Nebraska Elite seven-on-seven coach Araf Evans asked his son years ago where he wanted to go to school. Clemson came up as the team was just coming off a national title. Evans took it to heart. He started looking around Nebraska to see how he could help his seven-year-old son get closer to that dream. What he found was at that point not a lot of ACC and SEC schools were coming to Nebraska for skill position players.
A friend told Evans that he needed to look into 7-on-7.
“We went down to Florida and I took two of my 10-year-old boys down there,” Evans said. “The experience that I got from a coaching perspective of seeing these athletes playing football year-round there, it’s no wonder why the Midwest and the upper part of the country are behind in skill level. They do that all year round in the hot bed states. We came back after that and thought we’re gonna have to get something like this figured out. So, we created a program”.
That’s when Nebraska Elite was born.
This is Nebraska Elite’s fourth season. One of the biggest things Evans didn’t see coming was the adversity faced along the way. There have been several lessons learned by coaches and the players. Teaching players high school age and younger how to deal with adversity has been a joy for Evans. That’s the importance of what they are trying to do. It’s not just about the wins and losses.
“It gets these kids out of their comfort zone, especially when they’re traveling to a different location to play,” Evans said. “It’s not little Johnny over there anymore. It’s not the kid down the street. It is somebody who’s really trying to be about this life and go to that next level.”
Evans says it happens more than people realize that you get to a tournament and there are not enough teams for a division. That was the case for his team’s first tournament in Houston. He had a group of 10-year-olds having to play in the 14-year-old division. That was a big moment.
“They weren’t lying when they say everything’s bigger in Texas. Those boys were maybe 6-2 or 6-3 and I’ve got 10-year-old kids,” Evans said. “They were a little nervous and we got our teeth kicked in. But when we came back, practice was so different. These kids didn’t fear anything. That’s when we knew we had a real product and we ended up entering a local league that just started.”
That experience helped propel his group. They started rolling through teams in the local league in Nebraska. Those moments of facing good competition can be a real catalyst for kids. Prospects have said something similar about going to national camps to compete with 4 and 5-star players. It helps elevate their game because it shows them where they need to grow.
When Evans takes his high school team to these high-level tournaments he has advice. He tells his team that everyone they face is a star on their high school team. You can’t take the games lightly because the player across from you is just as talented. There is no replacing those type of quality reps. Being exposed to that has been a big help to the players on his team.
“The biggest thing that I think it gives them is the confidence,” Evans said. “The confidence to know that they can hang with anybody on a national level. It doesn’t matter the stars, it doesn’t matter where they are from. We can hang with them. We are probably one of the better teams out there, but you have to see it to believe it.”
Nebraska Elite is not lacking for star power itself.
Oklahoma tight end Kaden Helms was on the team last year. Auburn tight end Micah Riley-Ducker was also on the team. This year’s team is headlined by 4-star athlete Malachi Coleman. Early class of 2024 wide receiver Dae’vonn Hall is also on the team. So is Bellevue West quarterback Daniel Kaelin who was recently offered by Michigan State. Lincoln High 2023 athlete Beni Ngoyi also plays for the team.
7-on-7 can be polarizing in the football community. The opinions on it vary from it’s ruining high school sports to it is the greatest thing ever. Evans knows that it will never replace 11-on-11 ball. He’s an assistant coach at Bellevue West so he wouldn’t want that anyway. There is a way for both to coexist. He’s never seen a football practice at any level that didn’t include seven-on-seven work.
“I think its biggest and best benefit is the exposure piece. You can’t replace reps,” Evans said.
“Reps are reps. These kids are going against the best athletes in the country. How often during your regular season do you get to line up five to seven games, depending on how well we do in a weekend against four or five-star caliber athletes? It’s about getting these kids the opportunity to play top talent and give them the confidence.”
Greg is the Recruiting Analyst for Hail Varsity and has covered Husker athletics since 2013. He has always had a passion for sports while growing up in the Chicago area. As he got older and had to hang up his cleats and sneakers, he realized his passion for sports went beyond just watching and attending games. He has covered many events from the Rose Bowl to championship boxing matches. If he’s not talking sports, he’s hovering over his grill. He is married to an amazing woman, Kim, and they have a dog that barks when Greg yells at the TV during games.