Scholarships for middle school football players are rare enough to raise eyebrows and start discussions about recruiting tactics, but USC Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin has no qualms about recruiting players before they’ve even played high school football. Some might not approve of the accelerated pace of the recruiting process, but the Trojans’ recent offer to eighth-grader Nathan Tilford isn’t the first time Kiffin has gone after a very young prospect.
In 2010, Kiffin offered a scholarship to up-and-coming quarterback David Sills V, then in seventh grade. The coach discovered Sills through renowned quarterbacks coach Steve Clarkson, who is based in Southern California and has worked extensively with the developing prospect since Sills was just nine years old. By age 13, Sills had verbally accepted an offer to attend USC, before even meeting the coaching staff.
Three years later, the quarterback is still too young to officially sign with the Trojans. He’ll be a junior at Eastern Christian Academy in Elkton, Md. this fall, but he remains committed to USC. Sills’ high school teammates Kenny Bigelow and Khaliel Rodgers could make an impact for the Trojans before Sills joins them on campus. Bigelow, a five-star defensive tackle, was an early enrollee this spring; four-star offensive lineman Rodgers will join the team later this summer.
Kiffin developed a reputation as an aggressive recruiter during his first stint at USC, as an assistant coach under Pete Carroll. During his tenure as the head coach at Tennessee, the staff made some missteps and committed some recruiting violations, but it also marked the first time Kiffin dipped into the middle school ranks to get a verbal commitment.
In 2009, a year before taking the USC job and offering Sills, Kiffin extended an offer to safety Evan Berry, then thirteen years old. The offer and acceptance wasn’t too surprising; Berry’s brother, Eric, was an All-American safety at UT and their father, James, was a running back for the Vols, so it seems logical the younger Berry would’ve signed with Tennessee down the road anyway.
Offering a scholarship to Sills, whom Kiffin first saw throw via a YouTube video, was a bit more of a stretch, but the QB’s commitment has remained strong. If it works for him, why not also offer Tilford, and any other incredibly gifted tweens?
After all, recruiting is in large part about flattering the nation’s most talented athletes and making them feel wanted in the program. Being the first team to reach out to a player, especially years earlier than other schools, is a good way to beat the competition to sign some of college football’s top prospects.
As the recruiting process gets more and more competitive, with more hoopla on Signing Day and more media attention on young players, the rush to offer young players could become more commonplace. Unless the NCAA steps in to curb the practice, expect Kiffin to continue to be at the forefront of the youth movement.