You may have heard about USC football coach Lane Kiffin’s latest verbal commitment: 13-year-old David Sills V. Initial response to the news has been mix of disbelief, criticism and doubt as to the wisdom of allowing such a young player to make such a big decision.
Although the move is uncommon — Sills is not even in high school yet — it is not unprecedented. While coaching at Tennessee, Kiffin received a verbal commitment from another 13-year-old, Evan Berry. The early recruiting strategy gives coaches a jump on a good player while operating within the NCAA’s rules. In circumstances like these, coaches may not contact athletes directly. So instead, they contact people close to the prospect and ask them to encourage the player to contact the coach. If a prospect initiates contact, a coach can receive a verbal commitment.
Proponents of early recruiting can claim a double standard. Why can’t a 13-year-old football player commit, when a 13-year-old gymnast is competing for a spot on the Olympic team? In a sports environment that is searching for talent at younger and younger ages, why should team sports like football or basketball be excluded? There is at least some merit in the idea that if individual sports,such as skateboarding and tennis, produce young stars, then so can football.
The counterargument is that a 13-year-old child, especially in a contact sport, is too undeveloped to get an accurate projection of their ability. Yet prospects such as Sills are trained by people adept at recognizing and developing talent at young ages. Quarterback guru Steve Clarkson, who identified future star college quarterbacks such as Jimmy Clausen and Matt Barkley, firmly believes Sills will succeed at the college level. With the success rate of people like Clarkson, it is not unrealistic to believe that these young prospects will go on to higher levels of the game.
In the end, Kiffin’s move is more gimmick than anything else. The commitment is non-binding, and there is a good chance that the circumstances on either side will change between now and the time Sills can sign. That said, if Lane Kiffin wants to take commitments from 13-year-old kids, why not let him?