A season with the best 7-on-7 team in the country: L.A., Vegas, recruiting, campus visits and NIL

LAS VEGAS — Jeremiah Smith and Joshisa Trader are going to be two of the most coveted five-star recruits in the country next season. They both grew up close to Hard Rock Stadium, in tough Miami neighborhoods with a rich history of producing football stars.

Smith, a 6-3, 185-pound receiver, is the cousin of former West Virginia and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith. His father owns a cleaning business, and his mother works at the post office. Trader, a 6-2, 175-pound athlete who is a standout at receiver and cornerback, said he never met his father and his mother moved to Delaware a few years ago, leaving him behind to live with a mentor.

“After football, I want to own a donut shop: JoJo’s Donut Shop,” Trader said. “I love strawberry jelly-filled donuts.”

“I want to get paid when I’m in college, from good companies and stuff like that,” said Smith. “I want to move my family out of the situation we’re in.”

Touring the country with the star-studded South Florida Express, the nation’s best 7-on-7 team, has made Smith and Trader believe those dreams are much more attainable. That’s exactly what Brett Goetz wanted for south Florida’s top high school players when he founded the team with the help of Geno Smith Sr. 15 years ago.

Goetz, a 51-year-old financial advisor from Miami Beach, has been taking the Express to visit colleges and play in national tournaments since long before others started doing the same. The Athletic’s Andy Staples chronicled his time with one of Goetz’s earliest teams for Sports Illustrated in 2010. That team featured eventual first-round NFL Draft picks Ryan Shazier and Teddy Bridgewater.

SFE has since become a hub for great players from across the country. Next year, Smith and Trader will be two of the biggest stars on the Express, which has already lined up the nation’s No. 1 2024 recruit — Ohio State quarterback commitment Dylan Raiola of Chandler, Ariz. — to be the one throwing passes to them.

Life on a loaded 7-on-7 team comes with plenty of challenges. But the kids relish being “the hunted.”

“I love the competition,” Trader said. “We got a bull’s-eye on our back. Everybody is going after us.”

Along with Shazier and Bridgewater, the Express has produced dozens of NFL players, including first-round picks Amari Cooper, Patrick Surtain Jr. and Sony Michel. This year’s roster — the one that won the season-ending OT7 tournament hosted and sponsored by Overtime — could be as good as any Goetz has had.

South Florida Express 2022

Player

  

POS

  

Size

  

Hometown

  

Class

  

247 Rank

  

Malachi Nelson

QB

6-3, 180

Los Alamitos, CA

2023

5-star (No. 2)

Cormani McClain

CB

6-2, 165

Lakeland, FL

2023

5-star (No. 3)

Joshisa Trader

ATH

6-2, 170

Miami, FL

2024

5-star (No. 3)

Jeremiah Smith

WR

6-3, 185

Opa Locka, FL

2024

5-star (No. 13)

Brandon Inniss

WR

6-0, 190

Fort Lauderdale, FL

2023

5-star (No. 18)

Carnell Tate

WR

6-2, 185

Chicago, IL

2023

5-star (No. 28)

Malik Muhammad

CB

6-0, 170

Dallas, TX

2023

4-star (No. 38)

Makai Lemon

ATH

6-0, 180

Los Alamitos, CA

2023

4-star (No. 39)

Hykeem Williams

WR

6-3, 200

Fort Lauderdale, FL

2023

4-star (No. 43)

Dijon Johnson

CB

6-1, 190

Tampa, FL

2023

4-star (No. 95)

Nathaniel Joseph

WR

5-8, 170

Miami, FL

2023

4-star (No. 105)

Sharif Denson

CB

6-0, 170

Jacksonville, FL

2023

4-star (No. 205)

Cedrick Hawkins

S

6-0, 175

Cocoa, FL

2023

4-star (No. 210)

Mark Fletcher

RB

6-1, 225

Fort Lauderdale, FL

2023

4-star (No. 219)

Damari Brown

CB

6-1, 180

Fort Lauderdale, FL

2023

4-star (No. 224)

Daemon Fagan

S

6-2, 180

Fort Lauderdale, FL

2023

4-star (No. 255)

Santana Fleming

WR

5-10, 160

Fort Lauderdale, FL

2023

3-star (No. 537)

Lamar Seymore

WR

6-0, 170

Miami, FL

2023

3-star (No. 799)

Dwight Bootle II

CB

5-10, 165

Miami, FL

2023

3-star (No. 835)

Collin Hurst

QB

5-10, 160

Fort Lauderdale, FL

2023

No stars

Caleb Dobbs

S

6-1, 160

Cocoa, FL

2023

No stars

CJ Goldsby

S

5-10, 170

Fort Lauderdale, FL

2023

No stars

Malachi Toney

WR

5-9, 165

Fort Lauderdale, FL

2026

No stars

It featured six five-star recruits per the 247Sports Composite: Ohio State receiver commitments Brandon Inniss and Carnell Tate, the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, respectively, in the 2023 class; quarterback Malachi Nelson, the No. 2 overall recruit in the country, who is committed to USC; top-ranked 2023 cornerback Cormani McClain; and top 2024 recruits Trader and Smith.

Including four-star cornerbacks Malik Muhammad, Damari Brown, safety Daemon Fagan (an NC State commitment), USC-committed receiver Makai Lemon and three other Ohio State commitments (cornerback Dijon Johnson, safety Cedrick Hawkins and running back Mark Fletcher), SFE had 11 of the top-300 ranked players in the 2023 class on the team last month.

The Express was missing a few stars, too, including four-star receivers Hykeem Williams and Nathaniel Joseph. At the Overtime tournament, Goetz’s squad followed up a mediocre 3-3 showing in pool play with a 4-0 run on the final day of the tournament to take home its sixth trophy this season on June 12. The victories included a 23-18 win in the final over a Cam Newton-sponsored team based out of Georgia, which was quarterbacked by five-star standout Dante Moore of Detroit.

USC receiver Mario Williams, who played for the Express a couple of years ago, flew in from Los Angeles and served as the team’s offensive coordinator on championship Sunday. He called the winning touchdown pass made by Broward County’s 2021 Player of the Year, Collin Hurst, who sidestepped a blitz and found Tate open in the back of the end zone to take a 20-18 lead in the final. Hawkins then sealed the win on defense for the Express by applying pressure on a blitz, which led to McClain’s easy game-sealing interception.

Hurst, a 5-10, 160-pound quarterback with offers from Columbia and Austin Peay, was named tournament MVP. It was fitting Hurst was the hero considering he’d been the team’s primary starting quarterback most of the season and ended up sharing the job with Nelson after he was recruited to play with the squad in March when SFE was on USC’s campus.

“It was difficult at first (splitting the job), but I was up for the competition,” Hurst said as he sat down to a $2,100 championship dinner to which Goetz treated SFE’s players and coaches at Fogo de Chao, a Brazilian all-you-can-eat steakhouse. “To be the first MVP in a tournament like OT7 is a tremendous honor. But it was a team effort.”

Juggling playing time, high expectations and egos of elite players can be tough for millionaire coaches and general managers to do in college and the pros. Those guys get paid to do it. Goetz and his small staff of volunteer coaches do not.

With the help of donations by local philanthropists Gerald Moore, Tom Rogers and others, Goetz uses a budget of roughly $60,000 to cover all travel expenses for players and coaches. He loves it.

“This was so much fun,” Goetz said. “I’m really going to miss so many of these guys next year. We had a great group of kids.”

SFE’s six-month run, which began with tryouts in early January, was filled with plenty of memorable experiences on and off the field. The team visited UCF, Florida State and Miami early on, and went 45-1 through the first three months of the season, winning the Pylon tournaments in Orlando and Chicago and three others in South Florida.

“Of all the out-of-town tournaments, the highlight was probably Chicago,” Inniss said. “We went back there and beat (Midwest) Boom for Carnell, who used to play with them. It was a whole thing after talking trash. They were talking down to him. But to get that win for SFE and Carnell was good.”

In March, Goetz invited The Athletic to tag along with SFE for a trip to Los Angeles. Although the Express lost in the second round of the Los Angeles tournament to a team quarterbacked by Miami commitment Jaden Rashada, the team still enjoyed its trip on the West Coast. Players spent six hours at USC and got to enjoy lunch with coach Lincoln Riley before receiving their first real education on name, image and likeness deals. The players toured UCLA’s football facilities a day later — without ever talking to Bruins coach Chip Kelly — and then rode carnival rides on the Santa Monica Pier.

Goetz then invited The Athletic to ride with the team again in Las Vegas to watch the conclusion of the season.

Here are some of the highlights of what it was like to roll with the star-studded Express.

Lunch with Lincoln

USC probably will not end up signing a single player off SFE’s 2022 roster, but Riley and his staff made quite an impression on the group during the six hours they were on campus.

Riley’s staff was very attentive, players said, handing out water bottles every few minutes and making sure every player felt important, and not just the handful to which the Trojans had offered scholarships.

The hospitality began from the moment the team set foot in the Coliseum. A $10 lunch with a million-dollar view at the top of the stadium followed. Parents and players dined on hamburgers, chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese and cookies.

Five of the seven Heisman Trophies won by USC players — not including the ones for O.J. Simpson or Reggie Bush — were available for recruits to pose alongside. Downtown Los Angeles served as the backdrop. The Coliseum cauldron was even lit.


From left, top 2024 recruits Joshisa Trader, Jeremiah Smith and Chance Robinson pose with the Heisman Trophy during the team’s visit to USC. (Jay Wimbrow / Courtesy of the South Florida Express)

Riley began his sales pitch by talking about how the school has won 11 national titles and how it is his job to “win more.” He said he needed Express players to help him.

As soon as a few former USC players and current coaches were done speaking to several 7-on-7 teams invited to campus, SFE received a special invite to go downstairs for a more in-depth private tour:

• A 45-minute guided trip around campus on a fleet of motorized carts

• A 20-minute presentation on NIL deals

• Photo shoots for players in full uniform both inside a studio setting and outside on the practice field, with the Heisman Trophies available as props.

• A short session where players were measured (height, arm length, hand size) and weighed, followed by a brief meeting with USC’s strength coach.

“It felt like a home away from home,” said Inniss, a former Oklahoma commitment Riley was trying to persuade to commit to USC. “The weather was nice. The views were amazing. The coaches were great. One of the best unofficial visits I’ve had. They really showed they cared. Not just me, but all our guys.”

Nelson was present and spent most of his time recruiting the top targets on the Express roster. It didn’t take much convincing to get him to come out and play with SFE’s receivers.

“I just want to spread the rock around, get to know some of these kids and some of the guys we want to get over to USC, and do some recruiting and have fun at the same time,” Nelson said the next day at the Pylon tournament. “Me and Lincoln have been chopping it up. We need this kid. I get on them, and we go from there.”

But the most intriguing part of the USC visit involved the NIL presentation, most parents on the trip said. USC highlighted all the pro athletes who maximized being in the L.A. market (think Kobe Bryant) and mentioned the NIL deals quarterback Caleb Williams signed after transferring over from Oklahoma. At the conclusion, the team was shown some potential earnings Trojans players could make down the road.

“I didn’t realize that the NIL laws in each state were different,” said Amy Flinton, Inniss’ mother. “I thought the NCAA had the same laws across the board no matter where you were. So that’s interesting to know.”

After leaving USC, SFE made a trip to In-N-Out Burger. Goetz stood at the front of the line swiping his American Express card multiple times as players and parents put in their food orders.

During dinner, The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel broke a national story about an unidentified five-star recruit who signed an agreement with a collective that could pay him more than $8 million. SFE’s players knew within seconds who the mystery player was and which college he was planning to attend.


Clockwise from bottom left: Brandon Inniss, Carnell Tate, Buckeyes staffer Keenan Bailey, Express photographer Jay Wimbrow and coach Ryan Day pose for a photo in Day’s office during the team’s visit to Ohio State. (Courtesy of Brett Goetz / South Florida Express)

Ohio State trip

USC did a great job hosting, but the Trojans didn’t quite win over hearts the way Buckeyes coach Ryan Day and quarterback CJ Stroud apparently did. A few weeks after the trip to Los Angeles, the Express went to Columbus, Ohio, and visited Ohio State’s campus.

“It was fantastic,” Goetz said. “As good as you thought USC was, this was like another level. Their facilities are crazy. At USC we never saw the weight room or the area where they eat. There are a lot of details we picked up at Ohio State that we didn’t see at USC. I mean, there was a place in the locker room where the kids got haircuts. There was a player lounge with video games, and this whole cafeteria only the players go to eat three meals a day — unlimited food. It’s nuts.

“They were really thorough with everything. They went over nutrition and academics. Took the kids to the stadium, dorms, went over an internship program, talked finances. The staff was very similar to USC, where they couldn’t be any nicer, taking care of you — water, Gatorade, food. They even had a slushie machine. But it was just different.”

Goetz said the Buckeyes coaching staff discussed NIL with players and parents but spent less time than USC did on it. They were more focused on trying to make Inniss, Tate and Fletcher feel at home.

“It was a fun trip,” Inniss said. “Even (team photographer) Jay (Wimbrow) dressed up in full uniform. He walked into a meeting with me and Coach Day. Coach Day was laughing.”

When SFE attended an Ohio State practice, fans showed up with signs for recruits.

“They did a great job focusing on our guys,” Goetz said. “It was a big thing to get all those kids together there.”

Raiola was there the same weekend as SFE. He committed to Ohio State a month later.


Wide receiver Carnell Tate makes time for a haircut while touring Ohio State’s facilities. (Courtesy of Brett Goetz / South Florida Express)

No pushing

To be a member of the South Florida Express, you’ve got to have swagger and tough skin.

Few have more of both than Ricky Williams, SFE’s general manager. The 42-year-old teacher turned postal worker got involved with the program when his son Dontye Carrier-Williams — a former Wisconsin, Vanderbilt and Texas State defensive back — played for the Express seven years ago.

Williams hypes up SFE’s players on social media, dishes out his share of trash talk and fields more calls from Power 5 coaches than maybe any 7-on-7 coach in the country. Ohio State receivers coach Brian Hartline calls him the most, Williams said. Miami staffer DeMarcus Van Dyke is next, followed by assistants and head coaches from Florida, Florida State, Marshall, Alabama and LSU, to name a few.

This month, Williams, a diehard Alabama fan, said Miami coach Mario Cristobal called him to ask him for advice. Cristobal also invited Williams to attend the Hurricanes’ Legends Camp last month.

“He wanted to talk to me about helping keep the guys at home,” Williams said. “I told him the kids need to see what direction the program is going in. Most of the ’23s, they had favorite schools already before he got the job. Let’s face it, you got Bama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia. Those are the top schools the last couple of years.

“To get a kid like Brandon Inniss, Nathaniel Joseph, Cormani McClain, you’ve got to show them you’re going to develop them. These kids might commit somewhere, but they still can’t sign until December. Go 10-2, 11-1, win an ACC championship, you might pull a kid or two. Plus, you’ve got NIL to sweeten the deal. You’ve just got to show them you’re going to win, committed to winning, and you might end up with a steal.”

Miami landed a commitment from Joseph last month after he dropped his pledge to Clemson.

SFE’s coaching staff features former Florida State star and All-Pro cornerback Samari Rolle; Geno Smith’s father; ex-Florida A&M receiver Jacquay Nunnally; and former Miami Hurricanes linebacker Rod Mack.

The staff, Goetz and Williams say, never push any of SFE’s players toward certain schools. They say it’s impossible.

“These kids have moms and dads and cousins and sisters and uncles. How can I direct someone else’s kid to college?” said Williams, who grew up playing youth football in Miami with the Liberty City Warriors and former All-Pro receiver Chad Johnson.

“We may joke around on Twitter. But that’s what we do. We all joke. You have to have fun. These kids are stars. They’ve been dubbed stars since the seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade, five-stars, four-stars, three-stars. So they just want a little break and to have fun because people are constantly hounding them. We just have fun, man. That’s all it is.”


Carnell Tate, Hykeem Williams, Lamar Seymore, Brandon Inniss and Nathaniel Joseph appear as the Power Rangers at the Pylon tournament in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Brett Goetz /South Florida Express)

Having fun is what SFE is mostly about (along with winning football games). When they were in Los Angeles, SFE’s receivers — Tate, Inniss, Williams, Joseph and Lamar Seymore — dressed up like Power Rangers for the Pylon tournament.

The team spent a fun-filled Saturday afternoon at the Santa Monica Pier riding roller coasters and then ate dinner at Hooter’s, where they sang the team photographer “Happy Birthday.”

“This is a great experience for all of us,” Smith said. “We get to travel the world, see new things, meet new people. A lot of kids from where I’m from in Miami, they don’t really get out of the state of Florida. Orlando is probably the furthest from home they’ve ever seen. It’s been a blessing to be a part of the team.”

(Top photo of the South Florida Express celebrating the OT7 championship in Las Vegas: Manny Navarro / The Athletic)