Friday, November 28, 2008

Single wing offense alive and well

Note: Single Wing Sentinel in Newsday

John Jeansonne
2:22 PM EST, November 24, 2008

Football archeologists well understand that the game's latest contrivance, the Wildcat formation, merely is a mutation of the old single wing. But when coach Chris Stevens of Manhattan's Xavier High School started poking though the mists of antiquity two years ago, ultimately deciding to revive the beast in its original form, he discovered the existence of "a cult of single wingers, and once you're in the cult, they're dying to give you stuff."

It has been a half-century since the heyday of the single wing, an offense in which the "quarterback" mostly blocked while the direct snap -- shotgun-style -- went to a "tailback" to pass, hand off or kick; or to a "fullback" who would mix straight-ahead power with spinning moves meant to hide the ball's whereabouts.

A disappointing end to the 2005 seasons and the prospect of graduating key players in his Wing-T offense had sent Stevens, who was 41 years old at the time and "had only heard of the single wing" but never seen it in use, scouting around for an alternative.

He studied the shotgun and spread offenses -- themselves with roots in the single wing because they also depend on the direct snap -- and spent "about $800 on materials, the last $120 of my own money," before unearthing a three-pack of DVDs by an Illinois high school coach named Mike Rude, a highly decorated practitioner of the single wing.
On the college level, the offense last had been employed in 1993, by Division III Denison of Ohio; at the Division I level, it had its farewell season in 1967 at Princeton and, among major powers, in 1959 at UCLA. NFL teams had discarded the single wing entirely 12 years earlier, with the Pittsburgh Steelers last to move on to the T-formation.

But it turned out that the single wing had -- and still has -- pockets of devout followers on the high school level throughout the nation. On Long Island, Glen Cove's Peter Kopecky has been using it since 2002, though he said he has evolved into a system closer to the University of Florida's spread offense.

Kopecky stumbled into the cult literally "by going online" and not only found Web sites dedicated to the single wing but an annual gathering of single wing coaches in Pennsylvania called the Single Wing Conclave. "So I went," Kopecky said. And, if effect, joined a very exclusive club.

Adam Wesoloski, who runs the Web site, noted in an e-mail that the high school in his hometown of Menominee, Mich., has been running the single wing since 1966 and has won three state titles with it -- including the last two years. There is a National Single Wing Symposium for coaches each July and a Single Wing Sentinel which tabulates stories ("The Offense That Would Not Die," one article proclaims) on single wing activity throughout the country.

At Xavier High, Chris Stevens' unveiling of the single wing might have struck his young players as something from outer space, except "it was outer space for me, too," he said.

Only football followers of a certain age recall that the single wing, invented by Pop Warner in 1906 and the staple of pro, college and high school teams for roughly 50 years, placed the "quarterback" closest of the four backs to the line of scrimmage, behind a tackle, with a wingback outside one end. Of the two deep backs, the tailback functioned primarily as the modern quarterback does in the spread or shotgun, and the fullback usually as the running back in those formations.

This year's fad, the Wildcat, "is more single wing than spread or shotgun," Stevens said, "because when they go to the Wildcat, they're putting a running back at the quarterback spot" and most likely sticking to the ground game.

The beauty to the single wing, he has found, is having different backs capable of handling the ball and therefore "a lot of deception, with great blocking angles, a mass of power blocking at the point of attack." Furthermore, whether the direct snap goes to the tailback or fullback, either is theoretically a passing threat as well as a danger on the run.

Whether the Wildcat could actually morph back into the old single wing on the pro and college level, Stevens isn't sure. "I'm not there yet," he said. "But if we could marry the quality spread game with the power of the single wing, we'd make a lot of defensive coordinators cry."

Last year, only its second full season with the single wing, Xavier was 10-1, led the state in rushing, led the Catholic league in scoring, won its division and won its traditional big Thanksgiving Day game against Fordham Prep. "This year, we've eclipsed last year's numbers," he said, "with 465 points in 10 games."

Already, Stevens has had "guys who e-mailed back-and-forth about the single wing coming to our games to see us run it. I'm a newcomer, but I'm making a mark with it. I'm happy to be executing it, and the cult will bring me along."

(For those who want to experience Xavier's "Back to the Future" offense against Fordham this Turkey Day, the game will be televised by MSG at 10:30 a.m. Thursday.)
Newsday Inc.

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