Piedmont takes spread offense to new level

This is the story of what happens when you unleash a mad scientist offensive coordinator and his innovative head coach on an unsuspecting and conservative football world.

Back in 2004, Piedmont (Calif.) offensive coordinator Steve Humphries started tinkering with new formations to put into a game plan. He was trying to combat the problem the Highlanders ran into each postseason when they faced schools with much larger players.

Humphries wanted to level the playing field. Like most football fans, he'd always loved trick plays. And he thought they seemed to work more often than not, especially for an underdog.

So Humphries started toying with an offense featuring two quarterbacks on the field at once and consisting of only trick plays. At the end of Piedmont's 2006 season, Humphries got together with head coach Kurt Bryan, who'd just finished his first year at the helm, to discuss ways the Highlanders could compete with the big boys in Northern California.

Bryan was willing to get creative. Luckily, he had football's equivalent of Dr. Seuss on his side.

After tinkering a bit with Humphries' designs, the coaches came up with the revolutionary idea of making all 11 players potentially eligible to catch a pass. Bryan scoured the rule book. He discovered that if all 11 players wore eligible-receiver numbers (1-49 and 80-89) and lined up in the scrimmage-kick formation -- where at least one player is at least seven yards behind the line of scrimmage as for a punt or field goal attempt -- this crazy idea just might work.

And after they confirmed with the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) that it was legal, the A-11 (as in "all 11" players) offense was ready to go.

In its first two years of operation, here's how it went down in its most basic formation: Two quarterbacks lined up seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, where a three-man line (two tight ends and a center) was positioned. Three receivers then lined up on each side. Once the ball was snapped, six players, including both quarterbacks, were eligible receivers.

From there, anything was possible: laterals, screens, handoffs, reverses. And sometimes all on the same play. It was the spread on steroids. It was wilder than the Wildcat.

"There's really no such thing as a typical play in the A-11," says Jeremy George, who was Piedmont's starting quarterback the past two years before graduating this past spring.

"The A-11 offense is basically putting more athletes on the field with multiple skill sets," Humphries adds.

There were plenty of skeptics. When the team lost its first two games, people were calling for the coaching staff to be fired. Instead of scaling back, Bryan doubled down. Rather than run the A-11 50 percent of the time, he began running it all the time. His confidence paid off as Piedmont ripped off a seven-game winning streak.

Coaches at every level and the national media were looking for the secret. High schools around the country ran the A-11 in 2008, college coaches from the Pac-10 and Big East have inquired about it, and Bryan and Humphries sell an "Advanced Concepts Manual" for $149 and an "Installation Manual" for $199.

"I was a football traditionalist," Bryan says. "I never used the shotgun before this. But athletes are so much more dynamic than even 20 years ago. And with the advent of the spread offense, this is just the next evolution of the game."
But the evolution would not be recognized.

As the offense earned publicity, the backlash began. Critics were blowing up message boards, calling the offense illegal and unsportsmanlike.

"A vocal minority didn't understand the offense and, instead of learning about it, demonized it as best they could," Humphries says.

After the 2008 season, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) changed the rules to mandate that four ineligible-numbered players (Nos. 50-79) be on the line of scrimmage on first, second and third down.

Piedmont's staff then appealed to the CIF and came ready for battle with a 14-page presentation they felt knocked down every complaint about their innovation.

Impossible to referee? They had a quote from the head of the California East Bay Football Officials Association saying, "We've had no complaints from any officials whatsoever."

An injury waiting to happen since there's no traditional offensive line? Not one Piedmont player suffered a serious injury in the two seasons of running the offense, and they had the game tape to prove it.

Can't be defended? Not a single A-11 team won a state title last year, and Piedmont is 15-7 in its two years running it.

"Some detractors complain the A-11 is unfair to the defense," Humphries says. "But up until the snap, the defense can line up as close as it wants to the line of scrimmage and show any type of blitz it wants. So we've created an offensive blitz to level the playing field."

"It's all about who's eligible," adds St. Patrick-St. Vincent (Vallejo, Calif.) coach Marlon Blanton, who is 1-1 against the A-11. "Once you can diagnose that, it's just football."

The CIF, however, upheld the NFHS decision, although its reasoning had little to do with the offense itself.

"We made the decision as an organization not to deviate from any federation rules," CIF executive director Marie Ishida says. "If we did deviate, it takes our football representative off the [national rules] committee. And there was also a basic feeling that the A-11 was being run in a way the football rules did not intend."

Ishida did say the CIF received no complaints regarding the offense. If the NFHS hadn't changed its rule, the CIF had no plans to address it.

But if people think this signals the end of the A-11, they are sadly mistaken.

"What you see from Piedmont this year will capture the imagination of a lot of coaches out there," Humphries says.

Piedmont has scrapped the scrimmage-kick formation and will now line up seven players on the line with five or more in ineligible-receiver numbers. But instead of traditional linemen, these five will be skill-position players who can take handoffs or catch and throw passes behind the line of scrimmage. The Highlanders can also put their quarterbacks under center, and other players can shift on and off the line.

The offense created by Bryan and Humphries has paid dividends so far in 2009, with the Highlanders getting off to a 2-1 start, putting up 105 points in their three games.

"They took away one aspect but opened up a Pandora's box," Bryan says.

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.