July 23, 2008

A-11 offense could be the future of football

When quarterback Jeremy George entered the Piedmont (Calif.) High School football coaches' office to talk to Kurt Bryan, he noticed an unusual formation on the dry-erase board.

At first, George thought the formation was meant for the punt team.

No, Bryan said, that's our new offense.

George looked back to the board and was a little confused.

"Initially, the first thought I had was, 'I'm pretty sure that's illegal,' " George said. "I've got to admit I thought it was a little crazy. I think most of the players thought it was crazy. A lot of people were a little skeptical."

And for good reason.

Bryan, Piedmont's coach, and Steve Humphries, the director of football operations, had developed an offense in which all 11 players on the field potentially are eligible to catch the ball. Though they weren't certain it was legal when they first concocted the idea, they were willing to implement it for the 2007 season.

After compiling a 7-4 record and a first-round playoff appearance, Bryan and Humphries now call their innovation a success.

"Going into the season, we thought that either we're going to get fired or we're going to transform the game because of the innovative aspects and the wealth of ideas," Bryan said. "Luckily, it turned out to be the latter."

The plan began at Humphries' house in northern California while the two were dreaming of ideas. The question: how to effectively level the playing field for Piedmont, with an enrollment of less than 1,000, when the Highlanders faced schools with student bodies nearly twice that.

Then, Humphries came up with a whopper: Why not put two quarterbacks in a shotgun formation and make every player on the field a potential receiving threat?

"It was originally the 'Pluto offense,' " Humphries said. "We wanted to do something very unique, cutting edge and different. There were a whole variety of offensive formations that looked very different from a normal offense."

OFF TO COLLEGE
One Saturday this fall, Kurt Bryan and Steve Humphries likely will watch the offense they created and nurtured go off to college.

Bryan, the coach at Piedmont (Calif.) High, and Humphries, Piedmont's director of football operations, installed the A-11 offense a little more than a year ago. The schemes drew the interest of college coaches - and even some from the NFL - almost immediately.

Bryan said coaches from 35 to 40 Division I-A schools, and from every conference, have contacted him and Humphries looking for information on the offense. Apparently, the college coaches are quick studies.

Humphries said he saw San Jose State run multiple A-11 plays last season against Stanford. Florida ran an offensive play recalling the A-11 against LSU. And Rutgers and the NFL's San Francisco 49ers ran punt plays containing aspects of Piedmont's offense.

There's another common thread that brought college coaches to tiny Piedmont. "Anything that helps them win a game, they're looking at it," said Bryan, who won't name the coaches because all asked for anonymity.

Bryan anticipates the A-11 offense to translate to college ball about 12-15 times per game, particularly on fourth downs, third-and-long plays, kicking situations and plays at the end of a half. Trick plays also would be a likely home for A-11 principles.

Bryan isn't surprised to see college coaches embracing the A-11. The offense is based on the same principles of the spread and the run-and-shoot, finding running lanes and open space. Of the college programs seeking information on Piedmont's offense, Bryan said about 70 percent of them run some version of the spread.

Talk of the offense began with word of mouth on the West Coast, then picked up when college recruiters received highlights of Piedmont games. Media reports during the spring brought more attention to the offense, presenting Piedmont's coaches with a dilemma - should they share their creation or guard the company secrets.

They decided to share everything. Bryan and Humphries have fielded phone calls, hosted coaching clinics, sent film all over the country and established a Web site (a11offense.com) with access to diagrams and video. Humphries recently completed a comprehensive installation manual for the offense, as well.

"It was bound to happen," Bryan said. "It's amazing how sincere, how interested and how energetic they've been about something fresh."

- David Fox

What developed from that brainstorming session was the "A-11 offense" - as in all 11 players potentially are eligible.

The base offense is one in which a center and two tight ends surround the football, three receivers are split right, three more split left and two quarterbacks stand behind in a shotgun, one of whom has to be at least 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

A description on the offense's Web site - www.a11offense.com - describes it as "an innovative offense blending aspects of the spread option, West Coast and run and shoot."

Yes, per the rules of the game, only five players are eligible to catch a pass during a particular play and seven players have to set up on the line of scrimmage. But in the minds of Bryan and Humphries, you can develop an infinite number of plays with an infinite number of formations.

Talk about confusing a defense.

"It presents a different set of challenges for defenses because they have to account for which guys go out or might go out," Bryan said. "Those guys who are ineligible to go down the field and catch a pass, they can take a reverse pitch or a negative screen or a hitch behind the line of scrimmage.

"We've opened up the game to the extreme with the rules already in place."

First, though, Piedmont coaches had to make sure this offense was actually legal. Bryan and Humphries scoured the rulebook, met with league officials and submitted the concept of the offense to the National Federation of High Schools and the California Interscholastic Federation.

"We had a 99.9 percent feeling that it was legal," Bryan said. "After it was approved, there was a sense of, 'OK, now what do we do?' "

First, they had to install the offense during spring practice and during the summer. Bryan said it wasn't pretty. Even into the first two games of the 2007 season, contests in which the Highlanders lost while scoring a combined nine points, the coaching staff continued making adjustments.

Then, something clicked and they went on a seven-game winning streak, using the A-11 offense about 60 percent of the time and a more traditional formation the other 40 percent. This season, Bryan said he wants to use the A-11 offense 85-90 percent of the time.

"There was a lot of learning, and we put in a lot of the preparation," Humphries said. "We adapted every week. We learned from what the competitors were doing against us. We made changes and adjusted techniques. We saw nine different defenses in 11 games. It was a wealth of information on what things different defenses can do against this. The different techniques are invaluable."

Now, after a year, Bryan says the interest level from coaches across the country is high, and Bryan has produced five instructional videos.

Though Bryan admits there probably is some resistance to this radically different offense, one of his opponents said he sees nothing wrong with it.

"It's pretty trailblazing," said Hayward (Calif.) Moreau Catholic coach Andrew Cotter, whose squad was pummeled by Piedmont 47-7 last season. "The fact they came up with the idea - it takes a lot of work. I don't think they're trying to take an easy way out.

"I'm a new coach coming from an old-school philosophy. Football is meant to line up, get your hand in the dirt and figure it out. But playing within the rules and trying to create an advantage is not something I'm against. There is a philosophy that says you need to line up and see who's the man. However, if you're not the man, you need to come up with some significant strategies to counter that."

Now, Bryan looks to the future and ponders what this offense can mean.

"It is limitless," Bryan said. "Here's what's going to happen. If we were sitting down with football coaches and players in 50 years or 100 years, the A-11 would be no big deal because that's what the game will be.

"People can laugh at it, but that's reality."



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