TAMPA — His aspirations are fully developed, even if his growth plates aren’t.
Adam Posateri, a Bloomingdale High School receiver with a thicket of brown chin stubble, dreams of someday running fly routes for the University of Florida. At this point, his 5-foot-9 frame and 40-yard dash time (anywhere from 4.7 to 4.9 seconds) are working against him.
But he believes in his ability to catch anything thrown in his vicinity and dupe corners at the line of scrimmage. To alert Florida — or any college — of these attributes, Posateri has shown a willingness to pay the price. This past spring, it ranged from free to $40 to nearly 200 bucks, depending on the weekend.
“A little pricey,” his mom, Diane Wilson, says.
Posateri, 16, is among hundreds of teens who have tried gauging their potential and gaining college exposure at a prep football combine, an industry as polarizing as it is burgeoning.
Essentially, it’s a daylong test of agility, strength, fleetness and physical dimensions, with perhaps some football drills thrown in. Participants are measured, weighed, timed in the 40-yard dash, and charted in several other areas including bench press, broad jump, vertical leap and the like.
That data, combine organizers insist, is passed on to colleges of all sizes. The combines can be loosely structured or nationally backed. Name a national sports apparel firm — Nike, Under Armour, etc. — and chances are they sponsor a combine.
Posateri has attended five this year already. Neither Gators coach Will Muschamp nor his peers have attended any. NCAA rules prohibit Division I-A coaches from attending or conducting tryouts.
“So that sort of eliminates the combines,” longtime UF compliance chief Jamie McCloskey said.
Yet the combine services boast of having dozens of D-I schools and national recruiters among their subscribers, who pay to have players’ combine information sent to them. That’s legal, McCloskey said, as long as the data is available to every school for the same price. Some distribute the information for free.
“I think it’s a good thing for kids to get exposure,” said third-year Bloomingdale coach John Booth, who inherited a program with one playoff berth in more than a quarter-century of existence.
“We’re coming from a school that doesn’t have necessarily the notoriety of other programs in this county or in this state. Unfortunately we have players who might get overlooked, and it’s a good opportunity for kids like Adam to show he has some talent and can compete with some of the more notable players in the area.”
Others, however, are far more critical of this flourishing enterprise that has joined 7-on-7s as prevalent cogs in the prep football subculture.
“We are not big fans of combines,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said. “We like camps. I only send our kids to combines if I have a kid who has measurables -— height, weight, 40 (time), vertical (leap). Otherwise it can only do him potential damage in the college game.”
Armwood’s Sean Callahan is similarly skeptical, though he has allowed scaled-down versions to be held on his campus.
“Combines have hurt Armwood kids more than helped them through the years,” he said.
Coaches’ concerns are diverse. A kid who runs a lousy 40 time — Posateri ran a 4.97 at one in March in St. Petersburg — could find his college hopes crippled by that documented effort alone. Moreover, who’s to say the person timing the athlete was qualified to do so?
And why, many coaches ask, should a player pay for a combine to assess his skills and expose him to colleges when a high school coach worth his salt will do the same free of charge?
“If you’re going to evaluate (nationally heralded Hawks safety) Leon McQuay, and Sean Callahan gave you his academic information and some film on him and said he’s a 4.5 (in the 40), then you’ve got to believe Sean Callahan,” the veteran Hawks coach said.
“If everybody has a 40 time on Leon McQuay, that might range from 4.7 to 4.4. Now you’ve got issues about where he’s at.”
Yet those fears haven’t discouraged kids from converging at combines by the dozens.
Is the price right?
In mid March, roughly 120 players in grades 8-11 dished out between $89.99 (for pre-registration) to $120 (walk-ups) to participate in the Schuman’s National Underclassmen Combine at St. Petersburg’s Northside Christian.
According to the combine’s website, more than 1,000 athletes from its 2010 events held nationwide earned Division I and I-AA offers. It also indicates several national recruiting services — Rivals.com, ESPN, Tom Lemming — use its combine results to rank players.
Northside coach Andre Dobson said six of his coaches were paid to run the event, and his players were allowed to participate for half price.
Some of Dobson’s offensive skill players failed to eclipse five seconds in the 40. But 5-foot-7 receiver Evan Howard ran a 4.58 and has since been contacted by four small colleges.
ESPN national recruiting analyst and Boca Ciega graduate Jamie Newberg says combines are best suited for undersized, unheralded prospects like Howard.
“There are just too many kids out there for schools to know absolutely every single prospect out there,” Newberg said via e-mail. “Combines, (7-on-7s), etc. are platforms for kids to get initially identified, for young kids to emerge, etc.”
But Newberg, and even Dobson, join the chorus of those who decry the practice of charging kids to participate. Dobson cites the National Underclassmen Combine as an exception because he has seen it evolve into something “good and reputable” over the years.
“I have never been a believer in charging kids a fee, even a small one, for combines,” Newberg said. “At the same time I understand there is a cost to them, especially if you don’t have a sponsor.”
Hence the reason Charles Fishbein, president of South Florida-based Elite Scouting Services and a combine organizer for roughly a decade, charges $30 per participant ($35 for walk-ups). For that fee, kids not only go through the routine combine drills, but are lectured on key recruiting issues such as dealing with the media, handling late-night calls from coaches and knowing what constitutes a scholarship offer.
“At the end of the day you have costs for the combine as far as insurance and things like that,” said Fishbein, who estimates losing between $2,000-$3,000 at a Jacksonville combine last year. “You’re not making money.”
Dwight Thomas, who spent 33 years as a head coach in Florida before moving to the recruiting side with his parent company LRS Sports, said he has never charged a penny in 15 years of operating combines. But he doesn’t begrudge those who must charge a fee to defray costs.
And he acknowledges combines are not for everyone.
“There are some really good football players out there that just can’t test good,” said Thomas, who won two state titles at Pensacola’s Escambia High behind a sleek, short tailback named Emmitt Smith. “If you’re not a good tester you want to be careful because that information gets put out there.”
A kid such as Posateri can attest. For now, the measurements from his combines drift ominously in cyberspace. He wishes the combine honchos had paid more attention to his one-on-one work, when he brandished soft hands and forced cornerbacks out of their backpedal. Nonetheless, as a rising junior, he won’t give up on combines. They’ve offered him a gauge of his skills and a goal to pursue. If he can lower his 40 time and elevate his vertical leap over the next two years, colleges might take notice.
“Nowadays I don’t know if I could leave it all up to a high school coach (to get recruited),” said his mom. “You have to do some work on your own.”
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