7-on-7 football: Popular with players, not so much with high school coaches

Instructor Marcus Hammond works with quarterbacks at a Next Level Greats practice session at Total Turf in Pitman. Some see the seven-on-seven tournaments as being to football what the AAU is to basketball. CHARLES FOX / Staff

Jelani McCargo says "everybody" is trying to get involved with Next Level Greats football club.

"It's the big thing now," McCargo said of the organization that has emerged over the last three years as an increasingly prominent part of the South Jersey football scene.

McCargo, a junior at Woodrow Wilson who recently committed to Navy, is one of several top football athletes who have been spending offseasons training with NLG at the Total Turf facility in Pitman and playing across the East Coast in seven-on-seven tournaments on one of NLG's travel teams.

The list of players who have suited up for the organization reads like a Who's Who of South Jersey's top athletes and includes some highly recruited from Southeastern Pennsylvania, too:

Camden senior Brad Hawkins, a Michigan recruit.

Palmyra senior Kelvin Harmon, a North Carolina State recruit.

Camden Catholic senior Tyree Rodgers, a Virginia Tech recruit.

Paul VI senior Lonnie Moore, a Monmouth recruit.

Camden Catholic senior Jamal Parker, a Kent State recruit.

Burlington Township junior Everett Wormley, a Rutgers recruit.

Bridgeton junior Markquese Bell, one of the state's top players in the class of 2017.

Among the dozens of NLG athletes in the loaded class of 2018 are sophomores such as Kyle Dobbins and Shamere Collins of St. Augustine and Iverson Clement of Rancocas Valley.

South Carolina freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwaine, formerly of Council Rock High School in Newtown, Pa., is an NLG alumnus. Highly touted Malvern (Pa.) Prep sophomore quarterback Kevin Doyle Jr. is another top athlete who crosses the river to work out with NLG.

"We have about 140-150 high school guys," said Marcus Hammond, the former Sterling High School athlete who founded NLG with former Woodrow Wilson star Preston Brown, now the head coach at his alma mater. "We probably have over 100 middle-school kids."

The burgeoning growth of seven-on-seven all-star teams that compete in regional tournaments as well as national championships held every summer at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., has been likened by several football coaches to the sport's version of AAU basketball.

Hammond, a North Carolina A&T graduate who worked as a civil engineer before devoting himself full-time to this enterprise, said NLG is "more than an AAU team," because the organization offers individual training and puts a heavy emphasis on its athletes' academic development.

But the comparison with AAU basketball - as well as high-powered travel teams in soccer, baseball, and other sports - holds true in terms of exposure to high-level, offseason competition as well as increased visibility in recruiting circles.

Another similarity: The complications that can arise in the dynamics among officials from the travel team, parents, players, college recruiters, and high school coaches.

"It's exactly like AAU basketball," said one prominent South Jersey high school football coach, who asked not to be identified. "And the AAU culture is a complete head-fake, fooling parents and players into thinking they are going to be recruited at a higher level than they would have been if they didn't pay all this money."

Hammond knows his organization faces "opposition" from some South Jersey high school coaches.

"I feel as though if the coaches don't support what we're doing, it's because they don't know us," Hammond said.

Kevin Doyle Sr., a former lacrosse player at Villanova, said NLG has been a "positive" in his son's development into a Class of 2018 standout with offers from programs such as Pitt, West Virginia, and Kentucky, among others.

McCargo said NLG features "great coaches" who stress fundamentals and expose local athletes to top competition across the East Coast in seven-on-seven tournaments.

Winslow Township football coach Kemp Carr compares the recent emergence of the seven-on-seven all-star scene to changes in technology.

"Some people have an old flip phone and they need to switch to an iPhone," Carr said.

"It develops exposure for guys and allows them to go against great competition."

Other high school coaches have reservations.

One prominent South Jersey coach with multiple sectional titles on his resumé, who asked not to be identified, said he "absolutely hates the seven-on-seven all-star stuff."

Some coaches say organized offseason training can confuse athletes - and divide their loyalties, too - when different coaches use different terminology and teach different techniques with different approaches.

Some coaches said seven-on-seven is "not real football," because there's no pads and no hitting.

Some coaches question the value. Hammond said NLG charges $2,000 per player to participate in multiple tournaments across the East Coast, and that covers tournament fees, travel, hotels and food, as well as help with recruiting in the form of email blasts to college coaches along with academic advisement.

NLG also tries to include visits to colleges in the area during its travels to tournaments.

"That's one of the ways I got to see so many schools," Harmon said. "It's a great experience."

Hammond said members of his organization are "fund-raising all-year long" to reduce costs for athletes whose families might not be able to cover the expense.

"My concern is that the driving force in all this is the ability of the people running these organizations to make a little extra money," said another South Jersey coach who asked not to be identified.

Burlington Township coach Tom Maderia said several of his players, including Wormley, participate in seven-on-seven competitions, "but not with my blessing."

Maderia said his concern is the risk of injury. He also believes the recruiting exposure at seven-on-seven events is overstated.

"Players are recruited from Hudl [the computer software used to edit and share game footage] and from one-day camps that these colleges hold," Maderia said.

Camden coach Dwayne Savage is supportive, noting that several of his athletes play for NLG, and others are members of a similar team in Philadelphia, the Playmakers.

"It helps keep our players occupied during the offseason," Savage said. "They know [Camden's] activities and events come first."

Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson seems to reflect a lot of South Jersey coaches in his mixed feelings about the increased prominence of offseason travel teams.

"It makes things a bit complex for the player and the high school coach, to say the least," Watson said.

NLG's growth has been rapid since Hammond and Brown got the organization going late in 2012 and early in 2013. NLG recently served as the host of a seven-on-seven tournament in Virginia Beach and staged a Future Stars tournament for younger players at Total Turf Friday and Saturday.

McCargo said top athletes always want to be part of their sport's next big thing - and for South Jersey football players, NLG is it.

"We hear about it all the time," McCargo said. "Everybody wants to get with this."