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Are the trends we see in high school football here to stay?


November 21, 2013
Another high school football season has come and gone — for Valley Center, at least, and unusually early, at that — and I can't help but wonder a little bit at what I saw this year.

Even the casual football fan has likely noticed a subtle change in the way many offenses get down the field. Watching football on Sunday has become a lot more like watching football on Saturday, and even the experts are left scratching their heads when it comes to one question:

Is it a trend, or is it here to stay?

The "it" in this case goes by many names, most commonly we hear it referenced as "The Read Option," which surprisingly isn't a poster of Colin Kaepernick hanging in your local middle school library encouraging youngsters to read. Give it a few months though.

No, the read option, as clearly as I can understand it, is an offensive system in which the quarterback is consistently given the "option" to run each play as he thinks it should be run based on the "read" he makes of certain key defensive players. Most often, this ends up looking like this: the quarterback, in the shotgun, takes the snap and holds the ball out like he's going to hand off to the running back. As he holds the ball out, his eyes lock in on the defensive end, who is left unblocked and faces the decision of which player to pursue the quarterback or the running back.

The quarterback reads the defensive end and chooses to either let the running back keep the ball and run, or he takes the ball back (I always hear a little voice squealing "No, it's mine! You can't have it!" when he snatches the ball away from the running back's arms) and runs with it himself.

There are lots and lots of wrinkles added to this basic action, including a number of pass plays off of the fake handoff and even a true option play, in which the quarterback runs with the ball but has a teammate trailing just behind him to take a pitch if the quarterback so chooses.

The bottom line is, as I understand it, to create indecision in the defense. On any given football play, the offense has the advantage simply because all the players know what the play is supposed to be. They just have to go execute the play in order to have success. But defense is all about reacting, and good defenses are filled with players who have good instincts and who anticipate the play as it develops.

To counteract that anticipation, offensive strategy has now developed (or perhaps repackaged, since this kind of offense is really more of a throwback than anything) another way to keep the defense guessing.

And the stunning simplicity of it all makes it a very appealing choice, not only at the professional and collegiate levels, but especially in high school.

Covering all ten of the VCHS varsity football games this season, I got to see a few different offensive styles. Valley Center runs a more traditional, pro-style offense that most often features three receivers, a tight end and a single running back. The execution of the running game is crucial, and the majority of the passing attack is based off of the threat of the run game.

The first two games of the season didn't yield anything extraordinary, in terms of offensive strategy from the Jaguars' opponents.

But in the game at La Jolla, we saw a little glimpse of some of this new-school football in action. The Vikings ran a no huddle, fast-paced, Oregon-style offense that leaned heavily on the quarterback as an all-around athlete. The same was true for Del Norte, San Marcos, Mt. Carmel, San Pasqual and Orange Glen, which made up the opponents in the final five games of the Valley Center season.

San Pasqual has run the same style of offense for as long as I've covered sports here in Valley Center (which is a little more than seven years now), and from what I've picked up in conversations with football people, it's the same offense they've always run. But for some of those other schools, this type of offense is entirely new.

And I can definitely see why it's appealing. For one thing, it is much simpler, as the formations don't vary a whole lot and the majority of the plays are running plays.

On aspect that I'm sure is a big draw is that the read option is designed to get the ball in the hands of the best athlete on the team and let him make plays. This was obvious in the Mt. Carmel game, in which sophomore quarterback Lucas Johnson carried the ball 14 times for 196 yards and two touchdowns. Even a casual observer could see that the six-foot-two, 175-pound quarterback was a pure athlete and a player that the coaches knew needed to touch the ball as often as possible in each game.

Valley Center has had its share of outstanding football players through the years, but perhaps none quite so electrifying as James Johnson, who graduated in 2009.

Johnson was a freshman when I came to Valley Center in 2006, and I still remember very clearly the first VCHS football game I covered, which was at Marian Catholic (now Mater Dei Catholic) High School. I remember standing on the sideline and watching the players jog out on the field before the game, and I saw the kid wearing the No. 1 jersey and I said to myself, "That is a football player."

The coaches had obviously seen the same thing, because I remember talking with them about the struggle to just get the ball in James' hands. He wasn't very polished as a receiver at the time, so they tried to use him at tailback, but he wasn't really built for the punishment of the position. In the end, they stuck with him as a receiver and it turned out to be a great call, because James worked his tail off to develop a great set of hands that helped him set a new section record for career receiving yards and earn a scholarship to the University of Washington.

Seeing the trends in high school football today, I can't help but wonder if James' journey would have been different had he been in school now. It would be awfully tempting to have an athlete of his caliber handling the ball on every play, knowing that he has the potential to score from anywhere on the field at any time.

In the end, I'm left with just as many questions as the experts, a group to which I can in no way claim membership. We've already seen the great defensive minds of the NFL find ways to contain the read option at that level (turns out you can just hit the quarterback even when he hands the ball off, and that discourages him from keeping it too many times), and we've certainly seen the offensive trends of yesteryear come and go (as we take a moment of silence for the Run & Shoot and the Wildcat).

Personally, I think the read option is a great fit for high school football because it throws into deeper contrast the existing talent gulf that has to exist in any sport so densely populated. With so many millions of high school kids playing football, it stands to reason that only a relatively small percentage will be good enough to move on to the next level, which means that the extraordinarily talented players will seem all the more talented because they'll be going against players who won't go on to play in college.

So when you have one of those athletes and you can give him the ball on every play (or, at least, to start every play), that's a substantial increase in the odds that your best athlete will come up with a big play.

But the other side of that is that these gifted athletes play high school football with one eye on the college game, knowing that what they do at this level isn't just school spirit and dating the prom queen—they're preparing for the next level.

And at the next level, suddenly the talent level goes up a notch or two, and no matter what you used to be able to get away with on the high school field, suddenly those linebackers and defensive backs are a lot bigger and faster. So a great athlete in high school may be an average talent in college, and if he's only played in a read option offense and relied on his ability alone, he may be underprepared for what's going to hit him in college.

I find it all incredibly fascinating, but since I've already gone on for 1,500 words about it, I'd like to hear your thoughts about the future of high school football.

Write to me at sports@valleycenter.com and let me know if you think these offensive trends are just a fad, or if they're here to stay, and if you think it's good or bad for the game.

And if you need any other options, I'm sure that, somewhere, a poster is being printed showing Colin Kaepernick holding a book, with the caption "TV? Video Games? Facebook? Too many options! That's why I run the Read Option … at my local library!"

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