Behind the high-scoring offenses in Texas high school football
Let’s go to the scoreboard.
El Paso Franklin 77, Midland 56.
DeSoto 55, Dallas Skyline 53.
Atascocita 71, Channelview 55.
Mission Veterans Memorial 62, Corpus Christi Veterans Memorial 55.
By the way, did we stipulate that these are football scores?
All of the above were recorded during this year’s Texas high school football playoffs, emblematic of a season in which games have become 48-minute offensive extravaganzas, with teams frequently chewing through scoreboard LEDs with an average of a touchdown every four minutes.
As the season comes to an end with this week’s University Interscholastic League championship games in Arlington, more than a hundred UIL teams have scored more than 500 points in schedules ranging from 10 to 15 games. Forty-four have topped 600 points, 14 scored more than 700 and three more than 800.
In Class 6A Division I, which will feature North Shore against Duncanville in Saturday night’s title game at AT&T Stadium, 40 percent of teams topped 40 points in the 62 games leading up to the final, capped by the El Paso Franklin-Midland game that produced 133 points.
If you’re of a certain age, you may recall the well-loved bromide about defense winning championships. But if that’s still the case, how in the name of Mean Joe Greene, John Randle, Bob Lilly, Tommy Nobis and Mike Singletary, all of them storied Texas-bred defensive standouts, does one explain this statistical carnage?
“No defense, I guess,” said Atascocita offensive lineman Kenyon Green, whose team scored 666 points in a 13-game season — 50 points a game.
“Guys today are just bigger, stronger, faster, better,” said North Shore defensive lineman Tony Bradford, the Touchdown Club of Houston’s defensive player of the year. “You’ve got to be a true dog to play the game these days.”
“It’s tempo and energy,” said Fort Bend Marshall’s Korey King, whose team will play next weekend for the Class 5A Division II title. “We play faster, and then we play faster.”
There are any number of reasons for the record-smashing point totals posted across the state over the last decade. Some reflect the way in which the game is legislated and officiated, and some reflect the degree to which offensive coordinators have realized teams can advance north to south by forcing defense to cover the field from east to west.
“It’s a different style of game with the way that people are attacking the width of the field,” said Jon Kyl of North Shore, this year’s Houston high school coach of the year. “In the past, it was more of a vertical game. Now, people spread the field.”
As is the case at every level of football, the passing game is the primary engine for the current explosion of offense.
At least 70 UIL quarterbacks threw for at least 2,000 yards during the 10-game regular season, and seven more topped 3,000, including 3,849 by Peyton Bevel of Class 2A Stamford and 3,176 by Chase Griffin of Class 5A Hutto, this year’s Gatorade Texas high school player of the year — this, mind you, in a state that didn’t record its first 3,000-yard passer, Todd Dodge of Port Arthur Jefferson, until 1980.
“It’s a different game,” said Atascocita coach Craig Stump, who succeeded Dodge as Jefferson’s quarterback in the early 1980s. “Back then, nobody was really worried about defending the pass. They ran just one pass coverage, and we were using sprint-out passes and screens and spreading things out and adding receivers.
“It’s hard now to play defense. A lot of the times, the wide receivers are more athletic than the defensive backs. You may have one really good DB, but you’ll have four receivers, and they’re all skilled. A lot of times people just throw it up and let the receiver go get it.”
Which begs the question: Would Craig Stump enjoy playing quarterback in today’s system?
“Oh, gosh, yes,” he said.
Along with players like Stump, Dodge, Detmer, Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Drew Brees and Nick Foles and others, the list of contributors to today’s turbo-charged offense is a lengthy one.
By one way of thinking, it dates back to two former teammates on the mid-1960s San Antonio Toros pro team — Ronnie Thompson, who went on to coach Dodge and Stump at Port Arthur, and Sonny Detmer, the father of Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer and former NFL quarterback Koy Detmer, both early theorists of the aerial game.
Along with outside influences such as Rice assistant coach Mike Heimerdinger, Dennis Erickson of Washington State and Miami and BYU coach Lavell Edwards, the list of home-grown passing game wizards since Thompson and Detmer includes some well-known coaches as well.
Among them: Hal Mumme (Copperas Cove), Rusty Dowling (Mission, San Antonio Jay), Gary Malesky (San Antonio Holmes), Rod Hess (Eastland), Ron Schroeder (Austin Westlake), Sam Harrell (Ennis), Mike Snead (Grapevine), Dodge (Southlake Carroll, Austin Westlake) and, perhaps, most importantly, Art Briles (Stephenville), who became the first pass-oriented coach to win state titles consistently in the 1990s.
All, as did others, advanced the way the passing game evolved from 1980s into the current decade.
But if there’s one element that triggered the offensive era of Texas football, all agree it’s the mid-1990s addition of 7-on-7 summer passing leagues. And if there’s any one man who deserves an outsized share of attention for promoting 7-on-7, most observers would point to Dick Olin, the former coach at Baytown Lee who helped organize the first Houston tournament in 1996 and the first statewide tournament in 1998.
Olin, whose son, Drew Tate, set passing records in the early 2000s and at age 34 played this year with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, acknowledges the importance of 7-on-7, which enables quarterbacks and receivers and, to a degree, defensive backs, to practice almost year-round. But 7-on-7 isn’t the only factor in play, he said.
“7-on-7 made skill an important commodity, and the quarterback level went through the roof,” Olin said. “But there are other things. Coaches are increasingly using big guys, basketball-type players, as receivers.
“The rules have changed. They went from five to seven officials, and there are things they see now that they didn’t see before. And think of the hash marks. They’ve been moved in closer to the middle of the field, and the short side of the field isn’t as short as it used to be. That line about the sideline being the 12th defender isn’t as true.”
The latest wrinkle in offensive theory is the run-pass option, or RPO, a variation on a familiar option style of football that is more feasible now because of rules changes. Offensive linemen are allowed to move three yards past the line of scrimmage before the quarterback throws the ball, and they are also allowed to head downfield if the quarterback completes a pass to a receiver behind the line of scrimmage.
“A lot of defensive-minded coaches hate it,” Olin said. “But they use it because they realize in order to be successful, they have to take advantage of the changing rules.”
As tempting as it might be for old-timers to wring their hands and rend their garments as scores climb higher and higher, Olin said defense remains a fundamental part of the game.
“Trust me, coaches still work defense,” Olin said. “But it appears that the offense has the advantage. Skills are better. Quarterbacks now throw the ball really well. Linemen can block using their hands. These things are hard to defend.”
In line with Olin’s point, it’s noteworthy the degree to which some of the final teams left standing in this year’s playoffs are stout on defense as well. Duncanville allowed just 60 points this year entering its semifinal contest against Allen, emerging with a 44-35 win to advance to the title game against North Shore.
At North Shore, Kyl’s defense held opponents to just over 10 points per game, capped by a 51-10 rout of Austin Lake Travis in Saturday’s semifinal. Fort Bend Marshall was held to its lowest point total of the year in its semifinal win over Corpus Christi Calallen, but defense helped produce a 19-14 victory.
Katy, Houston’s dominant team of the last decade, this year allowed 193 points, averaging 14.8 points a game. Seventy-four points came in two losses to North Shore, meaning the Tigers allowed just 9.8 points allowed in their remaining 11 games.
Still, Katy coach Eddie Joseph said, “It’s tough to play these days with the way people spread the field. Angles are different. Your linebackers have to play in space. You have to make tackles in the open field. The rules have taken a lot of the physical combat out for safety reasons.
“It’s the nature of the game, and it’s what the kids want to do. They want high-scoring games.”
Fans like it, too, even as it drives them crazy, as El Paso Franklin coach Daren Warren saw during his team’s 77-56 win over Midland.
“The halftime score (56-49) was like a basketball game. People couldn’t believe it,” Warren said. “One minute you’re cheering and excited, and then they would score again and you’d be upset. You couldn’t get comfortable. No one could sit down.”
As offenses adapt to new rules and practices, Keith Kilgore, the former Fort Bend ISD athletic director who helps coordinate the Touchdown Club of Houston’s high school awards presentation, said defensive theories are changing as well, particularly at linebacker.
“Linebackers now have to really be able to run. They look like cornerbacks used to look,” Kilgore said. “It takes a different athlete to play the position. You have to be able to tackle in the open field, because if you can’t, an eight-yard play becomes an 80-yard play.”
Former Giants linebacker Gary Reasons, who calls Big 12 games for Fox Sports Net and will help call this weekend’s high school title games, said at 6-4 and 234 pounds, he probably couldn’t play linebacker in today’s game.
“It’s just different — a more explosive, fan-friendly game,” Reasons said. “The defenders aren’t worse. It’s just that there is a premium now on offense, and the rules allow offense to perform a lot better.”
While linebackers can get some work on pass coverage in 7-on-7, the game doesn’t offer a role for pass rushers.
“I don’t think that you can practice pass rushing without pads,” Kyl said. “That’s the beauty of 7-on-7, that it can be played without pads. I don’t think there’s a safe alternative now to train pass rushers in the same way.”
Despite the rules tilt toward offense, Reasons said defense will improve as players learn at an early age how to tackle in such fashion that they will avoid unnecessary roughness penalties.
“There’s a teaching level on how to tackle in space — armpit level and below in making contact,” he said. “Putting your face in somebody’s chest, you don’t do that anymore.”
Kyl also believes that the current trend of grouping a team’s best athletes on offense will change as coaching philosophies change on the college level.
“Look at the people who are getting college jobs now. A lot of defensive guys are becoming head coaches, and they are searching for answers,” he said. “Eventually, things will shift back to defense. And then we’ll see it roll around again.”