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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 10:25 a.m., Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Preps: 7-on-7 football more than passing fancy

By Jack Carey
USA Today

The offseason is anything but off for a growing number of high school football players.

Seven-on-seven passing leagues are putting players back on fields in June and July rather than August. High school coaches, in many states, are overseeing the teams. National tournaments are being held with a competitive qualifying process. Adidas is sponsoring its first 7-on-7 national championship and paying the expenses for the 10 non-California teams playing in the 12-team event today and tomorrow in Carson, Calif.

Representatives of national recruiting services will be scrutinizing the level of play, just as they were recently at a state tournament in Texas sponsored by FSN Southwest and an event in Long Beach, Calif., sponsored by Nike.

What they'll see is a fast-paced game that enhances offensive skills by forcing the quarterback to throw on each play. Only forward passes are permitted. There is no rushing, tackling or timeouts, unless there's an injury. Is that really football? If so, should it be regulated? The answers vary by state.

The National Federation of State High School Associations regards the leagues as practice only, according to assistant director Bob Colgate. "We write rules for sports and games only, and on the varsity level," Colgate says.

In a survey, USA TODAY found 42 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have high schools that play 7-on-7 football during the summer. Whether the high school head coach can coach the 7-on-7 team depends on the state. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the head coach can work the sideline.

"We allow the head coach to have contact because our board has taken the stance that it's better to have coaches who have been approved (through our process) than some unknown individual," said Mark Byers, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Texas' rules "limit our coaches' involvement with their high school teams in the summer because (if they were involved), it would almost mandate the kids take part," says Bill Farney, executive director of the University Interscholastic League.

Farney says Texas' rules state that a 7-on-7 team cannot be coached by the school's head coach. But, Farney adds, he has heard of cases where the coaches are in the stands calling in plays from cell phones or using flash cards on the field.

"We discourage that," he says.

Some states give their coaches limited access to the teams. Idaho allows coaches to have contact until July 31. Starting next year in Tennessee, teams will not be allowed to play 7-on-7 games in June.

There does seem to be universal agreement about the value of this padless version of the game.

"This has helped our kids become better players," says Doug Stephens, executive director of Texas' FSN Southwest 7-on-7 state tournament, held last weekend at Texas A&M with 96 teams divided into two events based on state enrollment classification. Georgetown won the Class 4A/5A title, beating Stratford High of Houston 41-24 in the final, and both will be in the Adidas event in California. (Celina won the 1A/2A/3A event.)

"Football is the first sport played when school starts in the fall. Players used to end school in the spring and then not pick up a ball until just before school started. This has become a natural opportunity for kids to progress."

Running backs on break

More high schools are turning to the pro-style passing offenses that require precision route running and accurate throwing.

An American Football Monthly survey of 2006 state champions found that 39.3 percent of the respondents said they ran multiple pro-set/spread offenses. Second on the list of offensive systems used, at 16.8 percent, was the I-formation. In 2004, only 22.7 percent of the state champions used spread offenses, according to the publication.

Texas, Stephens adds, used to be a state known for "3 yards and a cloud of dust. Spread offenses are everywhere if you look now."

The 7-on-7 leagues are in step with this conversion, keeping quarterbacks and receivers on the go.

Quarterback Dayne Crist of Notre Dame High (Sherman Oaks, Calif.), says his school plays 7-on-7 at least twice weekly during the summer. He says the 7-on-7 unit runs a normal offense from the high school team's playbook.

"The main thing is getting your timing down," Crist says. "We had three wide receivers graduate, so there are three new guys and the point of emphasis is developing a chemistry.

"Games are very competitive and high scoring. You have to execute on offense quickly, and games usually come down to the final drive or a late one to win it."

Wide receiver Michael Floyd of Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul, Minn.) was the state's player of the year in 2006. He says, "The benefit for a (wide) receiver is getting down your routes. It gives you a chance to practice your moves, the same ones you'll use in the regular season."

Hoover (Ala.), a perennial national powerhouse featured in an MTV reality show, is partnering with the National High School Coaches Association to expand a 7-on-7 tournament Hoover has held since 2001. Thirty-six schools are competing July 26-28, up from 20 last year, with the goal to expand to 64.

"We want to make it a true national event," said Brandon Sheppard, the tournament director.

'It's not real football'

Jeff Kearin, coach of Loyola High (Los Angeles), which also has been nationally ranked, says he doesn't want to place too much emphasis on the tournaments and encourages his players to participate in other sports and summer activities.

He wouldn't be interested in participating in the Adidas tournament, he says, even "if they sent a helicopter to pick us up."

"I think some of these tournaments really have gotten big, and it can lead to all kinds of speculation on who's going to play and who's being recruited by who," Kearin says.

Sheppard doesn't see any harm done to programs that do not compete in the no-contact leagues, but "you see a lot more of the successful programs do it than not.

"You hear coaches saying all the time: 'You don't have the linemen; you don't have the pads on; it's not real football.' And it's not. It's only one phase of the game.

"But, obviously, if you do this enough, you're going to get better at those two parts of the game — defending the pass and throwing the football."

Contributing to this report were USA Today's Chris Lawlor, Craig Bennett, Tom O'Toole, Janice Lloyd, Johnnie Whitehead, Steve Wieberg and Jeff Zillgitt.