Offensive football at every level now is all about “YAC” – yards after catch.
Rock Hill defensive coordinator Mike Biddix named limiting York’s YAC as one of his defense’s primary objectives last week. The Bearcats did that, and nearly upset the No. 1 4A team in the state. Limiting YAC is not an easy accomplishment; it puts the onus on individual defenders to make tackles in open space, not something every high school football player does well.
“I told y’all Friday, that’s the kind of game I like,” said York coach Bobby Carroll, a defensive coordinator for much of his coaching career. “But that’s huge when you get a receiver that can catch it in space and run with it, and you can’t get your arms wrapped around him? That’s a nightmare.”
When No. 10 Northwestern (4-2, 1-0) hosts top-ranked York (6-0, 1-0) on Thursday at District Three Stadium, the Trojans will be the underdog for a change. But if they’re to try and pull off what Rock Hill very nearly did, they’ll have to latch on to Cougar receivers and never let go.
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“You’re putting athletes in space,” said Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson, painting a picture Wednesday morning. “At that point, if your DB (defensive back) is better than the receiver then that DB is gonna make a play. If he’s not, then that wide receiver is gonna make a play and that’s where your yards after the catch start adding up.”
Rock Hill barely seemed to miss any tackles last Friday, limiting York’s big play abilities. The Cougars’ main receiving threats, senior Kyron Schrouder and sophomore Wally Wilmore, were limited to 6.4 and 4.6 yards per catch and neither broke off one of the long catch-and-run touchdowns that they’ve produced this season.
Ankle-wrecking speedsters like York’s Wilmore, Schrouder and Daurice Simpson – who all run 4.4, 4.5 times in the 40-yard dash – make YAC-based offenses lethal. Spread offenses, which rely on getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands very quickly, don’t usually allow time for deep receiving routes to develop. That makes YAC vital for moving the football.
“It’s difficult to execute 10, 12-play drives down the field,” said Knox Baggett, York’s offensive coordinator. “So we really try to get some explosive plays. The times that we’ve struggled, we haven’t gotten those explosive plays.”
When YAC happen it’s fun to watch. That kind of offense puts players’ talents on display and can make a sometimes complicated game becomes simple.
"I think the main goal is to try to make guys miss, put a move on them and just get yards," said Simpson, who sees both sides of the equation as a cornerback and a receiver.
All the spread-’em-out basketball offenses can leave old-school defensive coordinators like Carroll pining for the days of yore.
“I’d love to see somebody get in an I-formation,” he said. “I think I’d have a heart attack.”
Where once there was the infamous “three yards and a cloud of dust,” maybe now there is “10 yards and a cloud of little black rubber pellets.” Football’s action has crept increasingly toward the sidelines over the years, to the point where many team’s run-games occur outside of the hash marks. What’s the big difference between a handoff up the gut and a short throw to the sideline where a wide receiver is following two or three blockers? There is a lot fewer players near the sideline.
“That’s just an extension of the run game,” said Richardson. “Instead of us pitching it, the old-school three yards and a cloud of dust, we can throw it farther than we can toss it, so we throw it out there and force you to defend on the numbers. York does the same thing, and they do a great job of it.”
All of this has put pressure on lonely defensive backs to stand their ground against elusive athletes running toward them with a head of steam and buddies blocking. Richardson said his team always practices tackling on an island to simulate the game experience of a Friday night. Simpson said York works on what’s called "Cougar tackling" every day in practice, basically a form-tackling drill where they concentrate on wrapping up ball-carriers at the hips and driving them to the ground.
Whether it’s the NFL, college or high school football, there are always one or two weaker players in a team’s defensive secondary. YAC-based offenses find and isolate that player.
“If York finds your bad corner, they’re gonna eat him up with a bunch of fast dudes that can run,” said Richardson.
He remembers how difficult it was to accumulate YAC yardage against Carroll’s 2008 South Pointe team, which included three future NFL players in its defensive 11. But high school teams with that many athletes and sure-fire tacklers are extremely uncommon.
Even five days after escaping Rock Hill’s upset bid, Simpson and Schrouder were still complimentary of Rock Hill’s tackling efforts, the likes of which they hadn’t seen this year.
“We didn’t expect it,” said Schrouder, a senior who leads the Cougars in catches (54) and normally averages 12 yards per grab. “It was more a lack of effort and focus. We didn’t – I’m not sure what the word is – but we didn’t play like we usually play, and they just came out with more intensity and fire under them.”
If Northwestern, winners of four straight, are to continue their winning streak and dethrone the state’s top 4A team Thursday night, the Trojans will have to be the second team in a row to squelch York’s YAC opportunities. Having won the last nine games against York, the Trojans won’t be able to sneak up on their visitors.
“We’re nowhere near the team we were last year and they’re a whole lot better than they were,” said Richardson. “They’re kicking everybody’s tail that gets in front of them, whether it’s pretty or ugly, they’re finding a way to get it done. We’ve got to play lights-out if we want to be in the game.”