WAKE FOREST — WAKE FOREST -- Running back James Harris sat at his desk and watched what appeared to be the same offensive play run over and over. His 35 offensive teammates, all motionless, all silent, watched with him.
Although the Cougars practice three times a week, the video sessions inside the locker room at Wake Forest-Rolesville (13-1) might be the most significant part of their preparation for Friday night's 4-AA semifinal playoff game against Panther Creek (13-1). A victory would send the Cougars to their first championship game in school history.
And it is usually here in the video sessions - not the scrimmages, the weight room or even the players' gene pool - where Harris and the Cougars beat their opponents.
This is where they hone an offense that reaches back to the past to beat teams that believe the route to victory is forward.
One thing most sports fans can agree upon is that offenses in football have always - and will always - continue to evolve. The power-I led to the West Coast offense, which led to the shotgun, which led to the pass-happy spread.
Yet the Cougars have built themselves into a powerhouse by going in the opposite direction on the football evolutionary scale. They run a system that is more archaic than futuristic: the Wing-T.
The physical and mental principles of the Wing-T shaped the team into a winner. So with each play from the film, Harris and the Cougars watch their technique. Closely.
"It's an art," Harris says. "It takes time to learn."
The easy observation from the film is this: The Cougars will run the ball. A lot.
Not so simple
No team in the Triangle has come close to running as much as the Cougars do. In 14 games this season, the Cougars have rushed 668 times. But the Cougars don't lead 4-AA teams in rushing yards; they trail Fuquay-Varina, which has played fewer games (13).
But the Wing-T is about more than yards gained.
The offense, developed in the 1940s, is based on misdirection. The Cougars use a tight end and three running backs in the backfield to create the T-like formation.
The majority of the plays are run with linemen trapping or pulling. All three backs can carry the ball, block or be used for deception by carrying out fakes to make each play look the same for the first few seconds after the snap. By then, the ballcarrier can run past defenders who are still looking to see who has the ball.
"The coaches told us the Wing-T is designed [to beat] any defense," Harris said.
Coach Reggie Lucas says the offense is part magic, part brute force. The Wing-T has passing advantages, too. But the Cougars rarely put the ball in the air. Quarterback John Conyers has attempted just 62 passes this season.
With so few throws, and a gargantuan number of runs, WF-R knows it's perceived to run one of the simplest offensive schemes in the state.
"Our philosophy on offense is to nail your assignments, get into your blocks and give the running back a chance," Lucas said.
The plays are never fancy: Buck sweep. Fullback trap. Counter. Misdirection reverse. Jet sweep.
While so many schools have adapted the spread offense to create mismatches in space, the Cougars' Wing-T is the backbone of an old football philosophy: If a team can't stop the same plays, why not keep running them?
"We feel like we can connect with the early roots of football where it's more aggressive," running back Marcus Jones said. "Our offense is straight at you."
The Cougars let you believe what you want, that the Wing-T is simple to defend - right until they put you on the ground or run around you.
"It's just a lot of hard blocking," offensive lineman Dylan Intemann said. "You gotta want to hit to play the Wing-T."
Built to run
Before Earl Smith arrived as coach, WF-R was known as a basketball school. But Smith had been coaching the Wing-T for 20 years.
Smith, who now sells paper products, came to Wake Forest-Rolesville in 2002 to put the Wing-T theory to the test.
Smith didn't have a plethora of talent to start the 2002 season, which made it easy for other coaches around the area to understand why he made the Cougars run the Wing-T. Usually taught in youth football, the Wing-T allows average-size players to experience success by hiding the ball and using misdirection to make up for any physical deficiencies.
"I love it," Smith said.
The Cougars went from a decent football program - one that made the playoffs in 2002 - into a good one by the time Smith retired after the 2008 season. Once Lucas became coach, he needed to make a decision: Either keep the Wing-T or go contemporary with the trendier spread or read-option offense.
Lucas, the defensive coordinator under Smith, kept the Wing-T instead of teaching his players a new system. But after five assistant coaches left after last year, Lucas had to call offensive plays in the first two games this season.
"The first game was kind of nerve-racking," Lucas said. "Your thought process is you have to make the right calls to make this work. I remember when I made the right calls, it was a little fun."
In the midst of spending more time with his offense, Lucas learned the Cougars were perfect for the Wing-T, not because they weren't talented enough but because they had the right talent for the system.
The Cougars have a veteran offensive line with four seniors. Intemann, a right tackle, is 6 foot 5 and 300 pounds. The other tackle, Ryan Doyle, is 6-6 and 270. WF-R has the best collection of backs in the Triangle. Harris, the complete back, averages more than 6 yards per carry. Jones, the speedster, gets 7 yards at a time. And Seth Hall, the powerful fullback, gains 5 yards per rush.
The first game Smith saw this season was five weeks ago when WF-R defeated Leesville Road to end the regular season. Since then Smith has come to Trentini every Friday night, including the Cougars' best performance in the playoffs last week when they scored 40 points against Garner.
"They were very, very crisp on offense," Garner coach Nelson Smith said after the game. "They executed the Wing-T as good as anybody has ever executed it."
Smith knows there is no higher praise for the Cougars' offense.
Tough to stop
So how do you beat the Wing-T offense?
Wakefield coach J.D. Dinwiddie has a tip. He's the only coach to beat the Cougars this year. Then again, the Cougars defeated Wakefield 21-0 in the second round of these playoffs.
"I would never put nine or 10 in the box," Dinwiddie says. "I don't think you can be that arrogant as a coach. They're better than that."
Dinwiddie knows Panther Creek coach Wayne Bragg is studying WF-R's Wing-T, watching it closely in preparation for Friday's game.
"I think a lot of fans see the backs going in different directions," Bragg said of the Cougars. "What they don't catch is they might run the same play twice or three times in a row, but they might block it a couple different ways."
The hardest part Dinwiddie says is trying to get a scout team to emulate what the Cougars do to give the defense - which normally sees the spread all the time - a chance after just six days of prep time. Can getting a lead on the Cougars be the answer?
Not exactly. In the three games WF-R has trailed in this season, it has come back to take the lead in each of them. The bigger problem is this: It's tough get a lead on WF-R. In all three of their playoff games, the Cougars have not trailed at any point.
The Cougars force the defense to play close to the line of scrimmage. And in doing that, what lies underneath all those runs - which opponents often don't see until the Cougars have the lead for good - is how the Wing-T forces the offense to work together. The other 10 players have to block for the play to go somewhere. You can't have Wing-T running backs who don't block either.
"I know that if I score or get 5 yards, I know James did his job," Jones said. "When it's James' turn, I know I have to do my job because that's my brother."
Teamwork. Jones says that's what gets lost most in understanding the Wing-T.
"I think any program that's going to be successful, you have to buy into that concept," Lucas said. "If you have a good player on your team, and you're putting all the weight on their shoulders, sometimes that can be overbearing for an athlete to carry."
When it comes to the Wing-T, the Cougars know defenses can't stop the team by stopping one player.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919 829-4538