Weeks from now, when Jacobs opens its football season on a late summer evening against Barrington, Josh Walker hopes to be carrying his first scholarship offer. Heck, maybe two.
“It’d take a lot of stress off,” the Golden Eagles’ running back said on a recent weekday morning.
For the time being, Walker, a senior, will carry on. In the competitive world of college football recruiting, where prospective players across McHenry County and throughout the nation work for a scholarship, he’s one of many in a sizable crowd. Yet, perhaps, here lies the way out: summer camps.
In recent years, one-day camps on college campuses have become a fixture on the recruiting calendar, where a head-turning performance in front of coaches can become the needed push to secure an offer. Typically held in June, with some scattered throughout July, the camps serve as a chance for the coaches to evaluate prospects in person, and for the prospects to impress coaches.
“It continues to grow and grow,” said Allen Trieu, a Midwest recruiting analyst for Scout.com. “Kids are more apt to hit the road now, making their way to more and more camps.”
To comply with NCAA rules, schools open the camps to all players who will be ninth- through 12th-graders in the fall, and are prohibited from covering the travel costs and other camp expenses for any prospect.
As a result, it leaves the high-schoolers paying their own way. And although attendance fees are generally nominal, costing from $40 to $90, they can add up simply by virtue of visiting a variety of schools.
Walker has attended five camps this summer at Colgate, Illinois State, Indiana State, Northwestern and Western Michigan and hopes to attend at least one more at Ball State. But maybe it’ll be his 40-yard dash time at Illinois State, where he said he was clocked at 4.4 seconds, that’ll put him over the edge. He believes he made an impression. And a scholarship will be worth it.
“I don’t go to a camp unless I’m trying to get an offer,” Walker said. “So, of all the schools I’ve been to, there’s a great possibility.”
The travel can be exhausting, too. After the camp June 15 at Colgate, Walker and his dad, Greg, hit the road to drive the more than 600 miles from Hamilton, New York, to Kalamazoo, Michigan, for another camp June 17 at Western Michigan.
But a tire on Greg’s Mercedes-Benz blew out at 2 a.m., and the two spent the night of Father’s Day at a motel off the road, outside Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Still, Trieu, who has covered recruiting for almost a decade, describes the setup as “mutually beneficial."
“It gives coaches the chance to show the player how he’ll be coached should he go to the school,” he said. “But it also gives that kid the chance to work with those coaches.
"A lot of the time, when you’re being recruited, when coaches are in your school or talking to you on the phone, they’re giving you the recruiting pitch. Now, you get a chance to see what happens when you’re doing a drill at a summer camp and you don’t do it right. Or there’s a teachable moment and you get to work with the staff to see if your styles mesh.”
Generally, camps range from two to eight hours and consist of a variety of combine-like drills. Staffers measure a player's height, weigh him and then put him through the 40-yard dash, shuttle run and other tests.
It’s the position drills, however, where players can often stand out. A defensive lineman can outmuscle an overmatched offensive lineman, or a running back such as Walker can evade an incoming tackler. Just maybe, they can catch someone’s eye.
“Basically, it’s just a chance,” Walker added. “I have nothing to lose, and I can make a name for myself.”
Marian Central quarterback Billy Bahl, who committed to Miami (Ohio) last month, attended a throwing camp at Iowa State in early June, in addition to other throwing showcases put on by Nike, Elite 11 and Rivals.com. Although coaches couldn’t be present at those third-party camps, the senior was looking to drum up interest.
“At the time I went to those, I wasn’t too highly recruited,” said the 6-foot-4 Bahl, now listed as a three-star prospect by Rivals.com and Scout.com. “So it was a way to get my name out there. You’re going for the exposure, I guess, because a lot of the guys at the camps can get your name out there if you’re doing well.”
There’s no shortage of players looking for that exposure – even amid a time in college sports when the value of athletic scholarships appears to be losing some of its luster and has come under increased scrutiny, highlighted by a case this year in which players at Northwestern sought union representation.
Over the course of Northwestern’s six one-day camps, held over three weekends in June, it had 1,750 high school players in attendance, according to a school spokesman. Contrast that to 2010, when the school debuted its Chicagoland Showcase with 324 campers over two days. Other camps across the area suggest there's been a rise as well.
Because of demand, Crystal Lake South coach Chuck Ahsmann advises his players to attend a variety of camps. Sure, visit Northwestern and other Big Ten programs, but also visit schools from the Mid-American Conference, the Football Championship Subdivision and Division III. Try a sampling.
Before the summer, typically in January, Ahsmann will put on a meeting for his players and their parents, where he discusses a number of aspects of the recruiting season such as summer camps.
“It is a bigger deal,” he said. “It’s just a lot bigger process. But it’s also great for the kids, [camps are] a chance to see what they’re getting themselves into.”
Not everyone has taken that route, however. Dundee-Crown senior Malik Dunner, a defensive back, wide receiver and running back who committed to Ball State on Friday and had an additional scholarship offer from North Dakota State, pointed out he has never attended a camp.
In the spring, he started garnering interest. Then Ball State offensive coordinator Joey Lynch came to McHenry County to visit, and to watch the speedy 5-foot-10 Dunner run track for the Chargers. It wasn’t long before he had an offer. That was that.
“I considered it,” he said of attending a camp, “but I figured I had these offers already. I feel like it’d be a waste of my time and it’d take me away from my team.”
Dunner said he’s still focused on high school, almost taken aback by the interest from schools.
“I guess I had more potential than I thought I had,” he said.
For others, such as the dogged Walker, who stands only 5-foot-6, a camp represents a chance to show off skills that outshine the measurables listed in a game program.
But for now, he’s trying to stay at ease and lean on the advice of his dad, who faced similar questions about his size before playing at Syracuse, where he was a cornerback for the Orange from 1988 to '91.
“He’s not really big, either, so he’s trying to tell me be patient,” Josh said. “Some kids might get offered now or earlier, but the right school is looking for you and they know what they want. It’s coming. It’s going to happen.”