There are few moments in a Clover football practice these days when a football isn’t flying from one set of hands to another.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The Blue Eagles are transitioning from the winged offense they’ve used since the early 1990s to a spread scheme predicated on moving the football through the air. Even as his team stretched before an early May practice, new head coach Brian Lane - the man responsible for the seismic shift - lobbed or darted the football to his players as he moved around the group. They can’t practice throwing and catching enough.
“It’s a little different from toss power,” Lane said. “They’re getting it. Real proud of them how they’ve come on to what we’re doing.”
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Clover’s spring football scrimmage will be held 6 p.m. Friday night at Memorial Stadium. Admission is free.
Lane’s done this once before.
As a 31-year old, he took over the traditional powerhouse Woodruff program in 2008 turning a successful wing running team that won 10 state titles into a spread machine within a year. The Wolverines won 11 games and reached the semifinals of the 2A Division I state playoffs in Lane’s first season and the team went on to set two school scoring records and reach the semifinals twice more - losing in the 2011 championship game - before Lane left for Byrnes, his alma mater.
Middle school and youth programs also made the conversion and Woodruff hasn’t had a quarterback take a snap directly from the center’s hands in the years since.
“We just made that commitment from the beginning,” said Woodruff athletic director Scott Lawson, who hired Lane in ‘08. “And that was different for us because for a long time Woodruff had been, I guess, traditional. A lot of power running game, very much two-back sets for the most part. It was a work in progress to educate those people at the lower level as much as it was changing over at the high school level.”
Brian Lane describes his spring football to-do list:
Is a repeat possible?
Could Lane repeat his Woodruff trick this fall?
Here’s a few reasons why it won’t happen:
▪ The Blue Eagles return just seven starters, four of them on offense. All the receivers will be new. Nine years ago, Woodruff had 15 starters back, including seven on offense. Experience - even in a new system - is invaluable in high school sports.
▪ Clover belongs to a tough football league with an annual state championship contender (Northwestern), a burgeoning power (Nation Ford) and two well-resourced traditional powers that can beat any school on any Friday (Rock Hill and Fort Mill).
▪ Lane’s team is behind in the passing skills department, whether it’s throwing the football, catching it or running sharp routes.
“That’s just what it is. Those guys haven’t been used to throwing and catching, but we do it every day,” he said.
Here’s a few reasons why Lane and Clover could succeed immediately in the spread:
▪ He has a good rapport with his players and coaches and has already created a positive team vibe with his infectious personality and energy. And they’re playing music during practice now. Vibe.
▪ There are similarities between Woodruff and Clover, both one-school towns. Lawson said instilling the offense at the youth and middle school levels and continually coaching those coaches, ensured that Woodruff High coaches were getting ninth graders that were spread-savvy players. Clover already had a similar set-up with the wing-t, so should be able to duplicate its vertical teaching progression, from youth football up, with spread concepts.
“This is a bigger version of Woodruff,” said Lane. “I guess the major difference here is at Woodruff they had a little longer pedigree. But as far as the kids and the community and paying attention and the discipline, they’ve been great. It’s a very similar situation here.”
▪ Lane had a 5-foot-9 quarterback his first year at Woodruff, and he has another one at Clover this year in Miller. Much of the transition weight falls on Miller’s shoulder pads. In olden days of high school football, the best athlete played quarterback or tailback; in the spread, that elite athlete often plays receiver. Miller may not drop jaws with his size, speed or am, but his job is to make the right reads and be the point guard, as Lawson said. If he can do that, Clover will be competitive immediately.
Lane said his new QB told him after the first practice that it was one of the most fun he’d ever had.
“I thought that was pretty neat, but that’s just the beginning,” Lane said. “We’re gonna do this every day.”
Running the bomb
Clover made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2010, but it’s unlikely that momentum would have continued into 2017 given the graduation of 24 seniors, half the varsity roster. It’s a perfect situation to make what will at times be a painful shift.
The transition is beginning in classrooms at Clover. Earlier this month Lane stood in front of a room full of players noting the finer points of spread offensive football play. The classroom video sessions were held before every spring practice, but that’s not out of the ordinary for Lane.
“I mimic how colleges prepare their kids,” he said. “It wouldn’t matter if they had been spread all along, that’s just how I practice.”
Lane is quick to post photos on social media of the numerous college coaches that are stopping by the school this spring and he also has a team manager editing and posting videos from practices. Many suspected the switch to a spread offense would bring some athletes out of the school’s woodwork and that has happened too, just like it did at Woodruff in 2008.
“Those kids get excited about it,” Lane said back in January when he was first hired. “What do you do when you’re at home, outside in the backyard? You throw it back and forth. You don’t hand the ball off with your dad, your uncle, your cousin. You’re running the bomb!”