It was a subtle move, but it may have been the key to victory for the Lawrence High School football team when it played Cony High last Friday night.
The Rams arrived in Fairfield as the top passing team in the Pine Tree Conference Class A, averaging just over 42 points per game. To counter Cony’s high-scoring spread offense, the Bulldogs tweaked their defense. Josh Doolan, normally a linebacker, played safety. The move gave Lawrence an extra man to drop into coverage, and it worked. Doolan intercepted Cony quarterback Ben Lucas twice, and the Bulldogs won 27-6.
“Everyone says we were pretty vanilla on offense in that game, but we had to devote quite a bit of (practice) time to our defense,” Lawrence head coach John Hersom said. “We didn’t really have a lot of time for the offense to really expand or do anything different. You kind of have to pick your weeks, as to when you can do some things and when you can’t.”
Over the last few years, the spread offense has become more and more popular in Maine high school football. Six high school football teams in central Maine either run a spread offense full-time, or have some plays using the system. Defensive coaches are becoming more and more creative at stopping it.
“One thing I’ve noticed, we’ve certainly got to be a heck of a lot more multiple now. You really commit a lot more time to defense during the week,” Hersom said.
The days of lining up five defensive linemen, two linebackers, and four defensive backs and defending a smash mouth run game are long over. As offenses evolved from playing between the hash marks to using the entire field, defenses needed players who could cover sideline to sideline.
“Since I’ve been in Class A, there’s always one or two teams running the spread,” Messalonskee interim head coach Chapin LaBelle said.
One of the first teams to run the spread offense in Maine was Mt. Blue, in the mid-1990s. Now that they play in Class B, the Cougars see more five-man fronts. When they played in Class A, defenses approached the Cougars differently.
“In Class A, we saw more 4-2 fronts (four down linemen and two linebackers), with two strong safeties in the slot, and they’d play three deep,” Parlin said. “We always tell the kids to count the number of guys in the box and make the determination… It’s called the spread for a reason.”
The change Parlin has seen is the result of depth. With more players on a typical Class A roster, a coach is able to make more adjustments.
“A lot of years, we just didn’t have (players),” LaBelle said.
Sometimes, experience isn’t as important as athleticism. Messalonskee’s secondary is young, with sophomores Zach Mathieu and Jake Dexter starting, but features some of the best athletes on the team. The one senior in the group is Josh Woodard, and he’s able to serve as a coach on the field, LaBelle said.
“(Woodard) can run the secondary. It’s nice to have him back there,” LaBelle said.
At Lawrence, Spencer Carey is a three-year starter at safety. Twenty years ago, it’s likely Carey, who also plays quarterback, would have been a linebacker, if he played defense at all. Now, Carey roams the Lawrence secondary, able to come up to stop the run or drop back in coverage.
In the past, an athlete of Carey’s size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and skill would need to play closer to the line of scrimmage. Now, with more teams throwing the ball, his skills are perfect for defending the spread offense.
Players like Carey, Woodard and Jordan Whitney of Mt. Blue are almost playing a new position, a hybrid defensive back-linebacker who can come up and help against the run, but can cover the quickest of receivers, too.
“We seem pretty strong, at least this year, with a number of athletes who can play the secondary. We’re at the luxury where we have that this year,” Hersom said. “In other years we haven’t had that luxury. It’s definitely a change from the way it used to be several years ago.”
Over the last couple of years, Mt. Blue used the 6-6, 200-pound Cam Sennick as a safety. A generation ago, Sennick could have been a defensive end.
“I study the game. When I go to clinics, college coaches, a lot of them, the first thing they say is ‘You’ve got to put athletes out there,’ ” Parlin said. “When we build our defense, we take our two best down linemen and they play tackle. The rest have to be very athletic.”
Stopping the spread is not always about defending the pass. While Cony runs a spread offense and throws the ball more than 30 times each game, other teams look to utilize the entire field to find running lanes.
“Look at Leavitt,” Parlin said. “Leavitt’s a spread team, but they’re a running team.”
As more teams play the spread offense, defenses will get better at defending it. The spread isn’t the exotic beast it was when Mt. Blue first unveiled the Cougar Gun offense years ago.
“I think it’s getting to that point, where we’re getting more comfortable with it. The preparation we do over the summer, I think that helps us a little bit, when we’re able to get into the 7-on-7 competition. That helps us get to a point where it’s not such a big deal when teams are in shotgun,” Hersom said.
Knowing what’s going to happen and being able to stop it are different things, Parlin said. Offensive coordinators are going to come up with a new wrinkle, and send defensive coordinators back to the dry erase board, searching for answers.
“That’s why it’s fun,” Parlin said. “If your guys are better than their guys, you’re probably going to win.”
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242