by Cliff Mehrtens

College football recruiting is getting out of hand.

Offering scholarships to middle schoolers? It seemed like a cutesy stunt when Southern California coach Lane Kiffin offered a 13-year-old in 2010. Now, sadly, it’s becoming more common.

The University of Washington offered an eighth-grader this summer. LSU did the same with a 14-year-old. Neither has yet to begin high school. (Disclaimer: I’m an LSU fan, but can’t get excited this early, even if the kid looks like Zeus.)

I understand why college coaches do it. It’s the race to be first. They figure if they can plant the mental seed with a talented player, it will pay off when the herd of recruiters swarm during his junior season.

The offer isn’t binding for the college, because recruits can’t sign a National Letter of Intent until their senior year of high school. So, it doesn’t cost the coach or the college anything.

But that doesn’t make it right.

Most 14-year-olds don’t have the maturity, experience or ability to project past the next stuffed-crust pizza they’re inhaling. You want them to commit to a college?

The news hit close to home when the University of Mississippi offered SouthLake Christian running back Robert Washington Jr. a scholarship two weeks ago. He’s 14, and practicing for his first varsity season.

Washington stood out this summer while playing for Team USA’s 15-and-under squad. The Rebels came knocking. I like how Robert responded when I asked him how he handles all the attention and recruiting stuff.

“I let my dad handle that,” he said. “I focus on my school work first. I hear my parents’ voices in my head all the time, telling me ‘academics first, football second.’”

Robert Washington Sr. said he’s going to hold off on college visits for now.

Smart move.

Chances are Robert Jr. will be an impact player in high school. Could be this season or the next. He’s proven his talent on a national stage and he sounds motivated to improve. That’s what Ole Miss coaches are banking on – the natural progression. But that doesn’t always work.

When I was in middle school, we had a friend who the puberty gods tapped on the shoulder first. He shot up to 6-feet tall, shaved every day, threw the baseball the hardest, hit it the farthest, tackled the hardest, etc. He dwarfed us, and dominated us for about two years.

Then everyone caught up to him physically. Guess what? Today he’s still 6-feet tall.

Offering a scholarship to a middle-schooler is the byproduct of year-round sports and the recruiting race. Crazed fans devour recruiting news about which players their college is pursuing. A list of top high school juniors and seniors? Passé.

I found a recruiting website (Middle School Elite) that ranks the country’s top fourth-grade basketball players. That, folks, is the 10-year-old group. Ever watch 10-year-olds play? I have. Traveling. Bad pass. Air ball. Stumble. Occasional flash of athleticism. Not once have I watched a 10-year-old and thought “Mike Krzyzewski’s going to be calling him.”

I saw another list that compared a fifth-grader’s skills to former NBA star Isiah Thomas. Wow, the kid’s closer to Thomas the Tank Engine age than being a high-schooler.

Colleges offer “elite” camps for players to attend during the summer. Hmm, Joey, since you’re here and you run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and have a rocket for an arm, let’s just offer you today.

It’s too much, too fast.

If an 8th-grader gets an offer, what are the chances that coach will still be around in five years?

What happens if the player doesn’t improve exponentially every season? Many times the middle-school stud becomes a good-but-not-great high schooler. You never read about those scholarship offers floating away, but they do. Someone newer, faster, bigger and stronger comes along. Joey becomes old news.

An athlete offered a scholarship that early could become complacent. Hey coach, why should I run extra stadium steps or lift weights an extra 20 minutes? I’ve got a scholarship offer.

It’s another chapter of American excess. If a 32-inch flat screen TV looks good, someone wants a 50-inch. Then a 72. Then an 80. That’s not a TV, it’s a wall.

Hummer H2s on the highway look like condos on wheels. Why eat a simple cheeseburger when you can buy a four-patty tower?

College recruiters need to dial it back. We need to let kids be kids, not fill their heads with shallow promises.