Summer passing leagues give high school players a head start on fall season

Every Sunday night since early July, Will Blumenberg has packed up his football gear and hopped in a car to Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High to play seven-on-seven, two-hand touch football on the turf fields.

Blumenberg was Concord-Carlisle High’s three-sport super-freshman a year ago, playing pivotal roles in both the football and lacrosse team’s undefeated seasons, and making a name for himself last fall with his ability to shut down the opposing football team’s best wide receiver.

He led the team with seven interceptions, and by the end of the season, teammate Evan Boynton said, “other teams wouldn’t even throw it to his side.’’

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But this summer, the Sunday evening games are helping Blumenberg to prepare for his new role: starting quarterback for the Patriots.

“I can’t wait,’’ he said.

It’s a slight upgrade in status from someone who called himself the “fourth-stringer’’ quarterback on last fall’s Concord-Carlisle team, finishing the season without a passing attempt while senior Ryan Hoey handled the snaps on the way to a Division 3 Super Bowl championship.

But with the graduation of a big (and talented) senior class, paired with some unfortunate injuries this summer, Blumenberg has been tagged as the next gunslinger on a squad that is expected to develop a deeper passing game following the graduation of George Craan, the Boston College-bound running back who toppled opposing defenses to the tune of more than 1,800 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Adding to the pressure on a sophomore taking over one of the state’s best teams, Blumenberg has not played quarterback since Pop Warner, when he was in the sixth grade.

But if everything goes as expected when the first official practices begin on Aug. 20, he will be given the first crack under center in a move that could compare to handing the keys of a Lamborghini to someone who just got their learner’s permit.

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“But he was the type of kid who didn’t play like a freshman last year,’’ said Jackson Finigan, who was a Dual County League Small Division all-star receiver last year, and is headed for a year at Deerfield Academy before playing lacrosse at the University of Delaware. “Will was just amazing like that. Any sport he played, he was a crunch-time player. You wanted him to have the ball. That’s a wonderful trait.’’

Blumenberg, with his 16th birthday still a fresh piece of history, received his learner’s permit in the mail just recently. Boynton and some other upperclassmen have been giving him rides to and from the games in the seven-on-seven passing leagues, which have been gaining popularity in recent years with the increased use of the spread offense by high school teams.

The leagues, which take place at schools all around Eastern Massachusetts, feature a game of speed, agility, and intellect with no contact allowed. Most now use a simple touch of one or two hands to rule a player down, meaning once he catches the ball, the play will usually stop shortly thereafter. And there is no pass rush: the quarterbacks have four seconds of freedom to scan the field before defenders are allowed to break free.

It all sounds and looks similar to a backyard football game between family members on Thanksgiving, a reason why many high school football coaches have questioned the validity and importance of the leagues.

“I think they’re good but everybody has to be realistic: Nobody is blocking or tackling anybody,’’ said Brad Sidwell, Franklin High’s athletic director and football coach. “Not a lot is indicative. Kids are going on vacation all summer, so whoever shows up shows up. I don’t know if we have it in the right perspective, if you’re trying to make true valuations on kids with it.’’

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The other small hiccup: The coaches who instruct these players in the fall can only watch from the sidelines during the summer, due to restrictions by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Typically, former players or parents lead the way.

“When kids are getting told a million different things, it’s no different from an AAU basketball situation,’’ Sidwell said. “It’s good that they’re playing, but it’s just not the same.’’

But for someone like Blumenberg, who spent just a week during a summer camp throwing passes while focusing most of his recent athletic energy on lacrosse, the league games have been a first chance to get to know Concord-Carlisle’s receivers, establish timing, develop a three-step drop, and find a consistent arm motion.

“It’s good practice,’’ Blumenberg said. “I’ve been noticing where the linebacker is, how far off the cornerbacks are, maybe how many safeties are out.’’

And from teammate Boynton’s perspective, “It’s huge having this time to connect with Will,’’ he said. “Especially since a lot of the kids are new. It’s a good way to ease into the game, just being able to sit back there and get a feel.’’

With Framingham High in a similar situation as fall approaches, as last year’s backup Chris Bloomingdale is about to take over the reins at quarterback, coach Gary Doherty said he has changed his mind on the value of the summer leagues.

“It’s helped our kids a lot, and if you asked me a year ago, I wouldn’t have said it much,’’ Doherty said.

“It helps build confidence, no doubt,’’ said Bloomingdale, whose team was 5-1 in its Tuesday night league. “We form a lot of chemistry too.’’

Concord-Carlisle coach Mike Robichaud has mixed feelings on the summer leagues, and it would be hard to say that area coaches enjoy watching their star players compete in a game that could be confused for a high-level physical education class.

But it could be even more difficult to say that throwing a couple of hundred passes once a week has done anything to hurt the progress of young quarterbacks like Blumenberg.

Plus, he has less than two weeks before intense practices, filled with conditioning drills and hot temperatures, are bound to take over his life.

“I’ve been having fun,’’ he said.

For now, that might be all that matters.

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