It’s not exactly easy to describe a 7-on-7 football tournament without attending one in person. High school athletes from around the country mingle in open fields with as many as a dozen miniature games taking place at once on some occasions. IMG Academy hosts one of the biggest such tournaments each year, pulling top teams from across the nation.
Cultures collide as Southerners get to know Midwesterners and those from the East Coast battle others from the West. Team organizations vary wildly with some being a haphazard collection of athletes who happen to be from the same region and others spending multiple days each week practicing or working out.
“I watch this thing,” says Adrian McPherson, the former Southeast two-sport star who now coaches Air5, “and it kind of reminds me of AAU basketball.”
The former Noles quarterback, who is still under contract with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, is the only person to win Florida’s Mr. Basketball and Mr. Football awards in the same season. His future eventually came in football, but his summers through high school were spent playing in Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball tournaments. He is, in many ways, an ideal steward for helping to build 7-on-7 football in the 941 area code.
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I watch this thing and it kind of reminds me of AAU basketball.
Adrian McPherson, Air5 head coach
This winter, Air5, which draws players from Manatee and Sarasota counties, has burst on to the Adidas 7-on-7 scene as one of the championship series’ breakout programs. At the Adidas 7-on-7 National Championship this weekend in Las Vegas, Air5 finished in the top eight. In two tournaments before going to Vegas, Air5 had lost only two games total.
“They’re seeing that they can compete with the best of the best,” McPherson said. “They’ve been able to open some eyes.”
Like AAU tournaments, 7-on-7 receives a fair amount of backlash and criticism. High school football purists don’t like the emphasis on recruiting and individual success. Resistant college coaches complain about the sense of entitlement it forges.
McPherson was something of an AAU success story. He was already a highly touted guard after averaging nearly 40 points per game as a junior with Southeast. One recruiting analyst in the early days of Rivals.com and Scout.com pegged him as the No. 27 point guard in the country, McPherson said, until he went to one AAU tournament and went head-to-head with the top players in the nation. He left as the No. 3 point guard in the Class of 2001.
“I don’t want to say they have to do it. I think it helps to do it,” McPherson said of the growing 7-on-7 craze. “I felt that there was a need to help just put kids in front of scouts, in front of coaches.”
Football’s equivalent obviously has its differences. It’s a bit more like if the AAU hosted 3-on-3 basketball tournaments and coaches weren’t allowed to attend. Most 7-on-7 tournaments are off limits to college coaches, so heading to these national events is more about getting on the radar for services like Scout, Rivals or 247sports.com — websites whose databases serve as a starting point for college coaches learn about prospects and whose reporters tend to be in communication with coaching staffs.
Direct college connections instead come when Air5 steps away from the field and McPherson is able to flex the connections he’s made through more than a decade of professional football. During the Pylon 7v7 Nashville tournament, McPherson took the team on unofficial visits to Middle Tennessee and Football Championship subdivision programs Tennessee State and Austin Peay. In Vegas, he planned to take them to see UNLV.
It was the logical leap from McPherson’s past year of working with young football players from his hometown. Air5 existed strictly as a U15 team last winter before McPherson led a bus tour to college campuses through the Southeast during the summer. He took them through the Southeast and then added a high school 7-on-7 team this year to build further exposure for his collegiate hopefuls.
“No coaches really knew about me until I went on that tour,” said Desmine Ross, a Palmetto cornerback who just finished his high school career in the fall and is making one final push for a Division I offer.
Air5’s season began in Nashville, where the first-year program put up a 4-1 record to assert itself as a threat on this year’s Adidas tour. A week later in Windermere, Air5 made it all the way to the championship game. Rivals called the team drawing from Bradenton and Sarasota one of the weekend’s biggest surprises, and named Jaivon Heiligh, a Venice wide receiver, one of the 12 most impressive players at the tournament. He’s added an offer from the Blue Raiders since the start of the season.
No coaches really knew about me until I went on that tour.
Desmine Ross, Air5 cornerback
Offers have piled up, particularly for some of Heiligh’s Indian teammates. Quarterback Bryce Carpenter picked up more than half a dozen offers in February alone. Safety Jeremy Trebbles began the winter without any offers and now has six, including one from Boston College. Players from Braden River and Sarasota Booker have gained offers through the tour, as well.
“For a couple of them it’s kind of been that domino effect,” McPherson said, “where they pick up their first offer and then...”
The national championship won’t be the end for McPherson and Air5. He hopes to add another high school team next winter, and also wants to start basketball and baseball programs. Another bus tour is in the works for the summer, and for this time next year McPherson has an idea for some real football.
The Police Athletic League Bowl pitting football players from Bradenton and Sarasota against each other is long gone. McPherson wants to bring something similar back: A final game for seniors in the region, whom he hopes he’s bringing together.
“We all got close together,” said Knowledge McDaniel, a running back and linebacker for Braden River playing for Air5. “I wonder how this upcoming season’s going to be because we all got close.”