College Football: How Young Is Too Young?


Apr 5, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Lane Kiffin at spring practice at Howard Jones Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

He’s tall, lanky, and has a cannon for an arm. His personal coach, the renowned quarterback guru Steve Clarkson, has compared him to all-time great signal callers Brett Favre and Fran Tarkenton.

Who is this, you ask? If you guessed USC’s Heisman hopeful Matt Barkley, or some highly recruited high school football star, try again. It’s eighth grader Tate Martell, who just last week gave his verbal commitment to play quarterback for the University of Washington in the fall of 2017.

For a teenager, who is just hitting puberty and not that far removed from attending his first junior high dance, accepting an invitation to suit up for a top college football program, is not at all surprising anymore. The Trojans were the first program to kick off the mini trend by offering a scholarship to 13 year-old quarterback David Sills in 2010, and merely a day later, LSU did the same to 14 year-old Dylan Moses.

On the surface, these commitments mean very little on both sides. Teenagers change their mind as often as their underwear, just about everyday. There is no guarantee that they will feel the same way about these schools tomorrow, next week, or even a few years from now. Heck, there’s even the possibility that these youngsters will end up choosing a different sport all together. From the coaching aspect, who knows if the head coach will still be at their current school, or even running the same offense when the official commitment day comes. There are so many variables involved, and a lot can change seemingly overnight.

However, a deeper look at this issue raises a huge question: how young is too young?

The minute kids, like Sills, Martell, and Moses, accept that offer, the spotlight shines brighter by the day. First, there is the initial national attention that comes with it. Then, the mention of their name on websites like ESPN, Max Preps, and Word quickly spreads through hometowns and the surrounding areas. The hype quickly builds. Suddenly, everybody wants to come see the latest prodigy and witness his ascent to greatness. Every single move on the football field is dissected with a fine tooth comb.

On top of that, you have these personal coaches like Clarkson, who fuel the hype machine. Comparing Martell to Hall of Fame quarterbacks, who have set records and won super bowls, is utterly ridiculous and unfathomable. Maybe his skill set is off the charts for someone his age, but he hasn’t even stepped foot on a high school or college football field yet. At best, he is a minimum of six years away from reaching the pros. Even that has to be considered a long shot at this point. So many things have to go just right in order for him to reach that highest level.

I am in no way suggesting that Clarkson isn’t a fantastic coach. He’s worked with Barkley, Jimmy Claussen, and Ben Rothlesberger, amongst others. His track record speaks for itself; but that’s a tremendous amount of pressure to be putting on the shoulders of a child that age. There have been countless athletes at the high school, college, and NFL levels who haven’t been able to deal with that kind of continuous scrutiny. How can we expect seventh and eighth graders to?

Only time will tell how the futures of these phenoms will play out. A few might be able to deal with the demands that are placed upon them, even go on to have successful football careers, but most will fall short of these unrealistic expectations.

The culture of college football recruiting is relentless and daunting. It’s one thing to pursue high school players; for the most part, they are more mature and better equipped to handle all the twists and turns that happen throughout the process. When it comes to middle school athletes though, that is where we have to draw the line.

It’s simply pushing too hard, too fast.