In his book titled Spread Formation Football, Dutch Meyer wrote, “Spread formations are not new to football.” Meyer, a legendary coach at Texas Christian and an early advocate of spread offenses, published his work in 1952.
Though it seems new and sparkly, the spread offense and its various derivations have been around nearly 100 years. But it’s only recently that the ideas have truly engulfed every level of the game, including high school.
When Rock Hill (1-2) hosts Boiling Springs (2-1) Friday night at District Three Stadium, it will be another in a slew of games this season pitting a pair of spread offenses. Bearcats coach Joe Montgomery said Tuesday that football has gone through a number of phases and that the current fad is one-on-one football.
“I just think now, in football, offenses are so good that they’re gonna score points,” Montgomery said. “Coaches have figured out you don’t have to block anybody. Get in a spread and let the offense go one-on-one, and that’s football today. It’s almost every school.”
At the prep level, spread offenses were once the exotic provenance of outliers like Rock Hill, where Montgomery first used it in the early 2000’s, and Northwestern. The basic concepts manifest in a number of iterations – the Run and Shoot, Air Raid, Spread Option – but all of that different packaging is based on the same idea: spread the defense out by spreading the offensive formation.
Rick Tate and the Boiling Springs Bulldogs epitomize that as well as any prep team in South Carolina at the moment. Tate’s team is averaging 44 points and 539 yards of offense through three games. The Bulldogs have punted only three times this season thanks largely to a spread scheme sprinkled with athletes and piloted by a budding prep standout, quarterback Daniel Thompson.
“Offensively, they are a machine,” Mongtomery said. “When you’re that productive on offense, going against a defense right now where we are, being a little young, well, we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Bulldogs running back Tre-Shaun Sanderlin has inflicted the brunt of the damage on opponents so far, rushing for 552 yards and six touchdowns on just 65 carries – an average of 8.5 yards per touch – and catching six passes for 146 yards and two more touchdowns.
“He’s extremely strong, deceiving speed,” Tate said. “He’s got great vision. We feel like he’s a complete back; I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.”
Tate credited Sanderlin with forcing opposing defenses to stay honest. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound senior’s threat draws defenders toward the box, leaving the Bulldogs with the one-on-one matchups they desire on the edge, and often times no safety help for the defense over top. Thompson is averaging 15.5 yards per completion thanks in part to the run threat.
Like any good back in a spread offense, Sanderlin is also a dangerous receiver, averaging 24 yards per catch. Running backs like Sanderlin and Rock Hill’s Justin Stokes can make the spread offense almost unstoppable at times, but it all falls apart without a reliable, intelligent quarterback to get playmakers the football.
Thompson, a second-year starter as a junior, was previously more famous for being the little brother of South Carolina QB Dylan Thompson, but he is forging his own reputation this year. He’s completed 72 percent of his passes for 823 yards, 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
“He’s doing a great job managing the game,” Tate said, adding, “Quarterbacks love it when you can run the football because that helps them out.”
Boiling Springs offensive coordinator Travis Miller arrived only in early August after previous head coach Bruce Clark resigned unexpectedly. Tate was promoted to head coach a few weeks before the season started, but even with the late start, Miller’s spread scheme has blossomed. Like most of the spread offenses popping up around the country, Miller’s is a mosaic of plays and ideas gleaned from a number of sources throughout his coaching career.
“I think it’s our balance,” said Tate, pinpointing the root of their success. “We’ve got an outstanding tailback, we’ve got an offensive line that’s getting better every week, and we’ve got four or five wideouts that can catch it and run with it after.”
Defensively, stopping the spread has proven difficult for most teams statewide. Rock Hill’s defense hasn’t been a strength the last few seasons, but the Bearcats match up better with spread teams like Boiling Springs than two-tight end, smash-between-the-hashes squads like Dutch Fork. The Silver Foxes put a 63-28 beating on Rock Hill last week, preying upon the Bearcat defense’s prime weakness: a lack of bulk in the trenches.
Dutch Fork’s mastodon approach is the exception these days. By shifting the action toward the sidelines, spread offenses have defenses scrambling, and Boiling Springs, which is allowing 27 points per game thus far, will likely have trouble slowing the Rock Hill Air Raid.
“We’re very impressed,” Tate said. “Rock Hill is always so athletic, and this team is no different. You miss a tackle and they’ll take it all the way.”
Montgomery, who employed triple-option run-based schemes during his tenure at Gaffney, said earlier this summer that he can tell how his team will look in the upcoming season based on their passing league performances. That speaks to the rise in prominence of the summer 7-on-7’s, which have grown in tandem with the proliferation of the spread.
As Dutch Meyer’s book shows, football strategy has always been cyclical, and Tate thinks the spread is getting its turn at the moment, one that should last a while.
“I think the spread is here to stay. I really do,” Tate said. “Everything trickles down; the rules, the schemes trickle down to high school. With the way passing leagues have taken over the summer, it falls right into what you do all summer.”
There was a hint of wistfulness in Montgomery and Tate’s voices as they discussed how things had changed during their lengthy coaching careers. Perhaps it was a longing for a hearty fullback dive straight into the line or a beefed-up I-formation. But those plays are staples of an era past ... at least for now.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T