High School Sports

Prep football teams have passing fancy in summer

Arroyo Grande High’s Brent VanderVeen and the rest of the area’s quarterbacks got the opportunity to hone their skills at summer passing tournaments. 

Tribune photo by Joe Johnston
Arroyo Grande High’s Brent VanderVeen and the rest of the area’s quarterbacks got the opportunity to hone their skills at summer passing tournaments. Tribune photo by Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The fundamental appeal to longtime Central Coast high school football coaches of 7-on-7 passing events that are held during the summer hasn’t changed much over the years.

The growing scenery around the offseason activity throughout the country, however, has raised concerns about its direction for the future.

Padless, helmetless 7-on-7 football has no blocking or tackling. At its core, 7-on-7 is simply meant to fine-tune passing offenses and defenses, as well as to enhance team camaraderie for the fall. While there isn’t a pass rush, the quarterback typically has 3 1⁄2 seconds to unload the ball to a receiver.

Several PAC 7 and Los Padres League schools partake in such events and have for decades. Many local schools’ summer schedules consist of nearly 25 games.

It started as a learning tool

Multiple local coaches said more 7-on-7 coaches in recent years place too much emphasis on winning passing games instead of using them for their original intent. Arroyo Grande coach Tom Goossen said some teams will even change their systems solely to win a tournament.

Arroyo Grande’s longstanding tournament, which is held annually in July, is different from many newer ones in that it has no officials and doesn’t post standings. This summer, it featured more than 20 teams from throughout the state, and one from New Mexico.

“I think they like the way we do our tournament because it’s a lot of games without that pressure of trying to win each game,” Goossen said. “It’s trying to get better.”

Linemen-specific events featuring weightlifting exercises, agility drills and moving heavy objects at a timed pace have also become more commonplace in recent years, a long-awaited development that area coaches love because those players don’t feel left out.

“We always try and get every kid in every game to find out those kids who just love competing,” Goossen said. “There are some (schools) where they keep the first-team guys in the whole time, so it’s interesting how other coaches view this. Any time you keep score, you want to win, but I think it’s important during that time you keep everything in perspective and know it’s just a passing-league game.”

Morro Bay coach John Andree has similar views.

“The biggest thing is, we use it as kind of a gauge to get them to compete — to start competing,” Andree said. “Not so much winning and losing as it is to compete on every play.”

Paso Robles coach Rich Schimke estimated the Bearcats’ win-loss record from this summer’s passing schedule at 4-18, which wasn’t much worse than it was in 2010. After Paso Robles went on to win the PAC 7 title in undefeated fashion and advanced to the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Western Division playoffs last season, though, Bearcats players were hard-pressed to recall their passing record from the previous summer.

“I told the guys this year in the summer, ‘Do you remember what our record was last year in our 7-on-7 passing tournaments?’ ” Schimke said. “Not one kid could remember.

“Is it important? Yeah. Is it the end of the world? Absolutely not.”

A threat to multi-sport athletes?

Numerous passing tournaments that would’ve started in June in past years are more often taking place months earlier as the football offseason has steadily expanded.

“These kids, I want them to play other sports,” Schimke said. “If they’re not playing another sport, I want them to be developing, lifting or working out, whether you run track, play baseball or wrestle.”

While San Luis Obispo plays a few passing games, Tigers coach David Kelley maintains a shorter summer schedule than most programs because he, too, doesn’t want to push single-sport specialization upon his players.

“Any time we can get kids competing and playing (any football), we’re doing a good thing, so it’s great in that element,” Kelley said. “At the same time, we ask a lot of our kids in this culture today.

“Trevor MacLeod is a two-, three-sport athlete. To ask him to be away from his family again and again, what are we trying to do here? Trying to make professional football players or trying to make professional men?”

Atascadero coach Vic Cooper also doesn’t want the evolving offseason climate to influence his players to give up other aspects of their high school experience. He mentioned 2011 grad Weston Walker, a current Cal Poly freshman long snapper, as an example. In addition to football, Walker was also an all-county power forward in basketball and a starting pitcher in baseball.

“He tried to be at everything,” Cooper said. “We’re very lucky here that coaches share their athletes. There are some schools that say, ‘Hey, if you’re going to be a baseball guy, you’re here all summer.’ ”

The more intensive the football offseason becomes, coaches are forced to walk a fine line between letting their players enjoy life away from the game while simultaneously not falling behind.

“We’re very aware of trying not to wear out the kids, but at the same time, we get a lot of work done (over the summer),” Cooper said. “If I had my druthers, if I could get everybody else in the PAC 7 or Western Division to not do 7-on-7 tournaments during the summer, I’d go for that. (But) if all the other teams are going to do it, we’ve got to kind of keep up with it, too.”

NCAA could limit regional all-star teams

A significant difference of Central Coast-based 7-on-7 from other parts of the country is regionally assembled all-star travel rosters. More and more in recent years, the latter types of 7-on-7 squads are being financed and managed by people who often don’t have ties to the high schools their teams’ players come from.

Former NFL receiver Keyshawn Johnson, for example, coaches an Under Armour-sponsored, Los Angeles-based club, The 1925s, which won the Badger Sport title two months ago on the campus of SMU.

Johnson and others who run such nationally high-profile outfits maintain that they do so to help provide exposure for kids and to help them find a right college fit.

Indeed, 7-on-7 generates a buzz. One of the leading college football recruiting websites, Rivals.com, now operates State7on7.com, which posts recaps of statewide tournaments. Another website, PrimeTimeSportz.com, lists a 7-on-7 all-tournament team for Texas ninth-graders.

While the NCAA forbids college coaches from attending 7-on-7 events, many high school coaches fear that those who run such star-studded teams not only stand to minimize their guidance for their high school players, but also may steer certain recruits to particular colleges, possibly resulting in penalties affecting the students down the line.

Earlier this month, ESPN aired a special on college football recruiting, “Blueprint for Change,” in which coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops praised scholastic-based 7-on-7 but condemned the all-star alternative for those reasons.

Also during the show, former Big East Conference commissioner Mike Tranghese opined that unless the NCAA cracks down on all-star 7-on-7, college football will become like college basketball, where the high school season is often an afterthought in the recruiting process when compared to the AAU circuit.

The growth of all-star 7-on-7 is related to the increasing number of camps and combines popping up across the country, venues that pack in scores of potential Division I prospects to evaluate them all in one place. Most aren’t cheap, and some can be accompanied by hollow promises of how attending might help a player’s recruitment.

“With the Internet age and the media right now and all the scouting services and recruiting services, there are all those snakes out there just trying to get a buck out of a kid,” Cooper said. “It’s starting to go in the wrong direction.

“To me, (7-on-7) is my football team putting in some time learning routes, getting timing down, learning coverages, making reads and getting better during the summer. To a lot of guys, it’s just time to make a buck off of a bunch of kids. It’s getting dangerously close to club basketball in that respect, and I hope it doesn’t continue in that direction.”