Bay Area Confidential: Piedmont's A-11 is A-OK
There's more to Highlanders than revolutionary offense and more to playoff schedule than places and time.
By Mitch Stephens
Like most revolutions, even on a high school football field, this one met much resistance.
Piedmont coaches Steve Humphries and Kurt Bryan had masterminded a revolutionary offense last spring, the A-11, where all 11 players were eligible for passes.
They dissected the rule book, checked and double checked with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) and spent gobs of cell phone minutes with referee organizations to make sure their six-receiver, three-linemen sets were clean, kosher and legal.
Once that got cleared, selling and implementing it to their players during spring break was another major obstacle.
"It looked pretty crazy but we were pretty open," starting quarterback Jeremy George said. "It was new and exciting and innovative. I think my parents were a little concerned who was going to protect me. I don't think the running backs were crazy about it. The receivers were really excited though."
Everyone was excited when the Highlanders dropped their first two games and scored just nine points in the process.
Excited in the bad sense, however.
Head coach Bryan, whose been in coaching since 1987 including stops at Menlo College and St. Mary's College, said he's never received so much hate mail or criticism.
"It was pretty bad," he said. "The worst I've ever received. But most of it was anonymous. It was kind of expected since we made such drastic switches and lost games."
Said George: "I think everyone was a little worried."
But Bryan, Humphries and staff reminded their players of a saying they'd repeated many times over the previous season, a far reaching credo that expanded far beyond the ultra spread offense.
"Tough times don't last but tough people do."
But like corn syrup it stuck. And so did the offense.
The coaches said they never lost faith because despite the lack of production early, they still saw shimmering potential.
"We saw in game film we were one or two blown assignments away from major big plays," Humphries said. "If we fixed our mistakes, the entire thing would open right up."
They were right.
Behind the coach's faith, the players' execution and the innovative offense, the Highlanders rattled off seven straight wins before a 38-15 loss last week to defending North Coast Section Class A champion St. Patrick/St. Vincent-Vallejo.
The game decided the Bay Shore Athletic League championship.
Despite the defeat, Piedmont (7-3) received a NCS 2A East Bay at-large berth and tonight travels to top-seed Los Lomas-Walnut Creek (10-0) with a chance to create another revolution of sorts.
Humphries said he devised the offense just for this reason - so his undersized squad from a small-enrollment school could compete against bigger and larger-enrollment schools.
Of the 19 2A East Bay football schools, Piedmont ranks 18th with 941 students. Last Lomas ranks first with 1,569. The enrollment disparity, according to Humphries, is part of the reason the Highlanders haven't won a playoff game since 2000, losing five first-round games since then.
The A-11 features a center, a tight end on each side and three wide receivers to the right and left, respectively, with two quarterbacks in shotgun formation. With no one under center, the offense meets the criteria for a scrimmage kick formation.
Thus any player with eligible numbers (1-49 or 89-99) is eligible to catch a pass. See A-11 for more detail.
"We had to figure out a way to compete against bigger schools," Humphries said. "Year in, year out we are getting beat up in the playoffs by bigger and more physical teams. This allows us to utilize our speed, quickness and smarts."
George definitely utilizes all the above.
The 5-foot-9, 140-pound junior combines great feet (he's been a starter on the soccer team since he was a freshman), toughness and strong arm with a 3.85 grade point average to keep the Highlanders moving.
He's completed 120 of 205 for 1,483 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's also the team's leading rusher with 332 yards on 77 attempts, which includes only 12 sacks.
George has spread the ball all around as six receivers have at least 12 catches, led by Joey Andrada (31), Alexander Menke (26) and Kyle Bonachum (21).
"After our two losses, we really pulled together and worked even harder on the offense," George said. "It's not nearly as crazy as it seems."
The coaches agree and actually said once learned it's not any more complex than the wishbone, veer or conventional spread.
"We just call it the super spread," Humphries said.
The players aren't the only ones buying in, Bryan said.
He's received calls from at least 50 college coaches and one un-named NFL head coach.
"He's in the NFC," Humphries said. "That's all I can tell you."
Other advantages to the offense are that it's difficult to prepare for, team fitness and a constant ray of hope.
"We feel like no deficit is insurmountable," Bryan said.
Said Humphries: "Plus it just promotes innovation and excitement. When executed just right it's a thing of beauty."
The Highlanders will need a lot of beauty tonight to beat the juggernaut Knights, who average 370 yards and 41 points per game. Las Lomas features one of the East Bay's premier runners, Danny Ward (1,262 yards, 17 touchdowns) and dynamics receivers in Diante Jackson.
With all the attention paid to the A-11, Piedmont's strength is probably on defense, which gives up just 14 points a game and is led by 5-10, 180-pound linebacker Keith Reid (62 tackles) and 6-foot, 180-pound back Rory Bonnin (three interceptions).
No matter what happens tonight, Bryan said 2007 season has been an overwhelming success.
He credits other varsity staffers Pete Schneider (quarterbacks), Mario Thornton (receivers), Anthony Freeman (running backs/tight ends) and Kevin Anderson II (defensive coordinator) as equal parts.
"I'm proud of the team and staff to sticking to their guns and not wavering during really difficult times," he said. "The players really persevered and succeeded and that's something they can take with them always."