Prep football combines catching on
TAMPA - It's early Sunday morning at Hillsborough High, and instead of sleeping in like most students his age, Tampa Catholic sophomore wide receiver Austin Aikens is breaking a sweat. Joined by more than 100 other like-minded teenagers at the inaugural Big County Preps Ignite Football Skills Combine, Aikens was up before dawn preparing for this offseason event to showcase local talent. No, college football coaches were not in attendance. In fact, NCAA rules prohibit it and many colleges now host their own camps to get firsthand looks at recruits. But if a player performs well at a combine like this, there's a chance that information will find its way to any number of recruiting Web sites. It might even create a "buzz" about the player, long before the first game is played this fall."The regular season is still where it counts the most, but camps and combines are a way to get him on the map," said Aikens' father, Teryl Aikens, himself a former star athlete at Tampa Catholic. "Yeah, there was nothing like this when I was coming up, and it sometimes feels like a business. But in the long run, your kid can benefit from it." As Teryl and his wife, Rosalinde, watched from Hillsborough's grandstands, Austin took part in the combine to determine what football coaches call "measureables." These are tests such as the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, bench press and, of course, height and weight. To conclude the combine, the athletes competed in one-on-one drills. That's where Aikens, who has attended three combines in the offseason, stood out against some of the best defensive backs in the county. "Sometimes, when you play at a smaller school, people may not believe you can play at the same level as the big schools," Aikens said. "Out here, I can show what I can do against some of the best in the county, and hopefully that will get my name out there." The players who attended this particular combine paid $45 each. Hillsborough assistant football coach Preston Jackson, a graduate of the school who went on to play for Notre Dame, organized the event. Several area youth coaches pitched in, as well as Bucs receiver Maurice Stovall and certified athletic trainer Dennis Rosario. Whether it is a local or regional combine - or an even larger event, such as the Schuman's National Underclassmen Combine staged last month at Jefferson - organizers say their goal is to showcase athletes for college recruiters and recruiting organizations long before their senior year of high school. Jackson said he plans to make the data and video recorded at his combine available to college coaches on his Web site, Big County Preps. He said it will be available free of charge. "We want to maximize the exposure for every player here," Jackson said. "Half of football is how well they move their feet and their hips and their hands. You can get all that through this combine. The coaches can get the other half when the kid puts on the pads and shows if he can actually play the game." Among those recording video at the combine was Derek Williams of Tampa, whose Sunshine Preps recruiting service works directly with colleges. He typically takes the game film shot by the high schools and distributes it to college coaches. Here, however, Williams was interested in the combine for the interaction of one-on-one drills, as well as what type of student-athlete he was filming. "The most important numbers a kid posts isn't his 40-yard dash time or his bench press," Williams said. "To me, the three most important numbers are his SAT score, ACT score and his GPA. His 40 time? I've seen a lot of 4.4 kids get chased down by 4.7 kids." For the parents of these athletes, combines represent time and money. But the potential payoff - athletic scholarship funding to a Division I-A, I-AA or II school - could be worth the investment. "We've been at this since he was in seventh grade," said Jamie Knott, the father of Hillsborough fullback Jamie Knott Jr. "It would be nice to see him reap a benefit from all his hard work by being able to go to college playing football." Knott was another player who turned heads Sunday. Knott may not be the best-known running back in the county. But after he bench pressed 185 pounds 35 times at the combine, he'll likely start gaining more attention, and he could hit the recruiting radar if those bench press numbers turn up on national recruiting sites such as Rivals and Scout. Plant football coach Robert Weiner, who has guided the Panthers to three state titles the past four seasons, believes the combines can legitimize the numbers the schools claim for their athletes. He also likes the element of competition offered at most combines. But the flip side, Weiner says, is that not all good football players have good measureables. "Kids can go to some of these (combines) and post a 40 time that gets them crossed off a lot of people's list of recruits," Weiner said. "Colleges typically have a set criteria for each position, and if they see a kid ran 4.9 (seconds) for the 40 at a combine and they thought he was 4.6 from what they saw him do on film in a game, that could get the kid crossed off some program's list."
Reporter Bill Ward can be reached at (813) 259-7456