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FOOTBALL THURSDAY

Popular spread offensive challenges local teams

Duxbury's James Burke nearly intercepts a Weymouth pass during a recent scrimmage. Duxbury's James Burke nearly intercepts a Weymouth pass during a recent scrimmage. (Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe)
By Colleen Casey
Globe Correspondent / September 8, 2011

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Mike Redding saw a different kind of game than he was used to when his Mansfield High varsity football team traveled to Lakewood, Ohio, to face St. Edward in 2007.

Most teams in the area, including St. Edward, ran a spread offense, a no-huddle approach with the quarterback in the shot-gun and multiple receivers spread across the line. It was a potent offensive attack that teams back east rarely ran.

“From 2007 to 2009 the spread offense exploded,’’ said Redding, who guided the Hornets to a Division 2 Super Bowl championship last season. “It’s transformed the high school game.’’

The popularity of running a spread offense in high school football has climbed sharply over the past decade, as the schools follow the examples of successful college programs such as Florida and West Virginia. Every year more teams take advantage of the athleticism and speed of their players to run the spread, posing major complications for defensive coordinators, who have had to remodel their strategies.

“We definitely have changed our whole defensive mentality,’’ said Redding. “It used to be, two out of 11 teams [on our schedule] used a spread. Now it’s nine out of 11.’’

Mansfield, though, does not run a spread, but Redding said his team’s defense has spent much of its two-week preseason practicing on defending the scheme.

“We’re really different. We’re in the minority,’’ Redding of his offensive strategy. “We’re hoping it’s an advantage. Seeing the old-style offense is a rarity now.’’

As for his defensive practices, Redding said: “We used to have 80 percent of defense work with regular defense. Now it’s the other way around.’’

Harry Taylor, the defensive coordinator at Duxbury High, grooms his defense to understand game plans that use the spread. “It takes a lot of time and preparation,’’ Taylor said. “It takes kids learning responsibilities and understanding their responsibilities on the field.’’

How does he handle the spread? Pressure the quarterback. “We use the blitz,’’ said Taylor. “We like to use outside linebackers, use our strong safety or free safety to force the quarterback to make a fast decision. If he’s back there and he has all day, if you’re sitting in man coverage, he’s going to find someone.’’

You won’t see five down linemen anymore for Duxbury. “We defend the spread by having a 3-man front. We do some 4-man front; it’s almost impossible to stick with five down linemen against the spread. . . . You’re putting linebackers and more athletic kids on the field as well.’’

Duxbury senior captain Max Randall prefers to defend against the spread.

“We’re used to defending it in practice, seeing that our offense runs a spread,’’ said the 5-foot-10, 190-pound safety. “We get many reps at defending it in practice. Our coaches put us in the right spots to make the plays.’’

Last season Randall recorded 129 tackles in 13 games. He will head to Dartmouth next year to play lacrosse.

At Mansfield, Redding has a similar mentality to Taylor at Duxbury.

“You really need to find kids that can cover, and cover in the secondary,’’ he said.

Mansfield senior captain Zack Schafer said the key is having more athletic linebackers and defensive backs. “The linebackers and defensive backs have to be quick,’’ said the 6-foot, 197-pound linebacker. “With the spread, there’s a lot of change of direction. You have to be fast so you can come up on the run but still get back for a pass on the play.’’

Schafer said he prefers defending a traditional offense, but is getting used to defending against the spread.

“I’m a more physical player, I have more fun against a power I,’’ he said. “Recently I’ve been having more fun against the spread, making more athletic plays. We blitz a lot against the spread so it’s fun to play linebacker.’’

Nick Leonard, a senior linebacker at Mansfield, is getting used to defending the quicker pace. “Growing up through Pop Warner we’ve been defending I and Wing-T formations,’’ said the 5-11, 215-pound Leonard.

“The past few years teams have moved away from this and play a speed game. Linebackers have to be speed guys now, not just power.’’

Weymouth senior safety Khary Bailey-Smith has his own thoughts: “I’m thinking, limit the inside threats in the seams and everything across the middle. Keep everything to the outside where we can cover it easy,’’ he said.

The 6-3 Bailey-Smith added, “I don’t think it’s harder to cover the spread compared to other offenses. We should be used to covering the spread since we practice against it.’’

Brian Greener, defensive coordinator at Weymouth, said that his team uses either two or three linemen. “We usually have one safety and focus on jamming the number two receiver,’’ said Greener. “The spread isn’t just used for passing, a lot of teams will run the ball. The spread also widens the running scene.’’

He added that the growth of the spread has coincided with the number of artificial field surfaces now in use.

“With the turf, it’s easier conditions for the players to run,’’ said Greener. “They don’t have to worry about pushing through the mud.’’

Bailey-Smith, who has played on turf his entire high school career, said: “I don’t like running on grass. With the turf you can move around a lot easier.’’

Taylor shares the same view as Greener with the playing field.

“With the turf surfaces, guys don’t have to worry about powering through,’’ he said. “It gives the players a chance to use their speed and athleticism.’’

No matter the playing surface, teams still have to adjust to the new offensive methodology. Defenses are starting to adapt, giving offenses a run for their money.

Schafer said the defensive adjustment was hard in the beginning, but now he’s getting used to it.

“At first it was difficult; last year we split practicing regular and spread half and half,’’ he said. “This year we’re getting more comfortable to the nickel stuff. It’s becoming second nature.’’

Colleen Casey can be reached at colleen.casey@globe.com.


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