MaxPreps takes a look at the recruiting cycle's progression and identifies some top young players that fans and college coaches alike will be watching.
Eighth-graders are getting offered, seventh-graders are making commitments, and players enter ninth grade with national reputations and college coaches hot on their tracks.
Welcome to the new era in college football recruiting, where colleges juggle securing and maintaining commitments from senior recruits with getting a jump start on middle school players who have yet to play a snap of high school football.
The trend has been happening gradually over the last five to 10 years. It was accelerated and brought to the spotlight in 2010, when a seventh-grade quarterback named David Sills verbally committed to USC, sending shock waves through the college football community.
Now Sills is entering his sophomore season looking the part of a blue-chip recruit, making a genius out of USC head coach Lane Kiffin, who previously was the punchline to many early-recruiting jokes.
In the Class of 2013, 67 of the Top 100 recruits have already made verbal commitments, while members of the Class of 2014, who are entering their junior season, are already starting to narrow their focus.
Numerous players from the Class of 2015, fresh off their ninth-grade campaigns, are fielding multiple offers from colleges. So too are members of the Class of 2016, who have yet to play a down of varsity football.
Make no mistake about it: the recruiting process is light years ahead of where it was even as little as five years ago.Bergen Catholic (Oradell, N.J.)
head coach Nunzio Campanile, whose incoming freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was offered by Rutgers earlier this week, has seen it firsthand.
Campanile has coached multiple Division I recruits as an assistant at Don Bosco Prep and now as head coach at Bergen Catholic. He's never had a player receive an offer prior to his sophomore season, let alone before a ninth-grade season.
"It's pretty crazy, isn't it?" Campanile said. "I think it's sped up almost exponentially."
Though Campanile recognizes the talent that Guarantano and other prized ninth-graders possess, he also wonders how early is too early.
"Those kids probably have proven to be great young players, and it's probably a safe bet to think their talent is going to reach that level. But it's also a big leap, and a lot of pressure on the kid, too," he said.
Bart Fuller has also been witness to the evolution of the recruiting process. His oldest son Devin, who signed with UCLA in the winter, was first offered a scholarship in the fall on his junior season. A few months after National Signing Day, younger brother Jordan received an unofficial offer from Rutgers.
Fuller believes colleges are recruiting at an early age to get a jump start on building rapport with players.
"I think what schools are trying to do is get on kids that they feel are going to be at that level three or four years from now and develop those relationships early on," he said. "I think that's what it is, developing those relationships."
Jordan Fuller described it as "crazy" and "just amazing" to be offered before finishing his eighth grade year, but said he felt no added pressure to perform as a ninth-grader.
"My teammates have helped me through it, they've been welcoming to me. I just feel like another guy on the team," Jordan said.
Managing the team dynamic of having a star ninth-grader is not always easy.
For Aquinas Institute (Rochester, N.Y.)
head coach Chris Battaglia, whose Class of 2016 quarterback Jake Zembiec is also drawing college interest, it's not necessarily easy to navigate dealing with a star ninth-grader whose freshmen teammates are not receiving the same type of attention.
"For head coaches, it's hard," Battaglia said. "You have to make sure the kid gets his due without upsetting other kids."
Battaglia said that colleges would ask about his eighth-grade quarterback while they were at the school recruiting the Class of 2012 defensive lineman Jarron Jones and other seniors.
"I'd point to Jake, and they'd say ‘No, the eighth-grade QB you have,'" he said. "They were surprised. He looks like a man."
How exactly are colleges learning about recruits that young?
Technology, according to one coach.Elbert County (Elberton, Ga.)
head coach Sid Fritts believes technology has been the driving force behind the recruiting process speeding up. Fritts is the coach of Tra Barnett, a Class of 2016 running back who is already on the recruiting radar.
"The exposure that these kids get with new systems, as far as getting video out, and with track websites that give their numbers out, there's just so much information out there that these guys are getting found out about earlier," he said.
Fritts believes Barnett's teammate, Mecole Hardman, is also close to a can't-miss prospect, but says that both Barnett and Hardman still have a long way to go.
"There's a lot of things that have to take place between eighth grade and 12th grade," he said.
With high school fans and college coaches alike paying attention to freshmen who could make an impact this fall, MaxPreps takes a stab at identifying the nation's top Class of 2016 players to watch this season and beyond.MaxPreps Class of 2016 Top Watch List