After the AFC and NFC Pro Bowlers practice on Jan. 30, fans in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., can get a glimpse into the next generation of football talent from both the U.S. and abroad.
An official Pro Bowl Week event, the groundbreaking Team USA vs. the World game will match a team of American high school seniors against a team composed of players from eight different countries.
"It's really cool to think about some of the players that will probably be down there," Brookville (Va.) DE Zack McCray said. "Some of us may make it to the pros and be in the Pro Bowl one day."
A roster replete with Division-I ability - and perhaps NFL potential, many of the U.S. players have committed to college powerhouses, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, LSU, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas and USC.
This team - while very talented - does not include any 5-star recruits. Participating in this junior national game did not count against playing in all-star games like the U.S. Army All-American Bowl or the Under Armour All-America Game. (Junior national team LB Mike Hull and OL Andrew Donnel played in the former, and DE Corey Lemonier played in the latter.) But some players did not want to participate in another post-season contest. And when selecting the roster, Todd Bell, the general manager of the junior national team, prioritized character as much as athletic ability.
"A lot of the kids that we have are kind of hungry," said Chris Merritt, the U.S. junior national team head coach, "because they weren't selected for those (all-star) games."
Count the Virginia Tech-bound McCray among the ravenous.
His high school coach, Jeff Woody, approached his star during a mid-November practice and told him USA football wanted him to join its 2010 junior national team.
"Before he finished his sentence, I already said, 'yes,'" McCray said. "It was probably one of the best days of my life."
The coaching staff is firmly in place.
Scott Hallenbeck, executive director of USA Football, contacted Merritt late in the summer of 2009. Merritt was a natural choice, considering his national, international and USA Football experience. The Columbus (Fla.) head coach has posted a 79-22 record and resides in close proximity to Fort Lauderdale.
Merritt also knows the international game, having played or coached in Sweden and Germany from 1994 to 2000. He won a Euro Bowl championship as head coach of the Hamburg Blue Devils and still maintains European contacts.
Merritt served as the defensive backs coach during the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) junior world championship last summer. The success of that inaugural junior tournament helped give birth to this Team USA vs. the World game. Both 19-and-under events are part of an effort to increase domestic and international interest in football.
St. Ignatius (Ohio) head coach Chuck Kyle was the head coach of the U.S. team during the 2009 junior world championship. He also has a link to the Team USA vs. the World game as his St. Ignatius quarterback, Mark Myers, will play. Kyle, who will attend the game, submitted tape of Myers to USA Football and encouraged his 6-4, 220, Pitt-bound star to participate.
Kyle's team won the gold medal at the junior world championship during July of 2009 by defeating Canada, 41-3. But this U.S. roster could face greater challenges than that dominant squad, which outscored its three opponents, 141-3. Instead of three weeks of preparation, the 2010 U.S. team will have just seven days of practice from Jan. 26 to 29.
And although the U.S team features high school seniors, most of the World team's 19-and-under players - 31 of whom are Canadian - already have had one season of college football under their belt.
"They're going to have an advantage," said Merritt, who played at Indiana University with former Chiefs quarterback Trent Green. "I don't care if it's Canada or the United States. There is a big difference between college and high school football."
To compensate for its youthful squad, the U.S. hopes to rely on its athleticism. Offensive coordinator Kirk Heidelberg, the head coach at Rockford (Ill.) Christian, will implement a spread offense to take advantage of rangy wide receivers like Quinton Dunbar (Booker T. Washington [Fla.]), speedy RBs like Jakhari Gore (Columbus) and accurate passers like Myers.
The strong-armed Myers, a dropback quarterback, will have to learn the spread and adjust to taking snaps from the shotgun. He ran a pro set at St. Ignatius and will run that offense at Pitt. Tyler Smith (Wilson Area [Pa.]), more of a run/pass threat, should serve as an ideal complement to Myers.
"We'll each get a bunch of playing time since there are only two of us," Myers said. "We're definitely going to compete when we get down there, but I'm sure we'll split reps pretty evenly."
On the other side of the ball, Gabe Infante (Paramus [N.J.] Catholic), the national team's defensive coordinator, will install a pressure scheme heavy on blitzes and stunts.
With a loaded team at his disposal, Merritt plans to use his entire 45-man roster. Starters and backups will play, often alternating series.
"We're going to keep coming at them in waves," Merritt said. "Everybody's playing. ... We don't really have a second-string."
The depth is particularly impressive on the offensive and defensive lines. Adam Shead (Cedar Hill [Texas]), Giovanni Di Poalo (St. Bonaventure [Calif.]), Mike Moudy (Castle Rock [Colo.]) and Donnal (Anthony Wayne [Ohio]) should pave holes on the offensive side. Hialeah (Fla.) teammates, DL Calvin Smith and Lemonier, should stop the run and rush the passer, respectively. The 6-5, 236-pound McCray, who had 35 sacks during his junior and senior seasons, also will serve as a major pass-rushing threat.
Fans can watch those players from home as the NFL Network will televise the Team USA vs. the World game. In addition the public can view both the Pro Bowl practice and subsequent Team USA game at Lockhart Stadium. Attendance is free.
USA Football hopes to set up some interaction between the NFL Pro Bowlers and the high school stars. McCray wants to pick the brain of Ravens LB Ray Lewis, who he met as a child. Myers, a Browns season ticket holder, beamed over the prospect of talking to OL Joe Thomas and RS Joshua Cribbs of his favorite team.
Winning isn't important in the Pro Bowl - that can't be said in the USA vs. the World game. The high schoolers on the junior national team face greater stakes. Victory is paramount, and they understand the importance of representing their nation.
"Football is the USA sport," McCray said. "We have to win. It's not a matter of 'we should do good.' It's a matter of we need to win."