Why is that this future UT operating again skipping his senior yr of highschool soccer?

Klein Cain four-star recruit Jaydon Blue has dreams of becoming the next great running back at Texas — a school that has produced Hall of Famer Earl Campbell, Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams and four-time Pro Bowler Jamaal Charles — and then playing in the NFL.

To prepare his body for the rigors of college football, and to try to extend his career at a position where players don’t often last long, Blue announced in May that he wasn’t going to play his final season in high school so he could focus on training.

While some team sports have been losing seniors to early graduation and non-UIL opportunities, the best youth football players in the state have always, in non-pandemic years, suited up for their high schools.

But will that always be the case?

“Do I think it’s going to happen more? I do. Do I 100% agree with it? Not on every level, but I understand the rationale behind it,” said former Parish Episcopal coach Scott Nady, now the director of community and recruiting relations at SMU.

“When they have a very sizable scholarship in hand, and they’re scared of getting injured and jeopardizing that opportunity or jeopardizing their longevity at the next level, there is no easy answer.”

Blue’s decision made headlines because he is committed to Texas and is ranked by 247Sports as the eighth-best running back in the nation in the Class of 2022 after rushing for 2,155 yards and 30 touchdowns as a junior. Playing a position where the average NFL career lasts only 2.5 years, according to a 2016 study by The Wall Street Journal, Blue wants to prolong his career as long as possible.

“This has been a very difficult decision for my family & I,” Blue said in a Twitter post. “Football is a brutal sport, and the wear and tear associated with the RB position is undeniable. I plan to take this time to focus on my academics while enhancing my off the field training/rehab regimen.

“This is a strategic & conscious effort to ensure that I am prepared to perform at an elite level at the collegiate rankings during the 2022 season. … This is an incremental step in hopes of one day fulfilling my NFL dreams.”

With so much at stake physically, is skipping their senior year the best move for a top high school football recruit?(Michael Hogue / The Dallas Morning News)

Dallas-area high school coaches think it’s a bad career move and don’t think Blue will become a trend-setter a year after countless NFL and college players opted out of last season because of COVID-19. But those who train athletes for a living see benefits to defying traditional norms and taking a year to focus solely on preparing for the biggest opportunity of Blue’s life — one that could eventually pay off with the chance to earn millions in the pros.

“I feel like unless you have a great coaching staff that is experienced and has played or coached for a long time, and they know how to teach, that’s the only thing that would amount to training outside of school,” said former Skyline star quarterback De’Vante Kincade, who runs the Kincade Passing Academy for ages 6 through college. “What he is doing is going to enhance all of his skills. He’s going to get specific training for his position — reading coverages, learning blocking schemes, how to run routes.

“A lot of people would say that’s selfish for a kid not to finish his school year and get ready for college. But what if he worked on his training and he goes to college and he’s already ready? The guy that played in high school is still on a high school level, and this guy has been training for college.”

The ATHLETE Performance Enhancement Center (APEC) in Fort Worth and Tyler provides sport-specific training for about 500 high school athletes in a calendar year, and also works with a dozen or more NFL players. A place like that can provide elite athletes specialized strength and conditioning training that hits on acceleration speed work, max-velocity sprinting, core-muscle work, upper- and lower-body power, mobility, stability and range of motion over the course of a week.

“With the way the world is nowadays, everybody prefers individual training over group training because they feel like they’re getting personal attention,” said Taylor Nelson-Cook, training director of APEC Fort Worth. “Whoever [Blue] is working with is definitely selling him on the fact that he can create a personalized program based on the things that he needs to work on.”

The drawback, Nelson-Cook said, is that Blue will lose team camaraderie and a year of “education on the football field.” Kincade, who won an HBCU national championship at Grambling State, said that in-game and on-field situations can’t be replicated.

“The physical side is going to hurt him,” Kincade said. “You don’t have pads on, you’re not hitting, you’re not blocking for real, you’re not running through the hole getting hit, you’re not getting live action.”

To play or not to play

Blue and Klein Cain coach James Clancy did not respond to interview requests from The Dallas Morning News. So it was left to local coaches to dissect the move.

“I wouldn’t allow my son to do that if he was a big-time recruit,” said Riley Dodge, coach of Class 6A Division I state runner-up Southlake Carroll. “I don’t think [Blue’s decision will become commonplace]. I sure hope not. I don’t think it’s advantageous for the kid, and I don’t think it’s advantageous for the university that kid is committed to. I think they want the kids committed to them to suit up for their senior year and to play.”

Dodge said that all of his players are committed to playing in 2021. That includes five-star quarterback Quinn Ewers, an Ohio State pledge who is the No. 1 recruit in the nation in the Class of 2022.

“I think a lot of it has to do with being a hometown kid and wanting to play for his hometown school, and memories that are organically going to happen during the football season,” Dodge said of Ewers. “If you skip out on that, those are lasting memories that you are going to miss out on and be pretty devastating later in your career and your life.”

ESPN reported that 66 NFL players chose not to play in 2020, and The Wall Street Journal reported that more than 150 college players opted out as well. That college list featured six players who became first-round draft picks in 2021.

“I’ve put a lot of thought into it,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian told 247Sports. “I think a little bit of it is, it’s kind of the trickle down effect, right? I don’t know how many ever years ago when NFL players started holding out — wanted more guaranteed money, wanted a better contract or they wanted to go to another team. Then all of a sudden, you had college players not playing in a bowl game right before the draft. Then all of a sudden, last season, we had college players opting out and deciding not to play.

“Now here we are in high school football talking about it.”

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Cowboys first-round draft pick Micah Parsons, Penn State’s prodigious linebacker who was selected with the 12th pick, had mixed emotions after sitting out last season. He offers an interesting perspective on what life could be like for Blue this year.

“It was a blessing and curse,” Parsons said while speaking on an ESPN college football podcast. “It was a curse because I wasn’t playing football and able to compete. With all the injuries and lack of prep that so many teams had, I feel like it was a blessing, because you never know what could happen out there.

“Definitely wasn’t fun just sitting on the couch, working out. Same schedule every day, no different. It sucked a little bit.”

Could Blue’s decision affect where he ends up on the depth chart at UT? That depends on if Texas coaches feel the same way as Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who told NFL.com before the draft that he would be hesitant to select a player who opted out in 2020 “because we don’t know what the opt-outs will be like in their first season back in football.”

There was one big difference between Blue and the high-profile players who sat out. The pros and collegians made their announcements during the peak of the pandemic, when their safety and the safety of family members was at the forefront of the decision process. That wasn’t the case for Blue.

“I’ve talked to a lot of college coaches that didn’t like it,” Mansfield Timberview coach James Brown said. “I think you play football because you love football. I understand the necessity to maintain your body, but you can get hurt training. If you over-train yourself, you can tear an ACL working out. It just pushes you back a little bit as far as football goes.”

The Dallas Morning News polled the top recruits in the area and didn’t find any who are planning to opt out.

“There’s no question about me being out there this fall,” said Rockwall three-star quarterback Braedyn Locke, who is committed to Mississippi State.

“I love my city, I love all those guys in the locker room, and the chance to get one more run at a state championship is something I’m not going to let pass me up.”

Not just a football issue

Premier athletes, unlike ever before, are facing life-changing decisions when they are teenagers. It is becoming a bigger dilemma in basketball than football whether they should continue to play for their high school.

Two local basketball stars from the charter school iSchool of Lewisville — five-star guard Keyonte George and four-star point guard Arterio Morris — were offered the opportunity to leave high school and join the new Overtime Elite pro basketball league, which is scheduled to launch in September. Athletes would have to give up their high school and college eligibility, but players would earn at least $100,000 for the season, along with bonuses, full health care benefits and revenue from a player’s name, image and likeness, according to ESPN.

George and Morris, ranked by 247Sports as the Nos. 1 and 5 recruits in Texas in the Class of 2022, were also approached by the NBA G League Ignite, a developmental team that this past season featured two players (Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga) who are projected as possible top-five picks in the NBA draft.

The NBA G League’s developmental program pays players $125,000 to $500,000 for a season, according to ESPN, and three five-star high school recruits in the Class of 2022 have already signed with the NBA G League Ignite.

“[George and Morris] both turned down Overtime, and they’re definitely going to finish out their senior year,” said iSchool of Lewisville coach Brian Nwelue, whose team plays a national schedule. “From all the conversations we’ve had, they plan to play in college.”

Richardson five-star guard Cason Wallace has talked with representatives of Overtime Elite and said he would consider joining if presented an offer. Coach David Peavy from Class 6A state champion Duncanville said “it’s a good possibility that they come after one or two of my players this year or soon” — namely five-star power forward Ronald Holland, the state’s No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2023.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Peavy said. “All I can offer them is a pair of shoes and opportunities to play at a high level, but if they can play at a high level and make a half a million dollars, it would be hard for me to tell a kid not to. That’s life-changing.”

Arlington Lamar quarterback Cade Carlson (3) has his punt blocked by Arlington Martin's Trevell Johnson (21) during the first quarter at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Friday, October 30, 2020. Johnson recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.Arlington Lamar quarterback Cade Carlson (3) has his punt blocked by Arlington Martin’s Trevell Johnson (21) during the first quarter at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Friday, October 30, 2020. Johnson recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown.(Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

A lot to consider

Lewisville coach Michael Odle thinks there will be only a few random players opting out going forward because there is so much to gain from playing — life lessons that can’t be taught in training, and lasting friendships that are built with teammates.

“High school sports are important, especially here in Texas,” Odle said. “We do it to make the athlete a better person, a more educated person, to become a stronger young man who can handle the adversities of life. That’s what it’s all about. You lose that when you opt out.”

Arlington Martin three-star linebacker Trevell Johnson is committed to Texas, just like Blue. Johnson didn’t agree with the decision of his future teammate.

“My opinion on that is you only have one senior year, and taking that year off could affect you in a lot of different ways, ranging from trouble off the field or just losing that football touch,” Johnson said.

“More importantly, I feel that taking that year off would really affect the way you play and the way you think the next time you do get to play football.”

Frisco Lone Star three-star quarterback Garret Rangel, committed to Oklahoma State, was more direct about why he wouldn’t choose the same path as Blue.

“I won’t do that to my team,” Rangel said.

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