New Squalicum head coach Nick Lucey best described the philosophy football coaches hold throughout Whatcom County regarding offensive scheme.
“I think high school football is all about the Jimmies and Joes, not Xs and Os,” Lucey said during a May interview.
Throughout football history, countless formations, offensive schemes and ideologies have been generated with one goal in mind: how to best exploit a defense. Enough material exists to keep even the cunningest of coaches awake at night, sifting through their minds the optimal offensive to match their personnel.
The game has evolved through I-formations, single-back sets, pro sets, the wishbone formation, flexbone formation, shotgun sets and empty-back sets.
On Friday nights in Whatcom County, for the most part, fans will see two base offenses — the spread and wing-T — giving area schools a comparison of what most would consider a new-school versus old-school look.
And while both have proven effective, Mount Baker (wing-T) and Lynden (spread) played for state titles last season, how coaches arrived at their decisions to run certain schemes and the reason they do is quite fascinating.
In May 2005 Lynden football coach Curt Kramme took a trip to Southlake Carroll High School in Southlake, Texas. He wanted to learn about high school football in the Lone Star state and journeyed to one of Texas’ powerhouses to do so.
Kramme was running an I-formation at the time, but his offense had evolved into three-receiver sets with an offset fullback. In no way, though, did the Lynden coach anticipate altering his offense or changing to a spread scheme. Kramme always had been petrified of the shotgun and the opportunity for botched snaps it creates.
But his attitude quickly changed once the Lions’ coach began learning the system.
“Once I saw how simple it was, yet complicated for the defense and how it took advantage of the ability to get athletes in space, I thought that would appeal.”
And the Lions have been blessed with a plethora of athletes. For years Lynden has been regarded as a basketball school, and even with the football program’s success, many would argue hoops still are No. 1 in the town’s heart.
Kramme saw this and wanted another way to keep Lynden’s basketball players interested in coming out for football. He believed running a spread system would maximize his athletes’ potential.
A spread offense forces the defense to defend the entire field. It spreads the defense out, hence the offense’s name. This allows, as Kramme believes, for his offense to take advantage of the individual matchups he likes.
Kramme gave the spread a try and began implementing the offense during Eastern Washington Football Camp in the 2005 summer. He said if at any point the coaching staff felt they were going in the wrong direction he would change back to his old system. But 24 minutes into Lynden’s unveiling of its new offense, it became apparent the spread was staying.
“The first game we did it, we went down to Oregon to play in a kickoff classic, and we had 42 points at halftime and we haven’t looked back,” Kramme said.
While Kramme and the Lions have enjoyed a wealth of success running the system — its helped the Lions win six state titles since changing to the spread — the Lynden coach said he wouldn’t run it if it didn’t match his player’s skill set.
“I have always said if we don’t have the players to do this, we aren’t going to,” Kramme said. “It’s not the scheme in itself that matters. It’s the player executing the scheme, and if you don’t have the players to do it then you’d be foolish to try.”
Take Mount Baker for example.
Each of the past two seasons coach Ron Lepper has guided the Mountaineers to the Tacoma Dome. In 2012 Baker reached the Class 1A State Tournament semifinals. Last year the team lost to Freeman in the state title game.
The Mountaineers aren’t blessed with the same 6-foot somethings, 200-plus pounders and track-speed athletes as Lynden. So, Lepper works with what he has and takes advantage of his personnel by running a wing-T offense that’s proved overwhelmingly successful.
“Obviously, if we had athletes like Lynden has and a QB, you know, we’d probably throw the ball a little more,” Lepper said. “We don’t have a lot of guys like that, so this works for us.”
The wing-T, like the spread, takes advantage of mismatches and keeps the defense guessing. It’s run-based and revolves around deception, and if a defense takes one play away, an offensive coordinator can quickly counter with another.
“The whole idea of the wing-T, like anything else, is you want to put the defense in conflict,” Lepper said. “They might take something away, but that opens something else, and the wing-T also lends itself to maybe not having the biggest guys, because you got angles for traps and pulling.”
Like Kramme, Lepper has adjusted some of his original beliefs to connect Mount Baker’s personnel with the right offense.
Lepper said he loves to throw the ball and did so quite a bit when he first started coaching football in California. When he came to Baker 19 years ago, he introduced an I-formation, but the I is focused on giving one back a ton of carries. Lepper wanted to get other backs involved, not to mention he thinks the wing-T is a good fit in Deming.
“It’s not fancy, per se,” he said. “It’s a blue-collar offense kind of thing. It can be exciting when you’re running up and down the field, but we kind of pride ourselves in grinding it out and wearing things down. We’re not afraid to stick our nose in there play after play.”
The wing-T hasn’t proved rewarding only for small schools. New Bellingham coach Ted Flint is implementing his version of the wing-T this season, and Ferndale is one of the best examples of the offense working at a larger program.
Golden Eagles coach Jamie Plenkovich first taught the wing-T as an assistant coach at Sehome in 1989, and he’s been running the system since.
Critics argue the offense isn’t aesthetically pleasing, but no one can doubt Ferndale’s production. Consistently the Golden Eagles finish near the top of the league in total offense. Last season Cooper Clark, Joey Akers and Marcus Nightingale helped Ferndale amass 327.4 ground yards per game, and its 32.4 scoring average ranked fourth among county schools. Only Mount Baker (38.7 ppg), Lynden (33.8) and Meridian (33.8) scored more often.
For his offense to thrive, Plenkovich detailed how imperative it is to do little things correctly and at the same time understand the big picture.
“We like to see a lot of games where we have a lot of guys with a close amount of carries, because I think it puts stress on the defense when you are spreading them out to where you might go with the football,” Plenkovich said.
One of the benefits to running the same system year after year, Plenkovich said, is the continuity it creates among coaching staff and players. They know the system. They don’t waste time teaching the offense’s foundational principals.
But just because the Golden Eagles run more than they pass, doesn’t mean Plenkovich isn’t open to tweaking his offense to match his players’ talent.
“We do try to utilize our personnel within our scheme,” Plenkovich said. “You’ll see some things different about us this year that we didn’t do last year, and we’re trying to utilize the players’ ability to the best that we can.”
Blaine is a particularly unique case. When asked, Jay Dodd described his offense as multi-dimensional.
The Borderites exploiting matchups by studying their opponents week-to-week, and based off the tape, they construct an offensive game plan by using numerous formations.
“We try to keep our options open here in Blaine,” Dodd said. “We don’t run a certain system and make kids fit into our system. We try to get the best athletes to play football, and sometimes you have more wide receivers and running backs and sometimes you have strong offensive lineman and downhill blockers. We are able to have a system that kind of fits our skill set.”
In a given practice, Dodd said, his team can get into 12 to 20 different formations. He said Blaine’s plays stay the same, but the looks defenses get are ever-changing.
Overall, many of the county teams have moved to more open offenses. Nooksack Valley and Sehome both use spread-predominate looks and lately have utilized more of a passing game. And Lucey is implementing a spread system at Squalicum. Meridian’s attack is fairly balanced, but it uses plenty of wide-receiver heavy sets, and Lynden Christian is much like Meridian.
At the end of the day, Whatcom County football teams, while diverse in beliefs, have proved it’s not the scheme that makes the team successful, it’s the players operating the offensive system.