Not every high school football program has the luxury of rolling out 80 or so kids.
With a finite number of available bodies, depth charts at smaller schools can look near identical on both sides of the ball. Two-way players are extinct in the NFL, rare in college and typically used out of necessity in high school football.
But the need for two-way players in smaller programs isn’t always bad. In fact, some teams have enjoyed great success playing iron man football.
Last year, Mashpee High went 10-3 and topped St. Bernard’s in the Division 6 State Championship, 28-8, using eight two-way starters for much of the season. Their program had 36 players in total; this year, they have less than 30.
“When it comes down to it, it’s getting the athletes on the field,” said Mashpee head coach Matt Triveri. “We want our best athletes on the field and our playmakers on the field as much as we can.”
Essentially, Triveri’s starters were the same on both sides of the ball -- although, for conditioning purposes, he would have preferred having all of his linemen playing one side if possible. But for those who do as well as the skill guys, he believes the lack of numbers is beneficial when conditioning players to play an entire game with little rest.
“Our kids get a ton of reps in practice,” he explained. “It’s not like we’re a 120-kid program where everyone’s standing around and not getting reps.
“We know headed into our first game that all our two-way kids, especially the skill guys, are going to be in shape,” he added. “Whether it’s a running back or receiver, they’re going to get 70-80 reps in practice and then there’s the individual drills like pass skelly (skeleton) that are full-speed drills.”
Triveri also said he does not have his team run sprints at the end of practice and tries to keep their two-hour practices as football-related as possible.
Controlling the Pace
When Mike Pucko’s 11-year coaching career at Holy Name (2005-2015) began, his team didn’t quite embody the one-platoon system -- yet.
“I had kids on the 2005 and 2006 teams who never touched the field on another side of the ball,” said Pucko. “But that’s the perfect scenario -- when you can do that.”
Despite winning back to back Division 2 Super Bowls in 2005 and 2006, Holy Name’s football participation rate dropped sharply as they graduated dozens of upperclassmen.
For much of his Holy Name tenure, the now-Assumption Greyhounds linebackers coach did not have a big team. Albeit he won 89 games in his 11 seasons at Holy Name and his team made five straight Super Bowl trips (2008-2012). Along the way Pucko coached some of the best running backs to come through the Central Mass. region in recent years, from Emil Igwenagu to Dominique Price to record-setting scatback Quron Wright. In his last year at Holy Name, he coached Kevin Mensah into an All-State season at running back; the talented senior has since transferred to Shepherd Hill.
Many of Pucko’s talented squads dressed less than 30 players. As a result, most of his starters (from 2007 onward) had to play both ways (including 10 of his 11 starters on the 2008 Division 1A Super Bowl winning squad).
Some opponents tried wearing down Pucko’s iron man teams by running a fast-paced, no-huddle offense. But if they could control the pace of the game, then so could Holy Name. And they did -- by chewing the clock.
Working out of a double-wing, they were run-heavy.
“That offense was perfect for short numbers,” he explained, “because we could literally use a whole quarter on one drive and the other team just wouldn’t have the ball.”
Holy Name used as much time as they could before each play. They walked into position after huddles, a walk Pucko called their “swagger walk”. Ideally, they would run the play with just a few seconds remaining on the play clock to avoid a delay of game penalty.
“It was all part of the strategy to use the kids we had and give them as much time and break in between as possible,” Pucko said. “We certainly couldn’t go no-huddle playing the same kids. Other teams tried to do it against us when they were on offense because they knew no one was coming off the bench to help us out.”
In order to preserve more energy, Pucko said his team opted for squib kicks and onside kicks on kickoffs because there was less running involved. And on fourth downs, they tended to go for it if they were under four yards from a first down. But when they did punt, they tried to punt out of bounds for the same reason they kicked short on kickoffs.
A Changing Game
While his team tends to have a few quality two-way starters every year, Dennis-Yarmouth head coach Paul Funk admits the situation is not ideal. In fact, he would rather not have any two-way starters, if possible.
Funk explained the changing landscape of the game has made ironman football less appealing.
“In today’s spread offense, you get tired,” he said. “It’s a lot of running. It’s a track meet. Almost every team runs spread. Everything is wide open. Everything is up and down the field. It’s not that older style of football where the teams are in the huddle for 20 seconds and then they come out.
“A lot of teams run no-huddle,” he added. “That’s definitely a downside of playing both ways. You’ve got to be careful.”
Offensive linemen work to keep their quarterback safe as he tries to throw downfield. But on defense, the same player could become more vulnerable without several 250-pounders protecting him.
Whether or not a team’s starting quarterback should be playing defense is a debate wrestled with by many smaller schools. And while keeping the quarterback safe is a priority, so is winning games.
“If it’s a win or lose situation, you have to do what’s best for the overall team,” Pucko said. “If we could get by without putting him there, I certainly would have. But we couldn’t. And he wanted to play there too. The kids wanted him to play there. He was one of our leaders, so it kind of took it out of my hands.”
On Holy Name’s 2008 team, starting quarterback Santino Simone was a two-way starter.
Triveri added there are several factors when it comes to starting a quarterback on defense. But ultimately, he has opted to start his current quarterback, Nick Carpenter, at safety as well.
“We’ve always had discussions on the staff about that,” he said. “We’ve come to the conclusion that if he (Carpenter) gets hurt, he gets hurt. He’ll be a four-year starter this year. When he was younger, we didn’t want to play him at safety. We were kind of forced to with injuries. And now, he’s become a kid we just can’t get off the field. He’s a captain on defense too.”
Most people think of playing more than one sport as cross-training. But smaller football teams see it as playing multiple positions on the same side of the ball. In other words, versatility is essential for teams who might not have enough bodies for a direct varsity-caliber backup at every position.
“It was all about moving down one,” Pucko said. “We did a lot of unbalanced where there might be two tight ends on one side because that might be their mindset. It was a lot of adjustments really trying to modify it to what we had offensively and it worked really well.”
Pucko added his team worked off a “horizontal depth chart” meaning the next best athlete available would likely be the one receiving a chance if anyone were to go down with an injury. And positions would be shifted accordingly whether it meant a reserve filling a hole or going to another position and moving a starter to a different position.
Before the season even starts, Triveri likes to put his players in a position where his players are physically capable (size, strength and speed) of playing multiple positions.
“When these kids come up, you start to look at their body types and see what they’re going to be, where they fit in,” Triveri said. “But you also have to think: where else can this kid play? When you put them on a workout program, you’re trying to get them to a certain size and certain ability so they can not only fit one position but maybe two.”
When a player has to master an offensive and defensive position, it could benefit them in the same way playing multiple sports would help them become a better athlete.
“I think it makes them better players,” Triveri said. “If you have a corner who plays corner and that’s all he does during practice time, he’s going to learn how to play his position pretty well. But if you’re playing corner and receiver, you’ll understand route recognition better, hand movement, foot movement. It’s not a knock on any big program, but it’s just different. Understanding both sides of the ball I think helps them in the long run.”
Physically, the players receive more exercise and work different skills playing different positions. And mentally, as Triveri mentioned, players could have a better understanding of what their opponent is going to do which allows them to react accordingly.
For one of Dennis-Yarmouth’s top players in recent years, Michael Dunn (now at Lafayette), being a two-way player made him more appealing in the recruiting process.
“Colleges liked him on both sides of the ball,” Funk said. “They liked him as a safety. They liked him as a tailback. They liked him as a slot receiver. Some were recruiting him as an outside linebacker. I would say it definitely gives kids more options.”