A decade ago, the offensive formation at most schools consisted of the quarterback under center with multiple running backs and tight ends bunched around him.
But as each year passes, the spread continues to, ahem, spread.
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Whether a school is big or small, whether the plan is to run or pass, the proliferation of the offense is not slowing down.
Seton Catholic’s Rex Bowser, Mountain View’s Chad DeGrenier and McClintock’s Matt Lewis are among the lifers: coaches who developed those schemes years ago but were recently joined by dozens of other programs.
“When I first started there was nobody doing it,” DeGrenier said. “Now everybody’s doing it.”
But should they?
There seems to be little evidence recently that the spread has had a grand influence on results. Sure, Saguaro put up obscene numbers again in 2011, as running back D.J. Foster broke state records and the team won its fifth state championship in six years.
But Foster was arguably the state’s best player, and he was surrounded by scores of elite athletes.
Lewis was the offensive coordinator at the school for four years when Saguaro won three of its titles, but he took the head coaching job at McClintock last season and went 3-7 with the same scheme.
“The kids last year thought the system would fix everything,” he said. “The system doesn’t fix much of anything. It doesn’t change that. It’s hard work. At Saguaro, they could have done a lot of different things and been successful.”
Mountain View missed the playoffs last year, as DeGrenier’s system couldn’t work wonders, and his old team, Cactus Shadows, went 3-7 with fellow spread offense disciple Greg Davis running the show.
Seton went undefeated in the regular season and made the Division IV semifinals in 2011, but the run coincided with a drop in classification. Before that, they were a fringe playoff team for years at the higher level.
“If there was such a thing as the best offense, we’d all be running the same thing,” Bowser said.
Former Arcadia football coach Jim Ellison instituted some spread philosophies when he had standout quarterback Colby Kirkegaard running the show, but was back to the Wing-T a year ago because running back Sosaia Maafu was his most dangerous offensive player.
The Titans’ brand of football wasn’t as exciting as others, but Arcadia put together a 10-3 mark and made the Division III semifinals. Avondale Westview has also used a devastating ground game for years.
“A lot of people want to say the Wing-T is dead, that it doesn’t work,” Ellison said, “but we averaged 38 points per game last season.”
The most important part of the spread may be its attractiveness. When a team finds the right combination, the offensive numbers can be staggering, which makes the players happy. That, in turn, gets the attention of transfers and open enrollers who may want to be apart of it, which further strengthens the team. When done right, the spread can elevate a program.
“It’s no different than cool helmets,” Lewis said. “If we were going out and running three backs and two tight ends, rightly or wrongly they don’t get as excited about that.”
However, getting to that well-oiled level is the hard part.
Apache Junction had sustained success with the triple-option attack for years, but with small offensive linemen and a new coach in Justin MacDonald, the team switched to the spread last season. The Prospectors went from running the ball 86 percent of the time in 2009 to throwing it 92 percent of the team last year. Apache Junction finished 2-8.
“You ever learn a foreign language?” said Apache Junction interim coach Jeff Rathjen, who took over for MacDonald this spring. “That’s what it was like. Our normal language was English and now we’re going to teach you French. Now once you’ve learned French and become very proficient, we’re going to switch that to Portugese. It’s right next door, but it’s not the same language. For anybody, you’re going to find it’s a challenge to learn that language.”
Rathjen said the team’s personnel this year still dictates use of the spread, but the triple-option may be making a comeback soon.
“Our freshman class is very, very big,” he said. “We have some offensive linemen that make me look tiny. Some are very good athletes. I could see us going back to a power offense.”
The spread took off after college programs like Oregon used it successfully.
It seems everyone’s jumped on board for now, but coaches are always tinkering and trying to find an edge, which may lead to another mass migration in a few years.
“Everything in football runs in cycles,” Bowser said. “Probably one of these days the next big thing will come up and the spread will run its course.”