Spread offense proves challenge for local teams
On a hot and humid Saturday morning in Tewksbury late last month, the Gloucester High School football team got an early look at one of its biggest challenges this season: defending the spread attack, an increasingly popular and potent offense utilized by high school teams in the region.
With a new head coach and a very young team, the preseason scrimmage provided a litmus test after three weeks of training. Tomorrow night, the Fishermen put on their game jerseys and kick off their 2011 season at Lynn English - and they’ll face a tough spread offense right off the bat.
The popularity of running a spread at the high school level has risen sharply over the past decade, as the schools follow the successes of college programs such as Florida and West Virginia. Every season, more teams take advantage of the athleticism and speed of their players to spread the offense, using multiple receivers, a shotgun formation, and, in some cases, a no-huddle setup.
First-year Gloucester coach Tony Zerilli estimates that 70 percent of his team’s opponents use the spread. And for the two-time Division 1A Super Bowl champions to make another run at a playoff berth, they will need to have success defending against it.
“Passing records are being smashed,’’ said Zerilli, who coordinated the defense under former coach Paul Ingram the past three seasons. “You never threw the ball that much in high school football.’’
Three players, Everett’s Jonathan DiBiaso (65 touchdown passes), Barnstable’s DJ Crook (59), and Billerica’s Nick LaSpada (55), have an opportunity to break the state career record set by Brockton’s Tom Colombo - 85 TDs from 1983-86.
Defending the spread is easier said than done.
With more wide receivers to cover and holes for the quarterback and the running back to run through, strategy and split-second decisions are crucial. Every defender must learn to read each play and adjust on the fly.
“Not only can the quarterback throw but he can run,’’ said Zerilli. “With four receivers and the running back and quarterback left to run, it creates a lot of conflict. You have to cover those receivers but also leave enough [coverage] to defend the run.’’
Andrew Coke, one of the area’s top returning players, racked up a staggering eight touchdowns in Andover’s epic 88-82, eight-overtime win over Lowell.
The spread is more appealing to multisport athletes than more traditional offenses because it is fast-paced and receivers can make a lot of downfield runs.
“It gets more athletes, like basketball players, to come out for football,’’ said Zerilli , who plans to continue with Gloucester’s traditional wing-T offense. “Lynn English always had great athletes, and the spread lets you get them all out there in the same space.’’
Zerilli knows that he will have his work cut out for him this season.
“In the last seven years, we would play a spread team once or twice a season,’’ he said. “Now all of a sudden we’re practicing that formation every week. “You have to do a lot of scouting to identify plays and shifts in motion. We have the kids watch [game] film to recognize what they can do from each set-up.’’
Gloucester will also face the spread against Swampscott, Weymouth, Andover, and Peabody, which is implementing a spread for the first time this year.
Like Gloucester, defending Division 3 champion Beverly does not run a spread offense but has found itself practicing it week in and week out to prepare for games.
“It’s hard when your offense doesn’t match your opponents,’’ said Beverly head coach Dan Bauer, who says that at least five teams on the schedule will run a spread this year. “You have to tailor the drills you do that week to cover the space.’’
As a safety and linebacker, Nick Theriault and Mark Giles head the stingy Beverly defense from the field, as they read the setup and make decisive tackles throughout the game.
“With the spread, you don’t need a lot of time to score. Teams throw the ball more quickly and cover ground quickly. You have to try to keep the ball away from them,’’ said Bauer.
One team that has been very successful using the spread to run is Andover.
Coke, a senior two-way threat, returns after a 29-touchdown season. The Golden Warriors’ defense benefits as well, because the team runs the offense every day in practice so it can learn how to defend against it.
“On offense you try to confuse the line,’’ said Andover head coach E.J. Perry. “On defense you have to read the play. . . . It’s a little like a chess game.’’
Perry says that when you are both running and defending the spread in a game, conditioning is absolutely key. “We try to condition within the daily practice,’’ he said. “We’ll run 24 plays up and down the field in 16 minutes, one play about every 45 seconds. We want everybody sprinting.’’
Andover’s defense will be led this year by three seniors - Coke at safety, linebacker Giovanni Rosano, and Matt Crush, a 6-foot-1-inch, 220 pound defensive lineman, whom Perry calls a “defensive specialist.’’
“Rosano does a nice joke making calls and hits,’’ said Perry. “It is a well-led defense. They are three very disciplined players.’’
“I think the most crucial things are to always know who you are reading and how to judge your athleticism compared to the opposing athlete,’’ said Coke. “And also getting a presnap read, whether it be a run or pass, is good just to have an idea of what the players could possibly be doing. Like when I’m at quarterback, I’ll pull the ball more when we are reading the defensive tackle rather than a defensive end.
“We prepare by practicing in game speed and running plays in less than 14 seconds. It is vital to have the tempo down for the game.’’
The scoreboard is only one indication of whether any defense is having success. Against a spread, where the offense is designed to move own the field quickly, the defense wants to lower the speed of play and prolong the drive. “During the game, we evaluate every play,’’ said Perry. “We’re looking at how our line is adjusting to what the other team is doing. It’s a continuous pull and tug.’’
Cat Calsolaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.