Calculated gamble

LAS VEGAS -- A dry, fierce wind rolled off the nearby rocky slopes as a few hundred football players danced around six fields at Charlie Frias Park on Sunday. The famous Las Vegas Strip, straight down Tropicana Avenue, beckoned in the distance.

Shreds of grass cut through the air like tiny spears, agitating spectators, coaches and players at the New Level Athletics West Regional. A Chapstick salesman could have made his monthly quota in an hour.

Still, it sure beat the specter of NCAA investigators who invaded this event two years ago.

Baron Flenory, a managing partner of New Level Athletics, alongside Kashann Simmons, said he feels vindicated by the changing winds that surround the world of 7-on-7 football.

This is Flenory's world. But in 2011, Flenory felt under unfair attack, as allegations swirled that he acted as a third party -- street agent, cried some -- to influence the college decision of at least one prospect in exchange for payment from the University of Oregon.

Though Oregon remains under investigation for alleged payments to recruiting services, no penalties have been levied.

Meanwhile, the 7-on-7 game continues to emerge. The football community has embraced the brand of football for its important role in the development of prospects hungry to play at the college level.

Slowly, the 7-on-7 product has found a comfortable home in the offseason mainstream. This despite its unregulated feel that could lead to a culture ripe for unsavory activity in much the same way that AAU basketball altered recruiting in that sport.

It's here to stay. Accept it. A record 46 teams participated in the Vegas event, which featured dozens of major-college prospects honing their craft at skill positions.

"It is gratifying," said Flenory, whose company runs the most prominent 7-on-7 all-star tournaments nationally among a growing group of competitors. "There's still a long, long road to go. This is still in its infancy. But as long as you keep having quality events, the sky's the limit for this thing."

The 2011 NLA regional was held at UNLV. The NCAA has since prohibited such events from taking place on campus at FBS programs. The rule change ranked as a minor obstacle for Flenory and Simmons, who moved their event down the road in Sin City and will hold their next regional on March 16 at FCS-level Youngstown State in Ohio.

The change in two years is striking. Gone is much of the disorganization. Play moved swiftly on Sunday through the single-elimination bracket. Trained officials called the action. Organizers were visible and abundantly helpful.

Respected figures in football walked the sidelines.

"We're out here for the kids," said former eight-year NFL linebacker and USC All-American Chris Claiborne, who brought two teams to Vegas. "I love coaching, but this thing is all about the kids. I think if you play a skill position and you want to get offers, this is perfect.

"You're learning the skills and practicing the skills you need."

Dave Peck, coach at South Jordan (Utah) Bingham, directed an all-star team of Utah talent. His team lost in the semifinals but won the title last year. In the month following last year's Vegas tournament, Peck said, five or six of his players received scholarship offers.

College coaches cannot attend 7-on-7 tournaments.

"But I know I'll be getting a call from every one of them in Utah, saying, 'Hey, Coach Peck, how did this guy look? How did that guy do?'" Peck said.

"Most of our kids are multisport athletes. They can't go to all the camps and combines. And even if they wanted to, a lot of them couldn't afford [the travel]. So for them, this is it."

I've asked many college coaches over the past two years about the proliferation of 7-on-7 football. Not one has dismissed it as unimportant or expressed serious concerns about the atmosphere.

High school coaches are often a bit more hesitant to fully embrace 7-on-7.

One coach of a prominent program said in Vegas that he pulled two of his players from a 7-on-7 team after watching them trash talk through a day of play last year. He cringed at the thought of undoing months of work invested in helping his guys buy into a team concept.

No doubt, it's easy for players to lose sight of discipline in the 7-on-7 game.

Claiborne said it's up to the kids, though, to make the most of the opportunity and to learn from challenging situations. In Vegas, one of Claiborne's teams played on Saturday against a team sponsored by hip-hop star Snoop Dogg. The presence and antics of the rapper on the sideline, at times, caused a stir.

"It was a little crazy," Claiborne said, "but you have to embrace it. Embrace the chaos. Embrace the moment and fight through it. Take it in, because after a while, you get tunnel vision as an athlete. And at the higher levels, you always have that stuff around you."

Al Martell brought his son, Tate, a 15-year-old quarterback who attracted headlines last summer when he committed to Washington before starting eighth grade. Al said he consulted with UW coach Steve Sarkisian about exposing Tate, who will be a freshman at Poway (Calif.) High School next fall, to the 7-on-7 environment.

"Sark was very supportive," the elder Martell said. "This is part of the process in your development, especially as a quarterback. You consider this to be the offseason, but if you're a football family or football junkie, this is part of the season. It extends the season."

But not all ran smoothly in the desert.

A brawl between Snoop's team and another group from Southern California stopped play early in the tournament on Sunday. Flenory and Simmons acted decisively, disqualifying both teams as tempers flared among parents and coaches for several minutes after the fight in the end zone was stopped.

Flenory said he was concerned that the incident might disrupt -- even shut down -- the entire event.

"It was taken care of, and we kept it moving," Flenory said. "In heated competition, things like that can happen. It was unfortunate, but it was an isolated incident."

Two years ago, it may have stopped the show.

"When I look back now," Flenory said, "I don't know if [New Level Athletics] were being unfairly targeted as much as 7-on-7 in general. I was a younger businessman, a younger camp director, so I took it personally, because my intentions were always good.

"The backstory in starting 7-on-7 is that we saw a flaw in the way kids were being evaluated. We thought this was a great way to change that, so when we were being scrutinized, I didn't really understand it."

Scrutiny, of course, never hurts. Flenory and Simmons emerged from it -- and with them, so did 7-on-7 football as a legitimate player in the new order of the offseason recruiting calendar.