa State hosts a 7-on-7 camp, which includes high school and club teams. Golesh said he ranks 7-on-7 performance “toward the bottom” for evaluation. But he also called it a potential “starting point” in identifying prospects.
“I think somebody would be lying to you if they told you they weren’t looking at those (online recruiting rankings), in terms of, ‘Hey, are we missing somebody?'” Golesh said. “You certainly don’t generate lists to evaluate based off of those, other than maybe some young kids.
“But as far as, ‘Are we reading what people are writing about those (7-on-7) events?’ We’d be lying if we told you we weren’t reading everything out there just to make sure we’re not missing a name of a young man here or a young guy that maybe popped up onto the scene.”
Brad Pole, recruiting coordinator and pass game coordinator/receivers coach, Drake
Pole said club 7-on-7 has no effect on Drake recruiting.
“Sometimes, guys from out of the region will send me their 7-on-7 film,” Pole said, “and I’d just much rather see game film.”
Matthew Middleton, recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach, University of South Dakota
Middleton said he “can’t personally take a player off of 7-on-7.” It lacks the “fear” of regular football, he said, and ranks low in his evaluation of prospects. He will pay attention to a prospect’s 7-on-7 performances, though, because “you can gauge athleticism and potential off of it.”
“Any time that a prospect is on the field playing football, I think you always check it as a positive,” Middleton said. “It doesn’t necessarily say, ‘This kid plays 7-on-7, so we’ve got to recruit him; he’s great.’ Still, all the other things have to go into the evaluation, as well.”
Joel Schwenzfeier, outside linebacker coach, University of North Dakota
While it plays no role in North Dakota’s prospect evaluation, Schwenzfeier said 7-on-7 could be a good recruiting route for NAIAs or junior colleges.
“There’s nothing more valuable than being able to get direct eyes on a kid,” he said.
Northern Iowa declined the Register’s request for comment.
Division II, III, NAIA, junior colleges
Mike Woodley, head coach, Grand View University (NAIA)
Woodley has been a proponent of 7-on-7 since the 1990s, when he was an assistant coach at Iowa State. His staff discovered Sage Rosenfels at the Cyclones’ 7-on-7 summer camp in the mid-’90s.
Rosenfels’ high school offense didn’t showcase his talent behind center, Woodley said. So they had no clue what kind of prospect he was until they saw him live, in 7-on-7.
“We wouldn’t have found him — and (then-head) coach (Dan) McCarney would verify this — there’s no way we would have found him just by high school tape,” Woodley said.
Nearly half of all NAIA schools (104 of 249) are in the Midwest. That’s a whole bunch of local coaches that are allowed to attend 7-on-7 events, so Woodley said it’d be particularly advantageous for Iowa and its lower-tier prospects to field a club team.
Donnie Woods, offensive coordinator, Iowa Western Community College
Woods said 7-on-7 tournaments are a hotbed for under-recruited kids looking for an opportunity. For example, he discovered current Green Bay Packer receiver Geronimo Allison at a 7-on-7 event in Florida in 2012.
“For us, if there is a 7-on-7 showcase tournament here in the Midwest,” Woods said, “we’ll find a way to get there — to take a look at it.
“It’s very difficult to go unnoticed if you’re elite. If you are a ‘tweener — where you’re an FCS kid or a D-II kid who’s borderline FCS — that’s where, one, we make our money at. But two, that’s where a 7-on-7 tournament, a travel team — that would help a kid.”
Woods also said 7-on-7 tape is valuable for quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs who play in a run-first high school program — like many in Iowa.
Tom Shea, head coach, Upper Iowa University (Division II)
Shea believes club 7-on-7 is a good vehicle for under-the-radar kids to get picked up late in the process.
“You look at the D-I schools, the big schools — a good number of them have their recruiting done for the next year prior to the season even starting,” Shea said. “We’re out talking to kids in the summer for next fall.”
Stan Zweifel, head coach, University of Dubuque (Division III)
Zweifel worries about 7-on-7’s emphasis on “I over team.” But he likes that it gives coaches an opportunity to see receivers and defensive backs play against different kinds of coverages or offensive schemes.
Would a club 7-on-7 team work in Iowa?
Let’s say an Iowa, Iowa State or UNI alum started a 7-on-7 team in the Des Moines area. If that team were to travel to National 7v7 Football Association tournaments in St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Indianapolis in spring and early summer, conservative estimates put the total cost — transportation, hotel, event registration, practice space — at about $10,000.
Depending on how big the team is, costs could range from $800-$1,000 per player, which is comparable to what families pay for club basketball seasons.
But club 7-on-7 in Iowa faces an obstacle that doesn’t exist in literally any other state: summer high school baseball.
“The dumbest thing we’ve ever done here,” Woodley said with a sigh. “But these coaches won’t change.”
Playing baseball in the summer doesn’t necessarily make club 7-on-7 impossible. All the tournaments mentioned above wrap up by late May, when high school baseball games are just beginning in Iowa.
It’s certainly a factor, though. Five of this season’s 25 All-Iowa Elite football team members also played baseball in 2016.
Still, the desire for a club 7-on-7 team exists among players.
“We have a lot of good skill position players here in Iowa,” said Devontae Lane, an Iowa City West graduate who chose to play basketball at Indian Hills over a football offer from Eastern Michigan. “If we could make a team — if there’s a local team around — I think a lot of guys who are really into football and really love playing football would definitely do it.
“I know the feeling of wanting to play 7-on-7.”
That same desire isn’t reflected among Iowa’s high school coaches. Of the 144 coaches that responded to the Register’s survey question — “If Iowa had a club 7-on-7 team, would you encourage your kids to join in the offseason?” — 74 said no, 42 were neutral on the issue, and just 28 said yes.
However, many high schools already run 7-on-7 scrimmages against other teams during the summer. Some coaches take their teams to 7-on-7 college camps, such as Iowa State’s, during the NCAA’s summer evaluation periods.
Those teams could also register for club 7-on-7 tournaments. As long as players pay for themselves and no school transportation or equipment is used, the team would be free to play in a summer club 7-on-7 event, IAHSAA Assistant Director Todd Tharpe said.
Of 126 coaches who responded to the question, “Would you consider taking your high school 7-on-7 team to regional/national tournament(s) in the offseason?”, 97 said no and just 29 said yes.
Marion head coach Tim Lovell was among the many who said he wouldn’t.
“Never going to help a kid,” Lovell wrote in the survey’s comment section. “Doesn’t translate to 11 vs. 11. I will never support it.”
Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont head coach Brian Koehler was one of the few who said he would.
“Doing a 7-on-7 helps the players out — but also the coaches — to see what works and what doesn’t work,” Koehler wrote. “But there does need to be some regulation on this issue because it could get out of hand, and players could take money or get in trouble.”
Iowa has never had its own club 7-on-7 beyond middle school. In 2007, when Pylon 7v7 began organizing tournaments with teams from each state, there was so little interest in Iowa that its players had to form a team with Kansas and Nebraska, Pylon CEO Baron Flenory said.
Today, a club called Team Iowa compiles the state’s best sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade football players and sends them to tournaments that feature 7-on-7. Tony Lombardi, father of Valley products Rocky and Beau Lombardi, used to coach a Cedar Rapids-based club team called the Longhorns. But that stopped once his players, including Big Ten athletes Rocky Lombardi and Martin, reached high school.
It doesn’t look like there’s any high school club 7-on-7 team in Iowa’s near future. Former Hawkeye running back Trevor Bollers told the Register he hopes to eventually start a 7-on-7 league in eastern Iowa. But that’s it, for now.
The Register polled 144 high school coaches around Iowa about the impact additional 7-on-7 football opportunities would create. Here are their answers:
If Iowa had a 7-on-7 club football team, would you encourage your kids to join in the offseason? (144 responses)
Yes: 28 (19.44 percent)
No: 74 (51.39 percent)
Neutral: 42 (29.17 percent)
Do you and your high school team participate in 7-on-7 scrimmages with other schools in the offseason? (144 responses)
Yes: 105 (72.92 percent)
No: 39 (27.08 percent)
Would you consider taking your high school 7-on-7 team to regional/national tournaments in the offseason? (126 responses)
Yes: 29 (23.02 percent)
No: 97 (76.98 percent)
Do you think playing for a club 7-on-7 team, and thus playing in regional/national 7-on-7 tournaments, would help skill position players get recruited? (144 responses)
Yes: 40 (27.78 percent)
No: 43 (29.86 percent)
Neutral: 61 (42.36 percent)
Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBain_.