The era of three yards and a cloud of dust is long gone. High school football offenses these days are built for speed.
The trend in Maine the last few seasons has been to spread out the field and quicken the pace.
“There’s been a big push for the spread offense over the last few years in all classes of Maine high school football,” said Kevin Millington, a former assistant coach at Windham who now serves as a volunteer coach.
“It’s made for a more exciting brand of football. There’s more scoring and big plays.”
Kennebunk’s veteran coach, Joe Rafferty, runs a no-huddle offense.
“It’s a pretty exciting offense because you can get a touchdown on any play,” Rafferty said of the spread. “The philosophy is to get your athletes in space and let them work. Years ago, it was ball control and we’re going to knock you over.”
The spread offense features wider splits between linemen, with the quarterback taking the snap in the shotgun. By spreading out, the defense also has to spread out. Often only the quarterback is in the backfield, with five receivers wide.
The scheme is used most notably by Bonny Eagle, the defending Class A champ that started running it a decade ago. In that time, it’s won five state titles.
Last season, the Scots averaged 32 points per game.
“We went to the spread offense in 2004,” said Coach Kevin Cooper. “Obviously we have had some pretty talented teams over those years … but I think the spread has accentuated everything for us.”
Over the last 10 seasons, Bonny Eagle has averaged 378 yards per game and 7.4 yards per play (6.8 yards rushing). Before they adopted the spread, the Scots averaged 258 yards per game in 2002 and 2003 and 5.3 yards per play (4.8 yards rushing).
Bonny Eagle may have popularized the spread offense, but other teams have followed. Cony, another spread team, won the Class B title last season. The two teams went about it in different styles.
Bonny Eagle’s spread is a running offense featuring the quarterback; Cony used it exclusively to throw. With All-State quarterback Ben Lucas, the Rams passed on almost every play. Lucas has graduated, so Coach Robbie Vachon said Cony may run more this season.
Bonny Eagle has been successful throwing, too, but its quarterbacks over the years, including its current one, Zach Dubiel, have been excellent runners.
“All teams run the spread a little differently,” said Thornton Academy Coach Kevin Kezal. “The spread offense allows the quarterback to become part of the running game. Defenses never had to focus on the quarterback as a runner before.”
Some teams have jumped wholly onto the spread-offense bandwagon, while others run a variation. Then there are teams such as Cheverus, Portland and Marshwood, which have stuck with the tried and true – the wing-T. But even those teams get out of their base offense from time to time and go shotgun, looking to diversify. Portland has an elusive quarterback in Jordan Talbot.
Coaches want tackles and guards to be mobile so they can pull and execute downfield blocks on defensive backs.
A key play in Bonny Eagle’s offense is the tackle wrap, where the tackle pulls and leads the quarterback through the hole.
“The days of a 300-pound tackle blocking in a phone booth are over,” said Windham Coach Matt Perkins.
The spread can be a defensive coordinator’s nightmare.
“They’re spreading the field with multiple formations and you have to cover all those receivers,” said former Portland coach Mike Bailey, now an assistant at South Portland. “There’s a lot more quarterback play than handing it off or throwing it.”
“In the old days, defenses could kind of dictate what you ran,” he said. “With the spread, you dictate what the defense does.”
Millington said there’s been a trickle-down effect from college football. When Chip Kelly coached at Oregon, he ran a high-octane offense in which the Ducks tried to run as many plays as possible. Defenses had a hard time getting set because Oregon’s no-huddle offense was at the line ready to snap the ball.
“You go back to the 1980s in college football and it was the wishbone and the option,” Millington said. “In the 1990s, it was the run-and-shoot.”
Thornton Academy, the Class A champion in 2012, has run variations of the spread, the Power-I and other schemes the past few years. In winning the state title, the Golden Trojans used a relentless ground game powered by running back Andrew Libby. The Golden Trojans averaged 39 points that season.
Last year, Libby suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener, so Thornton had to become more multi-dimensional.
Austin McCrum, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, emerged as a talented thrower (1,300 yards passing) with the ability to run. Thornton averaged 31 points per game and reached the Western Class A final.
The Golden Trojans are expected to have as much if not more offense this season. They will run out of a variety of formations, with the spread being the main one.
“The spread opens up the field and keeps the defense honest,” said McCrum. “You attack their weaknesses. I have some great running backs and receivers who make me look good.”
Kezal sees another advantage in running a wide-open, exciting offense.
“It helps recruit kids in the hallways,” he said. “You might get the basketball player who likes the fact we pass the ball a lot. In 2010, James Ek, who played basketball, came out his senior year and had a very good season.”
One of Thornton’s top receivers last year – and expected to be again this season – was 6-5 Kevin Barrett, one of the school’s best basketball players.
Ben Malloy, a basketball player at Bonny Eagle, provided the Scots with a big boost at receiver last season and, like Barrett, is expected to do the same this fall. Malloy returned to football for the first time since playing in youth leagues.
Despite the recent trend toward spread offenses, some approaches remain the same.
“Coaches coach to what they know,” said Brian Curit, who was the head coach at Biddeford from 1994 to 2006 and returned to coach the Tigers last season. His team runs the triple option.
“I thought I would actually see more wide-open offenses when I came back,” said Curit. “The formations have changed but the plays are the same. Teams still run the sweep, traps and power.”