Note: This is a story I wrote for the Sunday print section advancing the Under Armour All-America Game and practices this week in Florida. I’ll actually be traveling to Orlando early Monday and filing live reports later in the day, so be sure to check back regularly all day all week. . . .
Jay Rome, a five-star prospect and the No. 1 tight end in Georgia, had his choice of national all-star games in which to play. The NUC All-World Classic, the Offense-Defense Bowl and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl all sent him invitations. But Rome went with this week’s Under Armour All-America Game in Florida. He and nine other elite recruits from Georgia left for Orlando Friday.
“One of the main things is it’s closer to where I live,” the 6-foot-6, 240-pound high school senior from Valdosta said of his choice. “So it’s easier for my family to come see me play. And it’s on television. All the combines are televised, too, which I like. So you want to perform.”
Rome is going where many before him have gone. While it’s only the fourth year for the annual high school all-star game – the Army All-American, played Saturdayjan8 in San Antonio, is the granddaddy of the all-star games — dozens of Georgia’s finest football players have flocked to the Under Armour, sponsored by the fast-emerging sports apparel giant.
After this year, 40 “Peach Staters” will have participated in the game and its resident practices and combines. They represent the best of the best the state has to offer.
For the second consecutive year the Under Armour roster will include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s top-ranked player in the state. Last year the representative was Calhoun wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers, now a freshman at Tennessee. This year it will be Carver-Columbus running back Isaiah Crowell, whose ballyhooed recruitment has yet to be decided.
Other Georgians in the Under Armour this year are Troup running back Quan Bray, Griffin defensive end Xzavier Dickson, Gainesville linebacker A.J. Johnson, Valdosta wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, Pope offensive lineman Thomas O’Reilly, Mitchell County wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, Carver-Columbus defensive lineman Gabe Wright and Tucker linebacker James Vaughters. They represent six of the AJC’s Super 11 preseason selections and six of the top 10 from the AJC Fab 50, a postseason list of the state’s best college prospects.
Their motivations for this week’s game (7:30 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN) vary.
“The swag,” Dickson said, only half joking.
One of the perks for being invited to the game is the loot its sponsors provide. The players will get sneakers, cleats, warmups, T-shirts and various other work-out gear. In addition they’re provided luxurious accommodations at a Walt Disney resort, great meals and several outings to Disney properties.
“For me it’s both business and pleasure,” said Dickson, who also played in the recent Georgia Athletic Coaches Association (GACA) North-South All-Star Classic in Columbus. “I didn’t think I played that well in this last game, so I feel like I have something to prove. But I want to have a good time, too, so it’s sort of fun and business.”
Dickson is one of several players who will announce their college choices during the game. He’s narrowed his list to Alabama, Auburn and Georgia. Bray is also supposed to make known his decision between Auburn and Georgia.
Others have long had their minds made up.
“We play the game on the 5th, I fly back on the 6th, I go to Auburn on the 7th and I start classes that Monday,” said O’Reilly, who will be an early enrollee at Auburn. “I feel like since I’m going in early I’m expected to perform. I need to do well to prove to everyone I can compete against the best.”
And the best of the best is who these players will encounter in the competition these players will encounter. Ninety players are divided, based on national ratings, into the Red team (known as “Click-Clack”) and the White (”Micro G”). They represent 70 of ESPNU’s 150 national-ranked players, including South Pointe, S.C., defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who is generally considered the No. 1 overall recruiting prospect in America. Current UGA star A.J. Green played in the inaugural game in 2007.
Practices and combines, many of which are broadcasts on ESPNU, are conducted at the Disney/ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. But the game will be played for the second consecutive year at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, a more fitting venue for what organizers believe is a big-time event.
“I’m very excited about it,” Rome said. “I’m hoping to have a lot of fun and make some new friends. But I really want to have a good time and make a good impression on everybody, too.”
Just being invited to this game is impressive in itself.
College Recruiting By Chip Towers