It was the first day of a summer football camp at Southern Utah University. Christian Thatcher, an incoming freshman at Arbor View, was running drills with the Aggies’ varsity. But his dad and grandpa might have been the only ones who noticed.
“Day One, he gets eight reps at backup safety and four as a backup defensive end. He does not make a tackle,” recalls Jamie Thatcher, Christian’s father and the freshman coach at Arbor View.
Day Two, Christian Thatcher moves to weak side linebacker. Despite being fifth on the depth chart, he starts making tackles.
By the third day, he’s no longer No. 5 on the depth chart. Thatcher is causing fumbles, deflecting passes, making plays all over the field. Now he’s No. 1 on the depth chart.
On the fourth day, after the scrimmaging ends, a man wearing clothing adorned with Southern Utah logos approaches Jamie Thatcher.
“He introduces himself as Demario Warren, Southern Utah’s head football coach,” Jamie Thatcher said. “He tells me they have never offered a freshman (a scholarship) before, but he said they would like to offer Christian. He said he wanted to be his first since he will have many more to come.”
Early offers abound
Scholarship offers made to freshmen before they have played a down of varsity football are not binding. It’s sort of like high school sweethearts going steady (provided high school sweethearts still do that). There’s a lot of things that could happen before vows are exchanged.
For instance, there’s a possibility that Warren might not be Southern Utah’s coach on national signing day when Thatcher commits. Warren led the Thunderbirds to the FCS playoffs in his second season, but has gone 1-10, 3-9 and 1-5 during his past three.
Or, as Warren said, Thatcher could receive an offer from a more prestigious school.
In fact, he already has.
When Arizona was in town recently to play Brigham Young, the Wildcats offered Thatcher, now Arbor View’s starting middle linebacker, and sophomore teammates David Washington and Makhai Donaldson scholarships.
Washington is a rangy wide receiver who already had been offered scholarships by Mississippi, Washington State, Arkansas State and UNLV. Donaldson, a running back, has piled up touchdowns and yardage during Arbor View’s first four games as squirrels do nuts with winter approaching.
“Colleges are jumping on these kids earlier and earlier,” Arbor View coach Matt Gerber said. “But overall, it’s a good thing. It’s what every kid wants. You’re playing high school football, you want to have a chance to (play in) college.”
Business as usual
The common denominator in Thatcher, Washington and Donaldson attracting attention from college scouts at a precocious age is that each was a youth football star.
“The pandemic shut everything down,” Jamie Thatcher said about varsity football seasons being canceled from coast to coast. “But what happened in Vegas is that two youth all-star teams were formed. We traveled every weekend to play other states’ all-star teams. The level of play was insane.
“We were playing at such a high level that it wasn’t that big of a change coming into varsity football. But it stinks for the rest of the local kids who didn’t get a chance to play and missed the whole year.”
Jamie Thatcher said when freshman practice began at Arbor View “it was like starting at square two” because of the rank-and-file players’ inactivity during the shutdown.
But at the end of the day — or even during the middle of a pandemic — Gerber said the college recruiters were like Marshawn Lynch in beast mode. They were not to be denied.
“It hurt a lot of the older kids, because if you were a junior or a senior and you hadn’t had an offer, you weren’t going to get a chance to show game film,” Gerber said. “But a lot of (youth) tournaments and leagues and stuff like that were still going on, and the college recruiters were checking out kids through that.
“It never really stopped.”
Prospects getting younger
Offering scholarships to football players before they enroll in high school is a relatively new thing, though Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh might have established a precedent in 2019 when he reportedly made Isaiah Robinson, a seventh grade quarterback from Southfield, Michigan, an offer to play for the Wolverines.
According to recruiting websites, Robinson is now being courted by schools such as Cincinnati, Florida Atlantic, Kansas, Kentucky and Maryland.
Ron Kantowski Review-Journal