Meet Connecticut eighth grade football prospect who’s already received 'Power 5' scholarship offers

Photo of Mike Anthony

AVON — Kharon "Buck" Craig is a 15-year-old kid with braces, a nickname with origins he's too embarrassed to explain, very recent memories of an 8th grade semiformal dance — and a scholarship offer to play football at Georgia.

Syracuse, Ole Miss, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Boston College, UConn and UMass have offered, too. The list will grow.

"I don't really tell people about the offers because then they'll think I'm like a super hero," Craig said, giggling. “Because I'm so young."

Craig, of Hartford, has yet to debut as a high school freshman and is already garnering invitations to the big-time college football world and an education worth a couple hundred thousand dollars. It's not often a Connecticut player gets an offer this early. Notre Dame starting quarterback Drew Pyne garnered attention when he moved to New Canaan as an 8th grader, receiving an offer from Florida State and others.

It is all a bit surreal. Craig turns 16 in April. By that time, he will have played one season as a running back and cornerback under coach Jon Wholley at Avon Old Farms. He is listed at 5 feet 10 and might be 5-11 by the end of this paragraph because he’s still in a growth spurt. He weighs about 165 pounds.

“He hasn't played a snap of varsity football and Kirby Smart is shaking his hand, telling him he has a scholarship,” Wholley said. “All the kids are calling him ‘Five Star.’ But he doesn't think of himself as anything other than a kid who is trying to get better.”

If Avon Old Farms teachers cared to open the floor to ‘What I did this summer’ discussions, and if Craig was willing to speak up, anyone in the room was surely entertained. Craig spent much of June and July traveling the country, attending numerous high-profile prospect camps, many of them on the campuses of Power Five programs.

Rutgers was the first school to offer Craig a scholarship, on June 2. By the time Craig put on a blue suit the next day for his dance at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Hartford’s North End, he had offers from Ole Miss, Pitt, Virginia Tech and UMass. Boston College and Syracuse offered June 12. UConn coach Jim Mora called and offered June 14.

The offer from Georgia, last year’s national champion, came June 27. Craig had met Smart days earlier at a Georgia camp. The official offer came from Fran Brown, Georgia’s secondary coach, over the phone.  

“Absolutely crazy,” Craig said. “He said, ‘We're going to offer you a full scholarship.’ My heart dropped. I couldn't believe it when he said that. I was just excited. I was jumping all over the place. I was at home with my mom. She was going crazy, too.”

How does a 16-year-old find himself involved in such discussions, at the heart of recruiting plans that ultimately make or break college football seasons and teams and even coaching careers? With rare talent, of course — and the right resources and support in an effort to showcase that talent.

Craig, the younger brother of former UConn player Khyon Gillespie, has worked closely for the past two years with Supreme Athlete, a mentorship and training program started in 2012 by Stack Williams, a Hartford native who played at UConn in 2004-08. Supreme Athlete has been involved with hundreds of athletes from the Greater Hartford area who have gone on to play college sports, scores of them in FBS football.

Supreme Athlete is as specialized as it gets. Craig is aligned with a speed coach (Andre Shreeves) and a defensive backs coach (Juice Walker). Much of his hands-on training is done by Mark Jennings, and Williams, who is very well connected, handles most of the outreach. He arranges the camps, the travel, the phone calls. He gets word to college coaches, notifying them that he’s working with a player they might want to pay attention to.

“He's been consistent, reliable, every single thing in support of the blueprint I've recommended for him,” Williams said. “He followed the formula, and it's been working. We needed to position him in a space where coaches would evaluate him differently.”

Craig dominated over the years at youth levels. But if no one has access to what he’s capable of, all accomplishments are done in an echo chamber. Craig has been put in front of the right people. And he has performed — in workouts, as a member of a 7-on-7 flag team that traveled the Mid-Atlantic, and in camps at Syracuse, Penn State, Georgia, Rutgers, Florida and UConn. 

While at Rutgers, Craig ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash and dominated 1-on-1 workouts. He did this as a Class of 2026 player grouped exclusively with 2023 and 2024 players (juniors and seniors). It’s always been this way, Craig lining up against older and bigger players and standing out with athletic gifts that will make him among the most coveted prep players in the nation over the next four years.

“We’re letting him know it’s a marathon and not a sprint,” Wholley said. “Quite honestly, it’s a stress relief that he's going to go to college for free. And while it's great to be highly ranked and highly recruited, the goal should be for him to get himself as prepared as he can be. When you have that, the outside stuff doesn’t matter. And he has the maturity to handle that. He has the demeanor not to hurt himself. I think he's just going to be driven to get better, and the thing is, he does have a long way to go.”

Craig will play a lot as a freshman on both sides of the ball. He will share running back duties with Luke Thorbahn, a postgraduate player who is four years older. Wholley said a player who runs at 4.6 as a freshman usually runs a 4.3 by the time he is done with high school. He expects Craig to ease into his new situation and be a dominant player as a sophomore.

Wholley has known Craig for many years. He recruited Gillespie as a UConn assistant, making an in-home visit.

“He was playing with a Tonka truck, nine years old,” Wholley said.

Craig is extremely close with Gillespie, who attended Capital Prep in Hartford before UConn. He has since transferred to Monroe College in New York. They have the same mother, Kia Williams, who works in a New Britain school. Craig’s father, Tai Craig, is a mechanic. Both parents are active and supportive in all his pursuits.

Craig wore a pair of his brother's UConn cleats during practice last week.

“I always wanted to be like Ky,” Craig said. “There was nobody else I wanted to be like. He's the reason I'm playing football. If he didn't play football, I don't know what I'd be doing. That's my big brother.”

The brothers grew up tackling each other in the backyard and training on fields near their Hartford home. They speak just about every day. Gillespie knows what it is like to be recruited by FBS programs.

“He just wasn’t as young as I am,” Craig said.

No one in Connecticut has been.

“This a big brother dream watching your little brother take over everything!” Gillespie tweeted in May, replying to video highlight clips of Craig.

When a mutual friend tweeted in celebration of Craig receiving numerous scholarship offers on June 2, Gillespie responded, "He's the middle schooler with school in the morning," with two laugh-out-loud emojis.

Yes, this is kind of fun and funny, an eighth grader in the middle of all this serious football business. Craig, who likes history class and video games, will likely pick a college in 2025, after his junior year.

“I got these offers fast, but they can be taken away pretty fast, too,” Craig said. “I'll never take them for granted. I make sure to always keep that in mind.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com; @ManthonyHearst