Garner Cleveland: Sports

Teams debut a whole new spread

Clayton assistant coach and offensive coordinator Anthony Barbour instructs players on running the new offense.
Clayton assistant coach and offensive coordinator Anthony Barbour instructs players on running the new offense.

If Randy Pinkowski needs any reassurance that his change in offensive philosophy was the right one, he gets it every day before the Comets begin practice. He arrives at the field to see footballs flying around and players working on the same concepts he and the rest of the Clayton High School football coaching staff have studied and installed over the past four months.

“Nobody’s out there taking the ball putting their head down and running into as many guys as they can,” Pinkowski says. “They’re all throwing, pitching and getting in open space with the ball.”

A dozen miles east on Highway 70, Smithfield-Selma coach David Lawhon is still dealing with the same numbers issue the Spartan program has long dealt with — not having an abundance of players. But now he knows he has a new perk for the SSS students he has on the field and the ones he hopes to get on the field in the future.

Two longstanding football programs, both with grand traditions of running the football, have both found the same key to their offensive futures — the spread offense.

A better use of the talent

Clayton has made the move to better take advantage of its offensive talent and as a reaction to the changes in football rules which make that old burrowing through the middle of the field somewhat obsolete. Smithfield-Selma decided in the middle of last season that it couldn’t afford the body count in injuries that its old-style approach produced.

The spread, a term used to cover any myriad of offensive formations that don’t include the traditional two receiver, tight end, two running back, quarterback under center approach, got its start mainly in the college football ranks, then spread to high school and has now spread into the professional game.

The main reasons for the explosion? The need to produce more points to keep up with teams who use the spread to its fullest and most productive extent and the continuing growth of player safety rules in the past few years.

“At no time in the history of football have there been as many rule changes as there have been in the last four or five years that impact the way the game is played,” Pinkowski said. “The targeting rule, use of the shoulder and forearm on tackles. You’re very limited in how you can hit the quarterback from the waist up.”

Smithfield-Selma became sold on the spread approach in the final game of the 2014 season as quarterback Chris Samuels, now playing at Louisburg College, led a wild second-half comeback for a 22-21 win over South Johnston that ended the Spartans’ 41-game losing streak.

It was just what Lawhon, a self-described “ground and pound guy,” needed to turn the offense over to the spread under the direction of Scott Parrish.

“With our skill set and a lot of skill position guys in the 160-165-pound range, we can’t expect to be bruisers,” Lawhon said. “We have to be able to get our guys out in space where they can run free with the ball.”

“The kids are excited about the run and gun nature of it. And that makes a big difference when you don’t have a team with 40-50 players.”

And that’s one of the problems Lawhon hopes the new, seemingly more exciting approach to the game will solve: SSS’s seemingly continual lack of bodies.

“We’re the most diverse school in the county,” he said. “We’re trying to get some of those guys who might want to play football more reason to come out, if that’s guys who didn’t make the soccer team or whatever.”

Rules helped initiate the change

Pinkowski, starting his second season leading the Comets, slowly came to a similar conclusion during his traditional off-season review of his approach: “You have to always be a student of the game as a coach. If you do that, you can’t stay the same year to year. You’re always watching and learning from the trends you see. That’s why nobody runs in the T-formation or the wishbone anymore.”

He talked to longtime Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore about his team’s move from a power-I formation to the spread and the dividends it paid for the Mountaineers.

Last season, Pinkowski’s first in Clayton, he was leading a team that featured 23 seniors who had grown up in the wing-T system and a nearly intact coaching staff from predecessor Gary Fowler. It wasn’t the right time to make a big offensive change.

But in going through his annual off-season program evaluation, Pinkowski looked at the changing face of high school football and saw that very few teams won games 17-14 anymore.

“You’ve got these teams nowadays who average 24-30 points a game and don’t have a winning record,” Pinkowski said. “The standard of what good defense is has changed. And that’s because of the change in offensive philosophies.”

Against a spread offense with multiple receivers, it wasn’t a matter of linebackers reading the offensive guards or running backs to know how to react.

Now, it was defensive ends, outside linebackers and safeties all forced to read the movement of slot receivers, H-backs, traditional running backs and the quarterback to determine how to react.

So Pinkowski pulled his staff together after the team banquet in January, told them of his decision and eventually they found their way to the University of Auburn to get guidance from the Tigers’ coaching staff on offensive philosophy.

“From there it was a matter of thinking through how those concepts could work in a high school system,” Pinkowski said.

The Comet coaching staff, led by Pinkowski and offensive coordinator Anthony Barbour, met in April to fine-tune their new approach, then started to present it to players during the 21-player organized workouts in May.

The new thinking philosophy has caused Pinkowski to think back to last season as well.

For example, Pinkowski points to the Comets’ 36-30 playoff loss to Durham Hillside last season. Clayton hung tough through a Hillside scoring spurt, then cut the Hornets’ lead to 36-30 with a field goal with about three minutes to play. The Comets held on defense and got the ball back with 40 seconds to play for a shot to win. The drive didn’t pan out and Hillside advanced.

But instead of focusing on the final drive of the game, Pinkowski lamented the six-plus-minute, 17-play drive that ended with a field goal.

“We got lucky to get a shot at it,” Pinkowski said. “All I could think is that if I’m an up tempo team, it’s easier to slow down than it is to speed up. Could we have been left with more time on the clock if that 17-play drive took four minutes instead?”

That thought process has only been reinforced in the Comets’ preseason practices. Pinkowski rejoiced over how the offense can now run through more than 20 plays in a 20-minute full 11-on-11 period. “If you want to be good at something in a game, you’ve got to be great at it in practice.”

Pinkowski expects his Comet offense will average an additional 12-15 plays a game in the new system. He points to the 25-second play clock as a limit to offenses that have to constantly huddle to call plays, change packages, etc.

“You’re at a huge disadvantage if you’re playing a team in the spread with a no huddle approach,” he said.

More threats, more fringe benefits

Making the quarterback a threat on every play is something that’s now commonplace at all levels of the game. Looking at his prospects for this coming season and the new few seasons, Pinkowski realized there was no hulking fullback to help drive an I-formation or traditional run-based offense in the pipeline.

He saw a player (senior Eric Hoy) that was the Comets’ most explosive offensive threat last season but was not used as much as he would have liked. He also saw the potential of other speedy players in the Comets’ program. Then he looked in the lower grade levels and saw a good group of four or five quarterbacks in the pipeline. “It was the right time to go to this,” he said.

There are other benefits as well to the move. Gone will be the constant questions from college coaches about Clayton’s prospects relating to their ability to switch from a ground and pound-based offense to the spread approach so many college teams favor now.

“I’ll be able to show a college recruiter a complete tape of a player like Brooks Verona (a junior center) and his footwork on pass blocking instead of just having a few plays,” Pinkowski said. “You’re not making this move to help a college recruiter, but if it helps one of our student-athletes get a better shot at playing at the next level, that’s great.”

Excitement abounds

Still, the reaction of the players and the success they’re seeming to have with it is all the more reason Pinkowski is excited about the new approach. He watches those pre-practice impromptu workouts and sees assistant coach Anthony Barbour — a coach who made his name among the state’s best ever as an I-formation back, then preached the greatness of the wing-T in his previous head coaching stops — run down the field and give a leaping high-five a player whose execution of the offense resulted in an easy touchdown. He knows the Comets may have something here.

Back down the road, Lawhon observes from afar as his team practices on offense. He raves about the potential of pairing a big and talented offensive line with the assortment of 160-170=pound backs and receivers the Spartans have. His excitement is readily apparent.

“The kids are having an absolute blast with it,” Pinkowski said. “Our receivers are excited. They know that instead of being really involved in a dozen or so plays a game as a real threat, other than as a blocker, they’re going to be so many more chances. They’re involved; they’re excited.”