The Mt. Blue football team practices Wednesday in Farmington. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

FARMINGTON — When many of the current members of the Mt. Blue High School football team were 10 or 11 years old, they were watching the Cougars spread the field and dominate opponents on the way to the 2012 Class B state championship.

“We’d come watch the game on Friday nights and we’d see those guys sling the ball around,” senior quarterback Hunter Meeks said. “They were our idols at that point.”

Coaching changes brought new offensive philosophies to Mt. Blue. Gary Parlin, who originated the Cougar Gun, retired following the 2013 season. First Jim Aylward, then Nate Quirion, came and installed run-heavy offensive systems. Now, under Scott Franzose, who brought his spread pistol no-huddle offense to Mt. Blue from Madison, the Cougars are once again spreading the field.

It’s a small sample size, just four regular season games, but Cougar Gun 2.0 is working.

Mt. Blue is 2-2, and averaging just over 34 points per game. That’s an 11 points per game improvement from last season, in which the Cougars averaged 23 points per game over nine game, including one playoff game at rival Lawrence. The Cougars play at Hampden Academy Friday night.

“Kids are a lot sharper than we give them credit for sometimes. They’re smart players and they’re upping their football IQ every day. They’ve done a remarkable job picking it up,” Franzose said.

Over the last two seasons, Mt. Blue’s offense was power-I based. When he was hired to replace Quirion last spring, Franzose watched film of his new team, and saw some things that were similar to what he planned to implement. Guards and tackle counter pulls, toss plays and traps, for example.

“Those are elements of our offense, but moving from that offense to ours is probably a little bit of a learning curve. Not that it’s necessarily more complicated, but it is a big change,” Franzose said.

“It’s a lot of downhill, pound the football, establish the run. It’s obviously a huge transition to our new spread offense,” Meeks, who also started at quarterback last season, said. “We can throw it on any play. We can run it. It’s a huge difference, and we’re learning to adapt.”

Mt. Blue’s Jimmy Archer practices rushing the quarterback during practice Wednesday in Farmington. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Meeks’ job went from handing the ball off and occasionally dropping back to pass, to reading run-pass options and carrying the ball more himself. Using the quarterback as a ball carrier was a basic tenant in Franzose’s offense at Madison, used successfully in recent seasons with players like Eric Wescott and Evan Bess moving the ball. For Meeks, the biggest transition was going from calling the play in the huddle to getting hand signals from his coach on the sideline and getting in position to take the snap.

“They picked it up well. While we need 11 guys executing on every single play, we put a lot of the decision-making in the hands of the quarterback. Whether it’s RPO (run-pass option) stuff we’re moving ahead with this week or the read stuff…. Hunter has done a good job, but the team in general has done a good job processing. They seem to be getting more and more comfortable each week,” Franzose said.

The Cougars began to learn the passing game aspects of the pistol offense during 7 on 7 games in the summer. The Cougars made progress in a preseason controlled scrimmage against Spruce Mountain and an exhibition game against Windham. Meeks felt once the team got into full pads in double sessions, progress really took off.

Mt. Blue struggled to move the ball in the first half of a season-opening 35-18 loss to Cony, losing the ball on downs or via punt on five of its first six possessions. Things began to improve in the second half. The Cougars put together two scoring drives, and that momentum carried into week two, a 43-16 win at Messalonskee in which Meeks ran for 114 yards, all in the first half. Senior running back Kevon Johnson ran for 55 yards and gained 54 in the passing game, with a pair of touchdowns. Formerly a power runner, Johnson now utilizes his athleticism in Mt. Blue’s passing game as well.

“We were able to use most of our playbook efficiently. We were able to capitalize on opportunities. Early in the year, we did have our ups and downs, but that was the game we showed everything,” Johnson said. “The coaches are great guys, very easy to talk to, so learning the playbook was really easy for us. They were always telling us what to do, but not being too hard on us.”

Added Meeks: “I wasn’t happy with the way (the Cony game) went. I got all the guys together and said ‘We need this game. This is huge.’ And we came out and dominated. We executed everything we needed to.”

The Cougars moved the ball well in week three’s 48-6 win over Brewer, with Caleb Haines running for 105 yards and three touchdowns. While last week’s 31-28 loss at Falmouth/Greely was disappointing, the offense still put up 340 yards, Franzose said, and the team was in position to win.

“It’s not that we’re not moving the ball. Now we’ve got to take advantage of opportunities,” Franzose said.

Mt. Blue’s offense looks more complicated than it is, Franzose said. In running the plays, the Cougars are asked to focus on the play side (the side of the formation to which the play is run), the back side, and each is given basic rules to follow. Five plays might actually follow one scheme, Franzose said. By breaking it down into small pieces and simple rules, the system becomes digestible.

“Don’t let it overwhelm you. They all fit the same scheme. If you have those rules, it makes it easier to process. I’m not amazed, because it’s a smart group. They’re staying on their rules,” Franzose said. “I’ve been accused of being too demanding. There’s a lot of stuff going on there. These kids, this is their first season, and they kind of chuckle about that. Once they know it, it’s really not. If they’re learning it and we’re showing that in our yardage and in the win column, we’re obviously getting it.”

While the Cougars are picking up the new offense quickly, they know they can get better. Meeks said decision making can be faster.

“It’s a lot of boom, boom decision making. We’ve all got to get better with that,” Meeks said.

Added Franzose: “It’s really execution. Just getting consistent. We had a lot of talks this week about identity. Who do we want to be? We’re still getting to know each other here. I love this group, and I plan on being around a long time. We’re 2-2. We’re right in the middle of the pack, where we need to be. We’ve got some winnables coming up.”

The final four opponents on Mt. Blue’s schedule enter the second half of the season with a combined 3-13 record. Franzose is right. The Cougars do have winnable games ahead, but only if they continue to improve. Mt. Blue has embraced the pistol spread. The offense is a new look on an old theme for the Cougars.

“It’s fun. It’s exciting. Ask the fans, they love watching it,” Meeks said. “It’s a great time for all of us.”

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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