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May 1, 2009
USA Football roster set to take on the World
If David Wilson had not received an athletic scholarship, the running back would have enlisted in either the Air Force or the Navy.
So it's easy to understand the excitement he felt when USA Football phoned him in early March to inform him of the opportunity to represent his country on the inaugural Junior National Team.
"I ran downstairs to tell my dad," said Wilson, whose 24-year-old brother, Ronald, serves in the Navy. "I wanted to tell everyone the news."
On April 14, USA Football announced 36 of its 45-man roster, including the Virginia Tech-bound Wilson, who will play during the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) Junior World Championship in Canton, Ohio, from June 27 to July 5.
Players hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Anaheim, Calif., will compete in an international football tournament – the first of its kind for players 19 and under – against teams fielded by Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and Sweden.
"We're pretty happy with the group we have," said U.S. coach Chuck Kyle, who has led St. Ignatius (Ohio) High to 10 state titles. "They're good kids."
Wilson, ranked No. 40 overall in the Rivals100 for the Class of 2009, is regarded as the team's best talent. The 5-foot-11, 192-pounder ran for 2,291 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior. A spectacular athlete, he won the triple jump at the Nike Indoor Track & Field Championships in March while setting a meet record with a leap of 51 feet, 5 3/4 inches.
Despite Wilson's presence, the roster — while impressive — does not feature any five-star prospects. USA Football sought good players who could miss summer classes and workouts without seriously hurting their college's program. For example, USC coach Pete Carroll would have allowed Matt Barkley, the No. 5 overall prospect in the nation, to play if Barkley was not in contention for one of the top two QB spots at USC.
The majority of the U.S. team members either have several position players above them on the depth chart or project as role players on the Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e., Division I-A) level.
The offensive line, though, should be a strength with Oday Aboushi of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Xaverian, the No. 23-ranked offensive tackle, and Jack Mewhort of Toledo (Ohio) St. John's, the No. 2-ranked center, anchoring the unit. The 6-6, 300-pound Aboushi will play at Virginia, and Mewhort (6-6, 285) has enrolled at Ohio State.
On the other side of the ball, Chris Norman (Detroit Renaissance), the No. 6-ranked outside linebacker, and Storm Klein (Licking Valley, Ohio), the No. 11-ranked outside linebacker, lead a loaded linebacking corps. Both are listed at 6-2, 225. Norman, who registered 109 tackles and 6.5 sacks last year, will play at Michigan State.
Klein, who was Ohio's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2008 and has already enrolled at Ohio State, has embraced the chance to play for USA Football's Junior National Team.
"It was one of the biggest things that's ever happened so far in my life," he said.
Klein's position group should be one of the most significant on the team. The defense will employ a 3-5 attack with three defensive linemen, three stacked linebackers, two strong safeties and deep coverage patrolled by three defensive backs. Linebackers key the 3-5 and have myriad responsibilities, including slanting, blitzing or shifting to the defensive line. Both St. Ignatius and St. Xavier (Ohio) High, whose coach Steve Specht is the national team's defensive coordinator, use this scheme. It can stuff the run but is especially adept at defending the spread.
The offense will feature a balanced pass/run attack, including passes from a spread, shotgun alignment and power and lead runs and play-action fakes from two-back formations.
To execute those plays, the roster currently has just one quarterback, Bryce Petty of Midlothian, Texas. The 6-3, 220-pound Petty, ranked 25th among pro-style quarterbacks, will play at Baylor. The team, however, will add another quarterback as it finalizes the last nine players on its roster.
"Of all the positions," Kyle said, "you can understand that's one [college coaches] have to be a little careful about."
For the nine open roster spots, five players have accepted the national team's offer, but the paperwork has not become official. The remaining spots should be filled once schools have firmed up their depth charts.
Kyle has not established his official depth chart, either. He has an idea about certain starters, but practices, which begin June 14, will create further delineation. With games slated for June 27, July 1, July 4 and a championship game on July 5, several different players, including more than one quarterback, will receive action.
With the roster almost set, Kyle and his coaching staff will spend the next month tweaking the playbook to fit their talent. He and his staff also are programming the base offenses and defenses into Madden NFL games to give the athletes a way to absorb the plays during their leisure time.
"We don't have a lot of time," Kyle said. "So I'm trying to look at ways of learning that will be quicker and more effective."
Compiling the roster served as a learning experience for the USA Football staff. Kyle called it an "adventure." The governing body had intended for each state's high school athletic association to nominate players.
"It was a nice idea," Kyle said. "But it didn't come to fruition as much as we thought it would."
Instead, college coaches took ownership during the roster selection process, which began during January's American Football Coaches Association convention, and helped determine about 90 percent of the squad. They suggested high-character players who would benefit from the cultural experience and whose participation would not compromise their school's program.
The coaches at Baylor, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Oregon State, SMU, Virginia and Virginia Tech enthusiastically supported the idea of an international junior football competition. That is a major reason why each of the respective schools has two players on the squad.
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer insisted Wilson play on the team even though the incoming freshman likely will contribute to the Hokies' running game from the get-go.
"Wilson's going to help Virginia Tech next year," Kyle said. "But Frank Beamer said, 'I want this kid involved in this thing.' "
Klein and Mewhort became good options for both the junior national team and the Buckeyes because both talented players graduated high school in December and have enrolled at Ohio State. With the duo already immersed in the program, missing three weeks of summer school and workouts should become less of a hindrance.
"If I would have graduated regular with all of the other guys, I probably wouldn't be part of it," Klein said. "I don't think Coach [Jim Tressel] would've let me."
Klein and Mewhort will room together in Canton. Advertisements for the Junior World Championship already have sprung up in Ohio, and several of their Buckeyes teammates have peppered them with questions and congratulated them on their inclusion in the game.
IFAF hopes the Junior World Championship spurs similar interest on the international level and motivates other countries to develop football training programs. The genesis for the first international junior football tournament occurred two years ago as the NFL Players Association asked USA Football and the IFAF to come up with ways to expand the game of football globally.
As football moves forward and stretches overseas, the groundbreaking Junior World Championship appropriately will link to the past. Canton's Fawcett Stadium, adjacent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will host the games.
"This is a celebration of the game we love," Kyle said. "This is a celebration of American football."