The last couple of weeks have been a recruitnik’s dream.
I left the Outback Bowl and drove to Orlando to begin coverage of the Under Armour All-America Game practices. After covering the game in St. Petersburg, I flew out to San Antonio to cover the last couple of days of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl practices before Saturday’s Army game.
Sleep was a irrelevant and my fingers have no feeling, but it was a good work week and it was a great chance to see the country’s top high school athletes competing and training. I have more high school names memorized now than I ever even imagined.
There were some great times and some annoying times. I met some great people and encountered some real … well I won’t go there. Let’s just say that some adults can revert to childish ways when given the chance.
Through it all, I’ve learned a few things about these events that I never knew. Here are some (in no particular order) …
1. Orlando is for the kids — After what all these kids do during their high school careers to get here, they should be having the times of the lives during the week. Prospects competing in Orlando were in a very relaxed environment and when they had downtime they explored Disney. Sure, they might be a little old for it, but not even these guys are going to turn down a chance to hang with Mickey and ride some roller coasters. There was also a skill competition and plenty of downtime. Did I mention they stayed in Disney? Army had its perks, too, but the one thing that will stand out to me is how some players were yelled at by some soldiers, who were acting as chaperons, when things were trying to get organized. I understand the U.S. Army is a huge part of the event, and I certainly respect that, but most of these kids aren’t thinking of enlisting. There’s no need to treat them like it. Also, San Antonio doesn’t provide the most exciting post-practice entertainment for high school kids. For writers? Yes.
2. The Army tradition is special — It was so cool to see all the soldiers in the stands during the game. It was also cool to see them walking around the media hotel and at all of the events. The players really respected what was going on and seemed to really embrace everything. Each player was assigned a solider to be with for most of the trip, as well. One of my favorite parts of the game itself was watching the players throw their touchdown balls into the stands. Now, that’s a pretty cool tradition. It didn’t hurt at all that the Army Bowl had a record crowd of 37,893. That’s nearly 14,000 more than the Under Armour Game.
3. Access is TOTALLY different — Under Armour was run by ESPN, and Army was run by Rivals.com. Naturally, they get the most access and I respect that. If you’re spending all that money, you should be able to do what you want. However, the way the rest of the media was treated at both events was totally different. In Orlando, I was politely stopped for accidentally walking into an “ESPN/player/coach only” area. I apologized and the security guard told me I could enter when the players were done. That was it. I got EVERY player I needed (thank you Under Armour staff). Out in San Antonio, things were a little different. While the staff that arranged player interviews was great (another thank you), some of the Rivals people were a little too confrontational about the whole set up. While trying to speak with people in charge of running the electronic timers and cool technology used during the Army Junior Combine, a few other media members and I were accosted by a couple of Rivals employees (who will go unnamed) who wanted us off their precious field. They were afraid we were trying to steal their ultra, secret, world-altering 40 times and vertical jump measurements. Instead, we were all interested in learning about the tech part of the event, something we were actually invited to check out by the people in charge. Instead of being polite, we were yelled at for almost trespassing. Of course, since we had a right to be there we were allowed to continue, while the Rivals guys watched. And no, I didn’t steal any of that of-so-valuable information that those guys held so dear. I didn’t have time for that.
4. Defenses dominate — None of the quarterbacks at either game really got into a rhythm. There wasn’t much rhythm in the games or in practices. It’s not that these guys are bad by any means. The nation’s best quarterback, Jeff Driskel, looked off for most of the week just like everyone else on offense. Routes weren’t always crisp and assignments were blown. The defense capitalized on all of that and looked one step ahead the entire time. It’s much harder to get offensive guys on the same page, especially with all that rotation, but it’s easier for defenses to get the play in and run their assignments. So, don’t read too much into how your favorite offensive player did.
5. There are too many kids out there — Do we really need 90-plus guys split into two teams? I don’t think so and it showed during these games. Again, there’s no rhythm and guys get left behind. East running back Mike Blakely got zero carries and only touched the ball on his 16-yard kick return during the Army Bowl. You don’t invite kids to these games if you aren’t going to play them like everyone else. It’s not fair to the players and it’s not fair to their families. Personally, I don’t see why you can’t just have two to three players at each position. It will make for a better, more fair game. Remember, there’s not much on the line anyway, so why not make their time really worth it?
6. Army post game is a fan’s delight — Instead of having the players only do on-field interviews and then scurry to the locker rooms, the people in charge of the Army Bowl have the players sit at tables following the game and sign autographs for kids and, yeah, adults. I’m not big into getting a high school player’s autograph, but I’m sure a lot of kids out there who are watching these guys look up to them and treat them almost like celebrities. Yes, there are some parents who do as well. But it’s a pretty cool thing to do for the fans. It makes the event that much better and much more interactive.
7. Media hotels are a life-saver — While it wasn’t a hassle driving to and from the ESPN Wide World of Sports every day for the Under Armour practices, it wasn’t right around the corner from my hotel, and I stayed close. You can get lost in the maze that is Disney, and I took a few wrong turns here and there. No media hotel meant you fended for yourself at The Happiest Place on Earth. However, Army has you hooked you up. Most of the media stayed in the Grand Hyatt media hotel, where all the players were as well. It was cool to be able to talk to players in a more comfortable and relaxed environment while there.
8. Army parking is horrendous — You’d think that staying at the media hotel that is almost within throwing distance of the Alamodome would present few issues when getting to the game. Because the walk is a little far, especially with unpredictable weather, driving serves as the best means of getting there. Getting to the stadium took five minutes. Parking? Now that’s another terrible story. Let’s just say we were stopped by two cops who wouldn’t let media in the lots, including the designated media lot. Then we had to pay for parking in a lot in which the attendant said media shouldn’t have to pay. He certainly loved taking our cash, though. How about some parking passes like Under Armour? Just a thought.
All and all my journey was pretty exciting and definitely worth it. Both were events that prospects should strive to be a part of and both provide a lot of good exposure and experience for recruits. The prestige of the Army Bowl is amazing, but the Under Armour Game is way more relaxed and fun. There are good and bad things about both, but any prospect is truly lucky to be invited to either event.