Varsity Extra

Spread offenses limit impact of prep running backs

Mountain View coach Judd Benedick recalls breaking down game film as an assistant at Centennial in the early 2000s. His assignment was to figure out how to stop Meridian, and seeing the spread offense for the first time at the high school level, the coach raised on I-formations and pro sets didn’t know what to make of it.

Fast forward 15 years, and Benedick and nearly every other program in the 5A and 4A Southern Idaho Conference runs a version of the offense. And the spread of the spread has become so complete that a young assistant today watching film of an I-formation would scratch their head the same way Benedick did earlier.

“You just don’t have a lot of teams that have a feature back that runs out of pro-style offense or an offense featuring a running back,” Benedick said. “Growing up, that’s how it was — a ton of pro-style formations, I-formations. And the offense always revolved around the tailback.”

The 2,305 yards Vallivue’s Drew Wright ran for in 2007 stand as the last time a 5A or 4A Southern Idaho Conference running back topped 2,000 yards in the regular season. And with the trend toward passing and spreading the ball around, he could remain alone in that club for a long while.

Eagle coach Paul Peterson points to the spread option Urban Meyer popularized at Utah and the fly offense that came out of Division III Willamette as the root of the spread’s proliferation at the high school level. Vince Young’s performance with Texas against USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl stands out as Benedick’s “aha” moment.

But wherever the influence originated from, it brings the same philosophy: spreading athletes in space and forcing the defense into the most difficult feat in football — open-field tackling.

“The games have turned into as much as basketball to find 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s in space,” Peterson said. “You’re not just featuring one guy pounding in a smaller percentage of the field. You’re trying to utilize all the weapons to create space wherever it is.”

And for coaches outside the football powerhouses, the offense has taken an even stronger hold as a way to level the field. Boise coach Bob Clark switched to a pass-heavy spread attack when he one day looked at a 5-foot-9, 150-pound starting guard and realized the mountain he was asking him to climb as a run-blocker.

And without a stud running back to lean on, Clark said he can distribute the ball around to multiple receivers and backs who can focus on one skill they excel at, whether that’s stretching the field vertically, hauling in quick screens or slashing through a six-man defensive box.

“I guarantee I have the smallest numbers (of players in the conference),” Clark said. “But every year I start 22 players. I’m not getting everybody beat up. More guys get to touch the ball and more guys come out saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a shot. I’ll come out.’ ”

Even when a stud athlete comes along, the spread has changed how schools use him. Mountain View’s Josh Buss represents the closest recent threat to 2,000 yards at the 5A level when he rushed for 1,884 regular-season yards in 2013. But the Mavericks also used the future Montana linebacker as a weapon in the passing game, where he hauled in 19 passes for 307 yards. Those touches outside of the backfield could have vaulted him past the 2,000 threshold.

“We tried to get him the ball as many ways as possible,” Benedick said. “He was our feature back. But we’re also spreading him out, splitting him out and throwing him a quick screen — any way we could get touches for him, where we used to just hand him the ball in the backfield.”

Peterson believes football remains in the early days of the spread with plenty to still figure out. He remembers a conversation with Hawaii coach Norm Chow when Chow visited Eagle to recruit quarterback Tanner Mangum as the offensive coordinator at UCLA. Chow served as the offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans when they drafted Young, and Chow wanted to install the spread option to take advantage of Young’s talents. But former Titans coach Jeff Fisher told him it wouldn’t work in the NFL.

“I think we’re still in the pioneering days,” Peterson said. “Look at what Gus Malzahn is doing at Auburn and getting a lot more creative with formations in order to get back to the same premise, to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically.”

But Benedick maintains football is cyclical. Offensives continually lead innovation, forcing defenses to catch up. And once they do, the offense starts all over again.

“Shoot, a while ago, everyone was all excited about the wildcat,” Benedick said. “And all that is is the single wing. Even the spread is a flexed version of the flexbone, triple-option football.”

Benedick doesn’t know when, but someday, a coach searching for an edge will dust off an old I-formation playbook and line up with a tight end, perhaps even two, with their hand in the dirt and start racking up yards.

And some young assistant assigned to break down game film will lean back in his chair and try to decipher what exactly he’s watching.

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