Seven-On taking prep football by storm

Rush Propst knows different football coaches tell different tales. An argument over who invented what could never be resolved.

The coach of Colquitt County High in Moultrie, Ga., believes what he believes. And he does see himself as the visionary behind the 7-on-7 high school passing tournaments in the summer.

"We were the first to do it in 2001 or 2002," said Propst, recalling the beginning of a reign at Hoover (Ala.) High that included five state championships.

Yet the goal behind organized, tournament-style, pass-happy workouts was never to watch them take over a nation. It was never to assist coaches in the implementation of their spread offenses. All Propst wanted was a better use of time during summer prospect camps than Speed Ball, a game that had no rules and was used to tire out the athletes before bed.

Propst was charged with teaching his young Bucs team a complex spread offense, and wasting days just didn't make sense. It took one altercation at one local camp to send him into action.

"I said [to the camp administrators], 'We're not coming back coached,' " said Propst, one of the spread gurus in the Southeast. " 'All you guys do is try to evaluate the prospects, and there are no rules.' The next year, we created our 7-on-7 tournament, and it just exploded."

It's grown from a localized tool aimed at accelerating his team's learning curve to a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon. This year, 22 teams from across the country descended upon Hoover for the 7-on-7 national championships, including Evangel Christian Academy (Shreveport, La.), Memphis (Tenn.) University High and Thomas Jefferson High (Jefferson Hills, Pa.).

Did Propst create it? Tough to tell.

What cannot be debated is that the seven days of team practices in the summer are huge in allowing teams from Florida to Alabama to California to prepare in game-like situations.

"We had a big 7-on-7 camp here for this year, and the championship team plays about 12 games in one day," said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who coached the University of Florida's spread offense to two national championships. "Those are reps that are hard to really replicate under other circumstances. It's a great learning tool for the players to get their reads down and learn their routes and get coaching. You're starting to see some kids really accelerate their whole learning process."

Many of the rules outlined by Propst still stand. Seven players to a side, no running plays, and one-hand touch. The ball starts at the 45-yard line, with a first down coming after every 15 yards. Teams have 25 seconds to snap the ball, and a quarterback must deliver a pass within four seconds.

A touchdown is worth six points, while an interception is worth three for the defense.

For the players, it's a chance to feel a game-like atmosphere, albeit with just a helmet.

"You get that one-on-one feeling that you get in an actual games," said Maudrecus Humphrey, a Hoover receiver whose father, Bobby, starred at Alabama. "It helps with route-running and working on your hands, quickness and all that. It's very similar to the stuff we do [during the season], even though some of the stuff that works in 7-on-7 might not work in a game-type situation."

Mark Freeman used his version of the spread offense to help Alabama's Bessemer Academy to several state titles before taking over at Gulf Shores (Ala.) High. In attempting to implement his plays, he's turned to 7-on-7s for help.

"We didn't put anything new in for 7-on-7, we ran our stuff," Freeman said. "We got some free looks at it. I like it because your defense gets to see a lot of really good offensive stuff. We did it as much for defense as for offense."

Yet the system has its detractors.

Few can argue about the idea behind 7-on-7s. The criticism centers on what the contests have become.

Too often, some say, teams alter their game plans to win the competition. Some say coaches force their teams to learn new plays that would benefit 7-on-7 play rather than use their actual playbook.

Matt Scott is taking over at formerly run-oriented Hueytown (Ala.) High and putting in the spread offense he used as offensive coordinator at Spain Park (Ala.) High. Yet instead of taking all seven days for passing camps, he's declining to bring the players to any.

"It was really a big thing especially the past few years, but I don't know if it's as big as it used to be," Scott said. "Obviously, there are benefits. The thing I don't like about it is, a lot of teams will go out there and do things offensively and defensively that they normally don't do, trying to win 7-on-7 games. Your quarterback is going to see things coverage-wise that aren't realistic. Linebackers are typically run-first defenders, but in 7-on-7s, those guys are sitting back there 10 yards."

Instead, Scott will use the days for teaching or arranging makeshift scrimmages that will more closely resemble games.

There is some doubt as to whether 7-on-7s really help players prepare for college. Mullen said, "I just think it just helps them better learn their actual high school system better rather than get them ready for college."

But there is no doubt that prep programs would be forced to utilize scaled-back schemes if not for the camps in the summer. It takes longer to teach the passing game than the running game, and teams need every minute of preparation available.

That's why some high school programs boast offenses more complex than some colleges. What would have happened to spread offenses if 7-on-7 camps had never been invented?

"I don't think you could run [your offense] without the work you do in the summer," Propst said.

Ian R. Rapoport covers University of Alabama athletics for The Birmingham News. He can be reached at irapoport@bhamnews.com.