Pros serve as mentors at elite prep tournament

BEAVERTON, Ore. – Ray Rice's(notes) participation in Nike's 7On Tournament allowed him to do more than give back.

"I'm here with the best of the best," the Baltimore Ravens running back said about the opportunity to work with younger players. "I'm honored to be here to help out with the kids, and it's some football for me. I definitely want to be involved. At the same time, I get a good workout here … not just working out with the kids, but I can also get my workout done in the field – we get our work done with the kids, and then tend to business."

For the second straight year, Nike brought current and former NFL players to its main campus to coach 150 of the nation's best high school players. The players were split into eight teams, with two composed entirely of offensive and defensive linemen. That was a new twist this year; honoring the best big guys separately gave equal footing to some of the top players excluded from the 7-on-7 format, which puts offensive skill players and defensive linebackers and backs on the field in non-contact settings.

"I love this game, man – I just love this game," Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle Russell Okung(notes) said. "You know, we haven't been able to play out here, so coming here and watching these guys compete and show who they are … words can't even express my emotion right now. And just to be a part of this; it's a great opportunity."

Okung and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh(notes), who haven't squared off in the NFL yet, talked some smack as coaches when their teams of linemen faced off through the week. "Yeah, Suh had a lot to say about it – we've been talking back and forth the whole camp about who's going to be the winners between the O-line and D-line," Okung said. "And I think it's obvious … who won [laughing]."

Another enjoyable aspect for the NFL players was the ability to see just how far training had come since their days as high school recruits.

"I didn't have anything like this," Rice said of the event which involves prep athletes from all over the country, "but I did go to a combine in high school, and I wish we had something like this. This is amazing – these kids get to see the best before they even get to the next level. So, they get spoiled, and you let them know that hard work pays off, and if they don't continue to work, they dwindle off. Then, you find yourself playing catch-up to the guys who are the best."

"Yeah, man – this is sweet!" Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) said. "In my day, we had the Elite Eleven and little combines, and SPARQ stuff. But it's just skyrocketed and turned into this. Nike's done a great job, and I think it would have been awesome to go and compete in something like this."

Ndamukong Suh puts the defensive linemen through a drill.
(Yahoo! Sports)

Suh, who was under the radar as a prospect out of Portland's Grant High School, talked about how he was able to find ways to bust out of biases that form around players not from the recruiting hotspots like California, Texas, and Florida.

"Luckily, I had great coaches and great family friends that took care of me," said Suh, who was named to the Associated Press All-Pro team after a stellar rookie campaign last season. "Joe Rollins, one of my coaches, took me down to Texas A&M to see the Texas boys, and the Southern hemisphere. Just to see what that atmosphere was like and what those guys looked like. Like these kids here, those kids were homegrown, and they knew the game of football because they all started at such a young age.

"In the Northwest, we started as a later age, and really we don't always have the best of coaching, though we do have quality coaches. It's just not at that elite level. So, for me, being able to go down to Texas and to the Stanford combine with all the best kids in the country, and the one here in Oregon – all of those things were huge. Now, Nike's taken it to a whole new level with coaches who are proven to have success, like myself and the other [NFL] guys in college."

The elimination tournament ended on Saturday, July 9, with Arizona Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson's(notes) Team Vapor Carbon losing a tight championship battle to the Team Alpha Talon squad, coached by Freeman and Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Derrick Bowe. Peterson, who entered the 2011 NFL draft class as the best overall player on most pundit boards, was all about filling his team with the best defensive backs possible in the draft that preceded the playoff. No question that he did so – especially on the last day, the Vapor Carbon defenders were able to grab a seemingly endless line of picks [and a few pick-sixes]. There just weren't enough in the final game. However, Peterson's team typified the main point of emphasis when it came to talent in this year's games – the speed, athleticism, and pure ball skills of the best high school cornerbacks and safeties has hit a level Peterson didn't see in 2007, when he was named the USA Today Defensive Player of the Year out of Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Fla.

"We didn't have a goal for number of picks to the house, but we did have a goal to get three interceptions each and every game," said Peterson, the fifth overall pick in April's draft. "These guys played so well. … The defense rose to the occasion and the offense had our back. These guys really had the energy all day. … We came out a little flat [in the championship], and it's always hard to come back for a victory when you're trying to get back in the game late. We did a lot of good things to put our team in this position, but we came up a bit short."

The message from Peterson, as it was from all the NFL players, was more one of teaching and coaching than short-term results – there were a million things to learn, from advanced coverage concepts ("We wanted to change out personnel a bit – zone up and guard the goal line. All eyes on the quarterback; we're going to read his shoulders and he'll tell you where that ball's going") to how to hand-fight with a great receiver.

Patrick Peterson talks to safety LaDarrell McNeil.
(Yahoo! Sports)

"Coming out of high school, there's so much these guys can learn," Peterson said. "And me having that college experience and now heading to the NFL – it's just a lot of little things that these guys need to do. And that's what I'm here for – I'm coaching up the secondary and these guys are playing phenomenal football. I have two ball-hawk safeties and two phenomenal corners. And [cornerback]Tracy Howard, he sticks out the most to me."

Howard was indeed impressive, but the 5-foot-10, 170-pound star from Miramar High in Florida was outdone by safety Landon Collins (Dutchtown High in Geismar, La.), who took the tournament award for Most Valuable Player after blowing away the competition in the SPARQ combine tests. Collins was on Freeman's winning team, and Freeman walked away from the week most appreciative of the experience, especially after months of withdrawal from NFL competition.

"I enjoyed every single bit of it – these guys are coachable, they were asking questions day in and day out, and that was the positive thing about it," Freeman said. "But now, we have to go our separate ways. I wish them the best of luck and hope they continue to do great things at the collegiate level.

"I got a chance to help some kids, mentor some players, and hang out at Nike. It doesn't get much better than this!"

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