Colleges want to be first in line with middle-school stars

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Detroit — Just a few weeks short of graduation, Samuel Johnson III of Southfield already has a couple of scholarship offers to play college football.

That wouldn't be unusual, except that Johnson isn't finishing his senior season or preparing for prom.

He's only in the eighth grade.

In what is becoming a growing national trend, colleges are extending athletic scholarship offers to middle-school students.

Last week, the University of Akron was the first school to make an offer to Johnson and Ohio University followed a few days later.

Johnson is 14 years old and is a standout quarterback for the Spartans in the Detroit Police Athletic League, where he has played the last six years. He's believed to be the first athlete in Michigan in any sport to be offered a college scholarship before entering high school.

"He's 6-foot-3, 180 pounds. That's the wow factor," his father, Sam Johnson II, said. "He has won MVP awards at high school camps without coaches knowing he's in eighth grade."

Offering athletes who are yet to take their first class as freshmen isn't new. In 2009, then-USC coach Lane Kiffin offered Nathan Tilford and Alabama and LSU offered Dylan Moses that same year. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops extended an offer before Jairus Brent even got to eighth grade.

It's a touchy ethical issue for prospects and parents alike, but the benefit for the college is that it puts them first in line with young players — and that can pay dividends later in the recruiting process.

"I haven't heard anything positive or negative from parents," said Mike Bradley, associate director of Detroit PAL. "You can use that opportunity as leverage and that goes into receiving that offer, and now you have to make sure you hit those grades and be eligible to accept that offer.

"Our goal right now is to start educating our parents on understanding what that (offer) means. What we're trying to do is make sure that offer as an eighth-grader doesn't make the kid uncoachable."

Sam Johnson III’s fame is enough at the tender age of 14 that he is drawing television interviews.

'Unwritten rule'

Having traveled to several football camps, getting interest from colleges was nothing new, but when the actual offers came, Johnson was taken aback.

"I was shocked. I was like Sam — speechless — but it happens in the South all the time," Sam Johnson II said. "I take him to a lot of camps down there but for it to happen in the Midwest … there's an unwritten rule (to not offer)."

Johnson hasn't even enrolled in high school yet — he plans to go to Southfield — but will participate in the Sound Mind Sound Body Football Academy in June against some of the top high school players in the area.

It's not clear whether the scholarship can be accepted officially before Johnson gets to high school, but his father understands Akron's thought process behind making the offer so early.

"That's the vibe I got from them — they just wanted to be the first. They watched a lot of his film and invited him down to a few camps," Sam Johnson II said. "They saw the potential and a lot of coaches I've made contact with have seen him but have said, 'He's in the eighth grade and we're in the Midwest so we can't do this.' "

Although Akron may not seem like an ideal destination school, there's some merit to being first on a recruit's dance card. As they're sifting through all the choices, they could remember the initial impression that a school can make before they're deep in the recruiting process.

"A few years ago, at the University of Michigan, Rich Rodriguez brought a bunch of 12-year-olds to Ann Arbor to a Michigan practice and put them on the field and gave them a speech," Bradley recalled. "The Michigan speech was in the back of those kids' minds. A lot of those 12-year-olds ended up being Michigan players."

"When we talk about schools being in play, you go back and look at a kid like Dennis Norfleet, who had committed to Cincinnati. He was one of those kids that went to that camp and heard Rich Rodriguez on the field at the Big House.

"At the last hours, Michigan offered (Norfleet) and he switched that commitment."

Recruiting 14-year-olds is nothing new in college football. Michigan has offered scholarships to two eighth-graders this year.

Serious about football

Johnson still has a child-like innocence — his father says he's "a SpongeBob SquarePants fanatic" and watches "Phineas and Ferb" — but he serious about football already.

Like many parents, Sam Johnson II wanted to spur an interest in sports for his son. That included giving him a basketball, a baseball or a football when he was about 5 or 6 years old and seeing which sport he would gravitate toward.

The answer came pretty quickly.

"He used to always sleep with the football and it was kind of weird," his father said. "I'd give him a baseball or basketball and he would throw them down because he didn't like them — but he slept with that football all the time."

In just a few years, though, Johnson has parlayed that desire to play football into a college scholarship offer after some exposure on the camp circuit.

"We're blessed for that because a lot of kids don't get scholarships," said Sam's mother, Shwanda. "We know now that he can go to school and get a free education. It's a relief and a weight off your shoulders."

For Johnson, it's just a continuation of the sport that he loves, but he's entered into the realm of recruiting — much quicker than most.

"I was just going to a bunch of different camps and a whole bunch of colleges wanted me to come to their camps and check out their facilities," Sam III said. "I knew then it was real — and that's when the offer came."

Michigan reportedly has offered at least a pair of eighth-graders — Owen Pappoe of Georgia and Blake Hinson of Florida. Johnson hopes he can garner an offer from one of the in-state schools as well.

"My family grew up Michigan State fans and that's a good school," he said. "MSU and Michigan are schools that we're fans of."

Until then, he'll have to navigate through the final few weeks of middle school. His biggest issue there: the big eighth-grade dance. Johnson said he doesn't have a date.

At least for that, he hasn't gotten an offer.