Offenses exploding with 7-on-7 competition in Texas


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In Texas, the adoption of 7-on-7 high school summer football in 1998 is considered one of the great liberating acts in the history of offensive football.

The birthplace of the triple option has since begun churning out some of the country's top passers. The NFL's No. 1 Draft pick in 2009, Georgia's Matthew Stafford, played his high school ball at Highland Park (Dallas), soon after Texas' University Interscholastic League relaxed its rules prohibiting organized athletic team activities during the summer.

It's high time to thank the forgotten folks who helped make all this running and gunning possible -- whether they liked it or not. A round of applause, please, for the 7-on-7 defenders.

For them, this isn't a pleasant endeavor. Every play is a pass. Without helmets or pads, linebackers and defensive backs can only tag the receiver like in touch football.

"You can't get frustrated," said Kacy Rodgers, who will be a senior cornerback this fall at Carroll (Southlake, Texas). "Those are the rules. You have to follow them."

"Everybody's going to catch a ball. Everybody's going to score," said T.C. Robinson, a corner at Cooper (Abilene, Texas), who has committed to Baylor.

Carroll and Cooper were two of 96 teams that qualified through regional competition for the 12th annual 7-on-7 tournament held last week at Texas A&M amid temperatures over 100 degrees. Sixty-four teams came from Classes 5A and 4A and played in Division I. The other 32 were from Class 3A or smaller and in the Division II bracket that was added two years ago.

Stony Point (Round Rock, Texas) defeated Cypress-Fairbanks (Cypress, Texas) 33-31 in Saturday afternoon's Division I final at Kyle Field. Celina (Texas) won Division II on Friday with 35-19 victory over Rice Consolidated (Altair, Texas).

Playing in a 7-on-7 game is like running a two-minute drill for 40 minutes. It's played on a 45-yard field divided into three 15-yard intervals. Getting into each 15-yard block constitutes a first down and must be achieved on three downs in the first two areas and four downs closest to the goal line.

There is no blocking (the center only snaps the ball). The quarterback can't run (if he holds the ball for four seconds, the play ends as no gain). The clock runs continuously. Five receivers are covered by seven defenders, but touchdowns occuroften. It's tough for the defense to break up button hooks or quick slants. Bombs are rare on the 45-yard field, and are usually attempted at the beginning of a possession.

"If you get a stop, you're real fortunate," said coach John Walsh of Guyer (Denton, Texas), which reached the Division I quarterfinals.

Walsh and his counterparts actually were spectators at the tournament. The UIL prohibits high school staffs from being directly involved in summer play, so coaches can't make 7-on-7 mandatory for their players.

High school coaches can only watch from the end zones while volunteers, usually dads, coach. At Lake Travis (Austin), coach Chad Morris is comfortable handing over his Cavaliers to the father of 2008 All-State senior quarterback Garrett Gilbert. Gale Gilbert was the part-time quarterback for six NFL seasons in the 1980s and '90s.

It's a rare treat to see a 7-on-7 touchdown off an interception, but Plano East (Plano, Texas) safety Lyndell Johnson, who will be a junior, did it with the help of two lateral passes.

"This is getting us better for the regular season," Johnson said.

Carroll's Rodgers said the positive part of playing 7-on-7 defense is the game improves his quickness.

"You really have to work on your hips, being able to cut, because these receivers are pretty quick," he said.

For safety of Lufkin (Texas), 7-on-7 reminds him of playing backyard ball as a kid, except that pushing over a receiver in this game results in a penalty.

"They're real strict about that this year," said Byndom, who has verbally committed to the University of Texas. "You still use your feet, and that's the best part of it. It helps with your footwork; helps you become a better man-to-man player."

Carroll won Texas' initial 7-on-7 title in '98 and went on to win a state title that season under coach Todd Dodge, who brought in a spread offense. Current Dragons coach Hal Wasson must sometimes remind his players that using special 7-on-7 plays like some other teams won't help them in the fall.

"We talk about doing what we do, stay the course," Wasson said. "If it wins games for us, 7-on-7, good. If it doesn't, that's not what we're about."

At A&M last week, two quarterbacks, who are filling the shoes of predecessors who won state titles, said the weeks of 7-on-7 work have helped them become more comfortable with their teammates.

Michael Stojkovic becomes the senior starter at Katy (Texas), which has won back-to-back championships in Class 5A. He threw five passes last season playing behind senior Parker Ray.

"It helps us get our timing down for the regular season," Stojkovic said.

Michael Brewer takes over at Lake Travis, where Gilbert helped produce two Class 4A crowns before heading to the University of Texas. Lake Travis, like Carroll, runs the spread attack.

"I can't even tell you how much it helps me, especially for the offense that we run," Brewer said, "to get out here and work with all the receivers and running backs and run all our routes against a lot of great teams."

Success in 7-on-7 doesn't necessarily mean your offense will be an aerial show in the fall, but there is no doubt that it helps. Celina, winner of three 7-on-7 state titles, has long been a running power. In reaching last season's Class 3A Division II final, Celina averaged 13 passes and 43 runs per game.

Guyer's Walsh -- whose son, J.W., is a highly recruited junior quarterback -- admitted to mixed emotions about 7-on-7.

"I'm scared to death of injuries," he said. "But when you see programs like Southlake Carroll and the Katy Tigers doing it, you feel like you've got to be thereĀ… you don't want to be a step behind."

Which is how the defenders far too often feel.

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.