NFL players may be the most talented, complete athletes in the world. Millions of people are understandably drawn to the joys of watching Peyton Manning surgically pick apart a defense, Ray Lewis viciously hunt down a ball carrier, or Adrian Peterson flying upfield like the Silver Surfer.
However, NFL (and college) coaches are held in check by tradition and the makeup of the professional game. NFL rules forbid or discourage many exotic playbooks that show up in lower levels of gridiron battle.
NCAA rules are less prohibitive, but for every team that runs a unique system, such as Georgia Tech's flexbone or Boise State's endless multiple offenses, there are 10 Auburns or Oklahomas: schools that run largely pro-style schemes in order to attract pro-prospect recruits.
NFL or SEC football usually comes down to which players can run faster and hit harder, because everyone is essentially running the same plays. For those who watch football for its complex ballet and not individual stars, it can be like watching a chess tournament with the same moves played again and again. The winning team usually just has larger and more durable pieces.
Not so on high school gridirons. The vast spectrum of prep football in America is underrated for its color and innovation. Where else can you find a team with a 46-game winning streak, a school that never punts on fourth down, or formations with 10 eligible receivers spanning the field?
Regrettably, outside of hotbeds like Texas or Florida, the "fanbase" of high school ball is limited to parents, townsfolk who show up at games to chitchat and only occasionally glance at the field, and a few woebegone football purists (such as your humble reporter).
Worse yet, there are few highlights or news articles out there for fans who would otherwise take an interest. Where to begin?
Never fear, the Geek has you covered. The following glossary can help you get acquainted with the uniquely fascinating (and often amusing) world of teenage handegg.
Terms (and some notable teams)
Up -- The term "up" refers to a team that is at the apex of a talent cycle, meaning that their biggest and most skillful kids are juniors and seniors. If your 10 most gifted athletes are physically mature and game-experienced, your team is up.
If you're up, don't get too cocky. You might graduate a few too many seniors and be an also-ran next season. Plus, coaches who brag on their "up" teams tend to make a few enemies in their conferences. High school teams run high on emotion, and filling up opposition bulletin boards is a dangerous practice.
Example usage: "I hate that coach from East. He was strutting around at the rules meeting, because they are up this year."
Down -- The opposite of up. If your best five players are freshmen and sophomores who are still experiencing puberty, you're down. Having a winning season while you're "down" is considered a major accomplishment.
In Missouri, Valle Catholic of St. Genevieve actually won the 2011 1A state championship while dealing with a "down" roster. Only the fact that Valle is a private school which recruits kids right out of fifth-grade playgrounds makes this feat anything but an historic miracle.
Example usage: "We hated to lose the conference, but it's no big deal. We're down right now."
The Veer -- A classic high school offense, emphasizing the option running game. When blocked and ran effectively by a disciplined, talented team, the Veer can be a devastating ball-control attack. De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., has achieved staggering success in 29 seasons of running the Veer, while throwing passes about as often as Halley's Comet is visible from the Earth. While old-school playbooks such as the Wishbone and Wing-T have been rendered largely obsolete by sophisticated, blitzing defenses, the Veer continues to enjoy great success on a prep level.
That 4th down team -- The Pulaski Academy Bruins of Little Rock, Ark., are known nationally as the team that "always goes for it on fourth down," and Pulaski's head coach Kevin Kelley may stand up as the most innovative football coach in America.
Besides always using four downs on offense, the Bruins never field a punt, almost always kick onsides (the playbook includes dozens of onside-kick schemes), and use a no-huddle offense full of trick plays and deception. Pulaski opens up regular-season play against Chaminade, Calif., this Friday night in a nationally promoted contest.
The Ski-Gun -- Perhaps the most cutting-edge formation in American football belongs to the Muskegon Big Red of Muskegon, Mich. Head Coach Shane Fairfield's playbook combines the spread "pistol" offense with the flexbone option attack utilized by Georgia Tech and Navy.
Because the backs can also operate as slot receivers, the Ski-Gun allows the Big Red to throw bubble screens and quick slants as easily as any "spread" team, while constantly threatening both the flexbone and pistol option.
Muskegon has won three state championships with the Ski-Gun, leading the Geek to wonder why no college team has yet adopted the ahead-of-its-time formation. The Big Red just opened their 2012 season by beating powerful Orchard Lake St. Mary's, 21-14.
The A-11 -- This scheme features as many as 10 eligible receivers on any given play. Because almost anyone can catch or run with the ball, defenses facing the A-11 are forced to either blitz ferociously or get caught up in a dizzying morass of coverages.
The offense helped Piedmont High School in California turn their program around in 2009, but since then, the National Federation of State High School Associations has banned some elements of the scheme in response to coaches' protests.
At this point, the A-11 is either a brilliant tactic or a perpetual illegal formation penalty, depending largely on what state you play in.
Prep coaches use an extraordinary number of clichés when discussing a team’s performance. Perhaps this is due to the relative lack of media attention paid to High School games, which leads to a preponderance of sideline generals who are great with a clipboard but intimidated by AM radio.
In the Midwest, where many prep coaches (and announcers) have only ever traveled out of state to buy livestock or visit Tom Landry’s grave, the chorus of Friday night clichés can reach staggering proportions.
Here are a few of the Geek’s personal favorites.
We shot ourselves in the foot -- By far the most popular prep football cliché, this means your team could have won by three touchdowns if not for hurting themselves with penalties, turnovers, or being distracted by a risqué pom-pom squad. Sometimes, the observation is accurate. But just as often, it is simply a way to mask the depressing truth that your line was outweighed by an aggregate three hundred pounds and the opposing QB runs a 4.5.
Example usage: “So, coach Farmer, what was the biggest contributing factor in your Anywhere Prep Dragons losing 65-0 to the Wright City Wringers?” “Well, I tell you what, we shot ourselves in the foot.”
You can’t put the ball on the ground – You can’t fumble and win games. Often, after a big loss in which his team fumbled, a sorrowful 50-something coach will repeat the phrase over and over again as a mantra of regret.
Example usage: “You hate to get this far in the playoffs and lose, but y’know, we put the ball on the ground. You can’t put the ball on the ground. We tell these kids that all the time, but y’know, sometimes they just put the ball on the ground.”
You don’t play football in shorts – Summer practice doesn’t mean anything. A good way for coaches to downplay preseason hype, this phrase is also popular in the college ranks. NFL coaches will avoid this cliche, however, probably because NFL training camp is so obviously important, and because pro coaches are now ridiculed for not saying what's on their minds during the offseason.
Example usage: “Y’all might think it’s significant that Smith scored six touchdowns in our first practice, while last year’s starter Jones showed up two hours late with a hangover. But you know what, you don’t play football in shorts.”
The kids played real hard tonight – Another moth-eaten phrase, this is either used by a jubilant coach who just saw his team win a tough contest over a rival, or (slightly less often) by a coach whose team played over its head but lost to a superior opponent.
Example usage – “I am so happy to see the progress our boys have made here at East. We just love beating those clowns over at West, I mean, the kids played real hard tonight.”
Alternate example usage: “The kids played hard in this loss tonight and we’re proud of ‘em. That QB for East is a load to handle, but let me tell you, our kids played real hard.”
Going/Moving/Looking forward – This is a more modern cliché, often uttered by young coaches who idolize corporate-entrepreneur NFL types. It is often used when a star goes down with a devastating injury. Not wanting to publicly admit that the season is shot, a spike-buck head coach will offer versions of this phrase compulsively, to try to boost the morale of players and fans.
Example usage: “Well we hate to lose our five-fold leading rusher before the Wright City game, but going forward, the fact is we have 40 kids here who are looking forward to the challenge as a team, and our job is to get them ready moving forward, as our season goes forward.”
These young men – Another product of the Corporate age, this cliché is notable for its context. It is usually spoken by well-meaning but clueless TV/radio announcers who emphasize, ad nauseum, that the scores of high school games mean absolutely nothing under any circumstances, compared to the life lessons and values instilled on the children in pads.
Example usage: (TV Announcer) "Bob, that was an interesting play, considering East just won the state championship on a six-lateral desperation kick return just as a tornado touched down next to the field and blew the last potential tackler away at the goal line. But you know, it just doesn’t mean anything compared to the safety and goal-oriented life success of these young men, going forward.”
And that’s all this young man has for you. But going forward, be sure to check out the Geek’s weekly high school football column, posted every Saturday here at Bleacher Report.
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