The clouds above Philadelphia’s Benjamin L. Johnston Memorial Stadium threatened rain as players participated in Eagles defensive back Jalen Mills’ inaugural seven-on-seven tournament.

The combination of a light breeze and music blaring from the speakers made it feel like a pregame warmup in the fall, and helped players and coaches forget it was June and football season was still a few months away.

But the spring is in fact football season for those who play in seven-on-seven, which allows players to get a dose of football in the middle of the long offseason. Despite seven-on-seven′s increased popularity in other regions in recent years, coaches and players in the Philadelphia area are still learning about this modified version of the game.

Eagles defensive back Jalen Mills talking to Gratz High School players during a seven-on-seven football tournament in June in Benjamin L. Johnston Memorial Stadium.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles defensive back Jalen Mills talking to Gratz High School players during a seven-on-seven football tournament in June in Benjamin L. Johnston Memorial Stadium.

Across the country, there has been debate on whether seven-on-seven is beneficial for athletes. Mills believes it will help athletes grow, but some believe it’s a waste of time and resources because the NCAA prohibits college coaches from attending seven-on-seven events.

In seven-on-seven, there are no linemen and no tackling and plays end with two-hand touch. And some coaches — such as Downingtown East’s Mike Matta, who said seven-on-seven is “not really football,” calling it more like "basketball on grass” — aren’t totally sold on the idea.

Yet many players are growing more and more eager to participate, from playing with their high schools in local tournaments to playing on all-star teams that travel the country.

According to Johnathan Mumphrey, national seven-on-seven tournament organizer for TruXposur, there were eight tournaments in 2018, compared with more than 40 nationally this year.

Social media has helped seven-on-seven grow stronger. It doesn’t hurt, either, that professional players such as Mills and Cam Newton, who has his own seven-on-seven all-star team in Florida, are endorsing it.

Philly’s finest

Eric Taylor, co-founder of Philly’s Finest, an all-star seven-on-seven team, was asked in 2012 by parents to form a team.

“I had no clue what seven-on-seven was,” Taylor said. “But I knew the kids because I had coached them in youth football. I decided to coach them, and it kind of took off from there.”

The Philly's Finest seven-on-seven team at a tournament this summer.
Courtesy of Eric Taylor
The Philly's Finest seven-on-seven team at a tournament this summer.

After seven years, Philly’s Finest has more than 100 players, multiple age-based teams, and a feeder program. According to Taylor, the program is the largest in the area and the only one to have so many teams playing under the same name.

Players who have gone through the program now bring their younger siblings, cousins, and others to get mentored by Taylor and his coaches. Philly’s Finest also has had players make it onto Division I and NFL rosters.

Nike has a national invitation-only tournament, The Opening, that counts big-name alumni such as Nelson Agholor and Ezekiel Elliott. Mills is a firm believer that seven-on-seven can lift you to the next level.

“It’s definitely a streamline,” Mills said. “This is straight skill position; the guys going at it out here is good versus good. You get to work on your technique and your skill set.”

Others say that seven-on-seven isn’t even a part of the conversation when it comes to making it onto a college roster. Taylor thinks that while seven-on-seven can expose players to more college coaches, those same coaches will still put more weight on what the player does in the fall.

“It’s a combination of everything, but seven-on-seven definitely helps,” Taylor said. “The kids have got to be able to perform with the pads on in high school. But trust me, there is an advantage to playing seven-on-seven.”

Skill players are the biggest beneficiaries. Quarterbacks work on their footwork while receivers and defensive backs go one-on-one every snap.

Taylor thinks it also allows players to mature. He said that traveling to top camps and tournaments is something that should be taken seriously, and that playing against some of the best teams in the nation and losing to them can be a wake-up call.

Money matters

Not every player has the financial ability to be a part of all-star travel teams and pay for out-of-state tournaments.

As a result, some players choose to play for their high school coaches in local and free tournaments. At his tournament, Mills wanted the talent in Philly to have the opportunity to work on skills without worrying about fees. His daylong tournament featured free equipment, T-shirts, and food.

The next day, the Eagles held a tournament similar to Mills’ at the NovaCare Complex. Dan Levy, community relations coordinator, said in a statement that the second-year tournament was something the Eagles look forward to hosting.

“We continue to work to grow the game at the youth and high school level and are proud of the impact we are making through our annual 7v7 tournament,” he said in the statement.

King High School defenders going after the ball against Gratz during a seven-on-seven tournament at Johnston Memorial Stadium.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
King High School defenders going after the ball against Gratz during a seven-on-seven tournament at Johnston Memorial Stadium.

Father Judge High School coach Frank McArdle doesn’t believe seven-on-seven travel teams are worth the cost. McArdle believes there is no point in paying large amounts of money for tournaments, since college scouts can’t be present.

“What are [players] getting out of it? The college coaches can’t go to it,” McArdle said.

Taylor said his organization makes it a point to fund-raise. He declined to specify participation fees, saying they tend to fluctuate based on the schedule for the season.

Even then, Taylor said, Philly’s Finest coaches try to make the most of the trips when they do travel out of Philadelphia.

“We always try to get to a college in that city,” Taylor said.

That tactic is problematic for McArdle because he believes the recruiting relationship should remain among the athlete, the high school coach, and the college coach. Also, the NCAA has been working to stop what McArdle calls “street agents” from getting involved in the sport.

“The NCAA is concerned about individuals who may not be working for the best interests of prospective student-athletes inserting themselves into the recruiting environment through seven-on-seven football,” the NCAA said in a 2012 document.

“Football is the one game still where the coach matters and the relationship with the college coach matters,” McArdle said. “I don’t see the benefits of these all-star teams that travel.”

Taylor, who is the offensive assistant coach at Lansdale Catholic, argues that, at least in his program, seven-on-seven coaches work with the high school staff to make sure it isn’t undermining what the high school coaches are teaching.

“We totally respect what they do as high school coaches and the time they put in,” Taylor said.