Donte Jackson had zero offers when he joined the Louisiana Bootleggers in 2014.
Back then, the raw athlete who did a little bit of everything for Riverdale (La.) High School in New Orleans was slotted to play cornerback. His first taste of action came in a weekend tournament in Atlanta. By the time he returned home, Jackson had eight offers in hand.
It’s a similar story for Odell Beckham Jr. Recruiting services did not have a profile for the current New York Giants wide receiver. After competing in his first tournament with the Bootleggers, Beckham received his first offer — to play in the U.S. Army All-American Game in San Antonio, Texas. A recruiting service snapped the first photo of Beckham and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Bootleggers are one of several 7-on-7 programs within the state of Louisiana that help train, develop, mentor and promote college prospects. They are not alone as the system has rapidly spread throughout The Boot to different portions of the state, attracting a wider range of participants. The success stories of Beckham and Jackson, who both wound up playing for LSU, are just a slice of the pie. Other notable 7-on-7 alums include Jarvis Landry (LSU), Tre’Davious White (LSU), Shea Patterson (Ole Miss), Lindsey Scott Jr. (LSU, East Mississippi C.C.), Jalen McCleskey (Oklahoma State), Tyron Johnson (LSU, Oklahoma State), Drake Davis (LSU), DeVonta Smith (Alabama), Travis Etienne (Clemson), Cheyenne Labruzza (Tennessee), Brandon Singleton (Cal), Shyheim Carter (Alabama), Clyde Chriss (Texas A&M), Mykel Patterson (Oklahoma) and Adam Sparks (Missouri), among several others.
Why is this subject being brought up?
One high school football coach has proposed banning non-scholastic 7-on-7 in Louisiana with a vote scheduled for January. That motion would put programs such as the Bootleggers in jeopardy and potentially limit high school athletes.
J.J. McCleskey spent eight seasons in the NFL after a storied college career at Tennessee. Now the owner of a training facility, McCleskey has a unique tie to the 7-on-7 circuit — both as the head coach and as a parent of an alum. His son, Jalen, became a household name as the result of his success playing 7-on-7 football, which paved the way for him to receive a scholarship offer from Oklahoma State.
“We try to help every individual — not just with football, not just with technique — but with mentors,” McCleskey told SEC Country. “I talk to all of my players and educate them. If somebody said we didn’t have value, I’d disagree. They’ve never been around us. We teach our kids how to go on road trips, how to room and how to follow curfew. This is what you need for college. It’s a mentorship, and everyone who has played for the Bootleggers is going to college; it’s not an option. Kids no longer can say, ‘I never left the state of Louisiana’ or ‘I’ve never been to a hotel room with meals planned.’
“My son played for the Bootleggers. His development playing high school ball, being a smaller guy helped with guys like you at Rivals, Scout, ESPN, 247. They were able to see him and take a guy that’s 5-foot-10, 156 pounds and now ranked as a solid 3-star. Bigger schools were willing to offer. Now, he’s been evaluated. From a parent’s standpoint, they knew McCleskey belonged. Now, he’s making plays in college. It gave him the confidence he could play at the larger level, that he had the skills and that he was right there with 4- and 5-star guys.”
Competition, evaluation lead to offers
Jackson is a known success story to emerge from Louisiana 7-on-7. He’s far from the only example, but among the most prominent to benefit from unique coaching and added exposure.
UGA was the first to offer Jackson in the spring leading up to his senior year. By the time he took his first unofficial visit as a now highly regarded prospect, Jackson was up to 15 offers, including one from LSU.
Jackson was the beneficiary of increased attention received from 7-on-7 competitions and college coaches reaching out to McCleskey, a former SEC football player and NFL veteran, for a closer evaluation. That remains a blueprint for the Bootleggers today, which has helped dozens of alumni reach Power 5 conferences and eventually advance to the NFL.
“If a college coach calls me about a kid, I give the coach an accurate breakdown of the kid,” McCleskey said. “I stay pure and promote the kid and where he’s at. I tell the truth. I say he does this, this, this, this and this, but I don’t want a coach to come at me for misrepresenting a kid. … Eventually, Donte would have been seen. Everyone has their rankings, but when you’re playing with Donte Jackson, DeVonta Smith and Kevin Toliver, against these types of elite athletes, you find out where you are.”
That’s not to say that McCleskey is trying to take away any responsibilities from a high school coach.
His son, Jalen, played for St. Paul’s High School in Covington, La. He was offered by Oklahoma State as a result of his performances in the 7-on-7 setting, but there’s a process in place before an offer becomes committable. That requires the Cowboys coaches to touch base with St. Paul’s coach Kenny Sears and do some research into the prospect first.
“No matter who I call, the college coach will always call a high school coach to sign off on a kid,” McCleskey said. “That’s a part of the process regardless of who I will call. That high school coach has to stamp that kid. Period.”
Though it’s undeniable that 7-on-7 football had a profound impact on the recruitment of Louisiana prospects, there’s a whole other angle that makes the process unique.
The Bootleggers are coached by McCleskey, Ryan Clark and Reggie Tongue, all of whom played college football at the Power 5 level and enjoyed lengthy professional careers in the NFL. McCleskey coordinates the offense and Clark works with the defense. Tongue, a 10-year NFL safety, assists in the secondary.
Clark wrapped up his first season working with the Bootleggers, where he coached his son, Jordan Clark, a 4-star defensive back in the Class of 2019. As a coach and a mentor associated with 7-on-7 football in Louisiana, not to mention the parent of a player, Clark is undoubtedly a huge supporter of what the program does for prospects.
“My experience with 7-on-7 has been extremely positive,” Clark told SEC Country. “Both as a coach and a parent of a player, the opportunity and the exposure to top-notch competition, coaching and athletes is second to none. I believe it’s an invaluable tool in the development of young football players.”
Derek Stingley Jr. is the state’s top-ranked defensive back in the Class of 2019. A two-year standout for the Bootleggers, Stingley’s accomplishments on the field have led to camp invites to LSU and other major college programs, offers and improved play for The Dunham School (La.) in Baton Rouge.
Stingley’s father, Derek Stingley Sr., has little doubt about the impact that playing 7-on-7 football has had on his son. That begins with the exposure he has received from tournaments in the state and across the country as well as receiving tutelage from the likes of former NFL players.
“What the 7-on-7 brings during the spring and summer is exposure for kids and confidence,” Stingley Sr. explained. “You don’t get that type of talent packed in one where kids can go up against some of the best in other areas of the country and help them to get noticed. It’s not that high school isn’t at a high level, but when you compete against 4- and 5-stars, you bring more exposure. There’s write-ups and there’s a chance for college coaches to offer him and now, his future is brighter.”
Stingley is not only the parent of a 4-star cornerback, but a former Arena Football League player and the head coach of the Shanghai Skywalkers of the China Arena Football League. He also serves as an assistant coach at The Dunham School.
That might not be the case if 7-on-7 football did not exist in Louisiana.
The opportunity for his son to compete against other elite prospects in the offseason led to Stingley to keep his son enrolled at The Dunham School. The family considered enrollment at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Stingley Jr. would have had the opportunity to experience many of the same things that he’s enjoyed playing for the Bootleggers. Because of the perks involved in 7-on-7, Stingley has remained in Baton Rouge, for now, and believes his experience in the offseason benefits his performance on the high school level and the lessons he can impart to his teammates.
“It’s bigger than football,” Stingley said. “We’re OK allowing him to do these things because he comes back with more confidence. It’s about them growing up into young men and taking coaching from guys like Cam Newton, Ryan Clark and Ray Mickens, guys that have played in the NFL and are nurturing these kids and teaching them to be better high school players and college football players and maybe NFL [players]. They may not get that in high school, but sometimes you can learn something different and apply it to your game and bring it back to high school to show your teammates what you learn. It helps everybody.”
After all, 7-on-7 is an out-of-school activity scheduled around the school. Like offseason training, 7-on-7 helps prospects refine their craft. Stingley believes depriving families of that option is criminal.
“It’s an avenue and a platform to help these kids and their families,” he said. “It helped my family to specialize in his field of sport and to be a better player.”