Cleveland High football coach Scott Riley never has his team punt, except when it does.
The seemingly contrary options are possible because Cleveland most often goes to the line of scrimmage in fourth-down situations in its own territory with the option of punting or running a play. Once it crosses midfield, Riley doesn’t consider punting.
Cleveland punts from its regular spread formation and quarterback Aaron Farmer is the punter.
“If we get to the line and the other team has a return man back, we’re probably going to run a play,” Riley said. “We believe we have the offensive advantage if they have a player back. If they don’t have a return man, we may kick it low and try to get a good roll, 35 yards or so downfield.”
The philosophy has proven effective if unorthodox.
Cleveland has developed a good defense, especially since the third game of the season, but instead of kicking and playing a field-position game, Riley believes in turning up the offensive pressure by using all four downs.
The strategy might put the Cleveland defense in some difficult situations, but it also has helped the Rams average 40.3 points per game and build a 38-11 record since the program began with a 28-27 loss to North Johnston in 2010.
In the school’s 3 1/2 seasons, Cleveland has never been shut out. Havelock came close in the fourth round of the 2011 3A playoffs, winning 64-7.
But other than that one game, Cleveland has scored 21 or more points in every varsity game it has played.
The “go for it” style evolved while Riley was an assistant coach at Harnett Central High under Marc Morris, who left to start the Cleveland program in 2010.
“Our defense played great in a game that we lost in 2007,” Riley said. “We lost because we had two punts blocked. Marc said that we just wouldn’t punt again unless we had to.”
The strategy erased blocked punts, most errant snaps and big returns. It also means the Rams sometimes turn the ball over on downs.
During a 44-21 loss to Garner this year, the Rams went for a first down on six fourth-down situations, including fourth-and-3 at the Cleveland 28 and fourth-and-6 at the Cleveland 29. The Rams converted three of the attempts, leading to a pair of scores.
Riley is willing to take those odds, and some national statistics point to the validity of the strategy.
Kevin Kelley, who has a 124-22 record at Pulaski (Ark.) Academy, crunched three years of college football data (high school stats were not available) and learned that teams score 77 percent of the time when they gain possession inside the 40. The percentage jumps to 90 percent inside the 10.
The small difference in scoring efficiency inside the 40 or inside the 10 makes the gamble a good one to Riley, especially outside the 10.
One key to the system is that the quarterback needs to be the punter.
“Usually, your quarterback is a good athlete,” Riley said. “They should be able to kick a little.”
And the Rams don’t expect a towering punt 40 yards downfield.
“We get the roll,” Riley said. “Especially if they don’t have a return man back.”
Riley also tries to avoid big kickoff returns. The Rams use onside kicks as often as they kick off.
“If the other team has a really good return man, he may return the kick to near midfield,” Riley said. “And he could break one for a touchdown.
“If they are going to get the ball near midfield, we might as well do an onsides kick where we have a chance to get the ball.”
Kelley’s numbers show the average starting position after a kickoff is the 33. The average starting position after a failed onside kick is the 47.
Is a loose-ball opportunity worth 14 yards? Riley thinks so.
“When I was named as head coach, the first question I was asked by some fans was if I was going to kick it deep on kickoffs,” Riley said. “They still cheer if we ever kick it deep.”