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Should College Coaches Be Recruiting Middle School Athletes?

Both Louisiana State University and the University of Washington made headlines within the last week because of their reported interest in middle school football players, again raising the eternal question: "How young is too young when it comes to recruiting?"

News broke Wednesday that 14-year-old quarterback Tate Martell, who's getting ready to enter the 8th grade, had verbally committed to Washington after receiving a scholarship offer a few weeks back. A day later, ESPN.com reported that LSU extended a scholarship offer to 14-year-old linebacker Dylan Moses, another soon-to-be 8th grader.

Keep in mind: No recruits can sign a binding National Letter of Intent until the fall of their senior year of high school.

The rationale of offering a student-athlete a scholarship this early, in theory, goes something like this: The player isn't technically bound to the school, but being first in the door with that scholarship offer may matter years down the road, once it becomes time for the prospect to make his final collegiate decision.

LSU and Washington certainly aren't the first two universities to extend offers to middle schoolers. Back in 2010, the University of Southern California football team received a verbal commitment from 13-year-old quarterback David Sills, and the school's basketball team offered a scholarship to Ryan Boatright when he was a 14 year old. (Boatright eventually decided to attend the University of Connecticut.)

As I reported last year, the NCAA considered legislation that would have banned coaches from offering scholarships to recruits in all sports before July 1 of their senior year in high school at its 2011 national convention. The organization's legislative council voted down the proposal, expressing concern about its enforceability.

ESPN RecruitingNation senior writer Mitch Sherman recently spoke with both high school and college coaches about the trend of recruiting middle school athletes, finding a heap of opposition to the practice.

"I think it's too dang early," said John Walsh, coach of Denton (Texas) Guyer High School, to ESPN. "It's way too early, because so many things can change."

"I'm not for it," said coach Rush Propst of Colquitt County (Ga.) High to ESPN. "When you're dealing with a 14-year-old kid, he is a kid. For a collegiate coach to offer a kid that young, what's the validity in it? I just don't like where that's going."

Ultimately, the coaches' concerns mainly boiled down to this: Plenty can change in the four years between an 8th grader receiving a scholarship offer and the time they can actually sign the NLI.

Coaches can switch schools. The NCAA could administer punishments to a school, potentially preventing certain teams from participating in postseason play. A recruit might not pan out as the coach initially envisioned. Their academics could slip, making it that much more difficult for them to retain athletic eligibility.

Or, as Ted Ginn Sr., coach of Cleveland Glenville told ESPN, "You can't give kids too much too early." Offering a scholarship to a 14-year-old player may affect that player's desire and hunger to keep improving, figuring that he or she already "made it" to the next level. (Ginn's son, Ted Ginn Jr., plays professionally for the San Francisco 49ers.)

Until the student-athlete signs the NLI—and he or she is never technically required to do so—the athlete has the freedom to break the verbal commitment and choose a different school.

Does that make the process of offering scholarships to middle school students somewhat hollow? It appears certain high school and college coaches hold that belief.

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