Photo By Brian Paglia "I think it gives players a false sense of football." - Joe Dupree, Henry County football coach
Lovejoy couldn’t get enough. Forest Park wanted no part. Neither did Woodland — well, except under the right circumstances.
Once regarded as mere backyard football, high school football passing leagues are now entrenched in the summer football schedule.
But the approach and emphasis varied among Southern Crescent teams this summer. Some (Lovejoy) attacked the passing league circuit up and down the East Coast with vigor. A few (Forest Park, Woodland) all but cast it aside.
Two are headed to elite tournaments this weekend — Jonesboro to the 7-on-7U National Championship tournament in Washington D.C. and Lovejoy to the Under Armour-sponsored National Select 7-on-7 Championship in Hoover, Ala.
“It’s all about competition,” Lovejoy head coach Al Hughes said. “The more times you can put your kids in position to compete, the better they are at learning how to compete.
“What you find in these is it’s not so much about wins and losses, but it’s about how the players dig down inside and show some grit.”
There’s no denying the presence of passing leagues anymore. What started as an informal chance for extra practice has transformed into an emerging business avenue.
Star athletes sponsor tournaments and teams. Carolina Panthers quarterback and 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton sponsored the Cam Newton All-Stars, which included Jonesboro’s Cameron Sutton and Patrick Petty and Drew’s Farrean Toney. They competed in the IMG Madden Football 7-on-7 National Championship in Bradenton, Fla., in late June.
The NFL has even gotten involved. Stockbridge recently returned from the High School Player Development National Championships in Indianapolis. The Tigers represented Georgia and competed against 31 other teams representing NFL franchises. They toured Lucas Oil Stadium and went to character development seminars.
But the emergence of passing leagues is as much a product of economics as it is offensive evolution.
“Coaches got too much time on their hands,” Henry County first-year coach Joe Dupree said. “We come up with all these offensive schemes.”
Indeed, more and more high school teams employ pass-oriented offenses. Which means more and more teams look for opportunities to perfect theirs and defend others.
Enter passing leagues. Quarterbacks get more time to study defensive coverages. Wide receivers get more reps to hone their route running. Defenders have more chances to sharpen their fundamentals.
“Our pass covering, our footwork drills come into play,” Lovejoy linebacker Nathaniel Norwood said. “We’re mostly playing against great competition, so that helps as well and our conditioning has been better because of the passing leagues.
“These things help us as defenders because it’s all passing and whenever we get a team down in the fourth quarter of a real game, they’re going to start passing the ball around.”
But some Southern Crescent coaches haven’t found the passing league environment as useful. No offensive or defensive lines. No running plays. Shorter fields and less time.
All of it creates a competitive environment, they say, that isn’t conducive to improving a football team.
“Really, I’m not a big proponent of passing leagues,” Dupree said. “I think it gives the players a false sense of football, because you’re not running the football. It’s like flag football.”
“Passing leagues, I don’t know,” Woodland coach Scott Schmitt said. “At first I thought they were really good. I’m kind of neutral on them. I don’t really participate.”
Actually, Woodland does participate in passing leagues, but only under the right conditions.
They go to one passing tournament a year — one hosted by McEachern High School the last week of June — and have informal 7-on-7 practices with local Henry County teams.
Many of the strict protocols at passing tournaments are disgarded. Instead, Schmitt is free to stop play to make corrections and teach.
“It’s a practice,” Schmitt said, “and you get to learn from it.”
First-year Forest Park head coach Don Williams had a lot of teaching to do this summer. He had a brand new offense and defense to install for players accustomed to change.
That’s why he avoided passing leagues altogether.
“We enjoyed our own time with building up our kids this summer, so passing leagues were not in the plan for us,” Williams said. “I said from the beginning that I wanted all of my days in the summer just to work on us.”
— Staff writer Gabriel Stovall contributed to this story.