At first glance, Dave Maimaron didn’t need to change much about Duxbury High School’s offense. In 2005, his first season as head coach, Maimaron inherited a veteran roster and left the familiar wing-T offense largely intact. The Dragons won all 13 of their games, by an average of 21 points, and rolled to a Division 2A Super Bowl.
The next offseason, though, Maimaron blew it all up. He transformed the offensive system to the spread, a scheme familiar to Northeast colleges at the time but largely ignored at the high school level. He hoped to capitalize on a student body that often produced athletes at the skill positions but not the offensive line.
The benefits of this metamorphosis were not immediately apparent. Duxbury went 6-5 and averaged just under 17 points per game in an offense that featured the oddities of two-foot splits on the offensive line, a quarterback positioned exclusively in the shotgun, and bubble screens out of five-receiver sets.
Ten seasons later, it’s clear that Maimaron was ahead of the curve. The spread, once considered a gimmick, is now the predominant high school offense in Eastern Massachusetts. In many ways, it has transformed the sport.
Small, quick wide receivers are no longer relegated to special teams; they’re thriving in the slot. Linemen, needing to get to the defense’s second and third levels quickly, are faster. Offensive numbers are bordering on the absurd. Last season, Andover quarterback E.J. Perry IV threw for a state-record 636 yards in a playoff loss, while a whopping 91 teams averaged more than 25 points per game.
And in Duxbury, the Dragons have won three Super Bowls since making the transition. Bobby Maimaron, Dave’s son, has thrown for a school-record 82 touchdowns in 29 varsity starts. That’s already 31 more than the former record-holder, and Maimaron still has a senior season to play.
“I love where football is going,” said Tom Lamb, the current offensive coordinator at Boston English who has been coaching in Massachusetts for more than 40 years. “It’s safer, more fun, and takes advantage of the athletes.
“My question is, what happens to our game in 10-15 years? I think it’s going to be a completely different game.
“Some old-timers are saying, ‘No way, we’re going to jam the ball in there no matter what because we’re tough.’ Well, I compare that to the old-timers saying, ‘I’m smoking cigarettes until I go.’ ”
The system fits the players
The spread has been utilized in the college ranks for years, particularly in New England, where schools such as Holy Cross, Harvard, and New Hampshire used the up-tempo, high-scoring system to revitalize their programs. Local high school coaches, including Lamb, unsuccessfully tested out some of the schemes in the 1990s.
This was back when plays were drawn out by hand before being copied into playbooks, when researching radical new game plans took more than just an Internet connection. It was about keeping it simple and focusing on executing a small number of plays, not reinventing an offense.
But after the system gained popularity with high-profile colleges and concepts became easier to study with online play-sharing services such as Hudl, the system took off in the 2000s.
The goals of the spread are simple: get athletes the ball in space by stretching out the defense instead of cramming players into the box as in the traditional wing-T or I formation. The ways to accomplish this differ, but in almost every spread offense, the quarterback lines up primarily in the shotgun and the linemen have at least two-foot splits.
Coaches quickly realized that this system could be tailored to almost any type of player. That’s crucial at the high school level, where schools don’t get to improve their personnel with recruiting or free agent pickups.
Duxbury, for example, has around 400 boys in the student body in a given year. Whether there are 300-pound linemen in that population just depends, and it’s tough to run a power run scheme without large blockers up front.
Andover coach E.J. Perry III was another early convert to the spread. Like Maimaron, Perry realized that his program generally produced more talented skill players than large offensive linemen. He traded the school’s run-and-shoot philosophy, something of a cousin to the spread, for an offense more suited toward his personnel.
“I love the spread because it can always be adapted,” said Perry. “If you’re a power guy and you don’t have those linemen or a good running back, it’s hard to just say, ‘Well, that’s what I do.’ Each year, we get a set of players, and we have to make them go. The spread seems to be able to fit all of them.”
That doesn’t mean throwing the ball on every down. In Perry’s first two years, Andover ran a power rushing attack through Andrew Coke, who went on to play at Brown. It just came out of the spread.
Now, with the Boston College-committed Perry IV and Brown-bound wide receiver Dan Gemmell, the Golden Eagles use an adapted version of the early New Hampshire playbooks. It’s full of creative concepts to get the ball out in space quickly, like a wide receiver bubble screen that employs a pulling guard to pick up a safety in the flat.
Perry IV, who last season threw for 2,852 yards and a state-leading 34 touchdowns (both school records), says he’s never taken a snap under center as a four-year starter. In that time, the playbook has evolved to the point where it now resembles a motion offense in basketball.
By featuring what’s called a run-pass option (RPO), essentially a triple option, Perry IV is able to hand it off to a running back, run it himself, or stay in the pocket and find an open receiver, all of whom are basing their individual routes on reading the defensive coverage. Oh, and they’re doing this up-tempo and often without a huddle.
It’s a lot to take in. Each season, Andover players are handed a disc programmed with 200 pages worth of plays and variations of those plays. Many of them, like the RPOs, are layered with options. During game weeks, players get a condensed version in a packet about 20 pages long.
On the front cover are the words, “If you want to play, you will learn this packet. There is no substitution for memorization.”
In this system, nobody memorizes more than the quarterback. For Perry IV, this responsibility is “awesome.” During the recruiting process, colleges were impressed by his ability to break down a defense, a skill he honed over four years in a system that requires him to do that on every play. Plus, he might not have thrown for 34 touchdowns in his entire career in a wing-T offense.
“A lot of time in a pro-style offense, the quarterback isn’t a player and the defense has a safety to help cover the wide receivers,” Perry IV said. “In this offense, they have to account for me. It’s 11-11, truly, and that’s hard to defend.”
A few holdouts
It’s not just personnel preferences that have contributed to the rise of the spread. Less contact in the trenches leads to fewer helmet-to-helmet blows, and the rise of offseason seven-on-seven passing camps has put an emphasis on throwing the ball.
Plus, high school players enjoy playing in an offense that puts up points and that they can see on TV every weekend in the college and pro ranks.
Dave Maimaron estimates that Duxbury has five running plays and around 15 passing routes they frequently run, but that he can’t count the total number of passing plays the team employs. But so far, memorization hasn’t been a problem.
“It makes practice a lot more interesting when you’re hocking the ball around,” Maimaron said. “It brings the engagement level up.”
Still, the spread is not yet ubiquitous in Eastern Massachusetts. Buoyed by big players and head coach Mike Willey, a former collegiate offensive lineman, Buckingham Browne and Nichols averaged 43 points and over 400 yards per game running a pro-style offense last season.
Then there’s Charlie Stevenson, the longtime Xaverian coach. Though he’s added spread concepts and different formations, he says that players from the 1990s would still recognize much of his current offensive playbook, which, as a living document that changes only by executive order, is dubbed “The Constitution.”
On Stevenson’s computer screen, The Constitution is a little over 70 slides long. Other than the quarterbacks, most Hawks don’t ever receive the entire document. Stevenson and his staff install plays on a day-by-day basis before the season to see what works.
Xaverian is old school in that it runs a small number of plays in a large number of formations and because Stevenson’s philosophy of running the ball hasn’t changed. He’s so partial to the run that his assistant coaches sometimes call him “Ground Chuck.”
If you take in a Massachusetts high school game this year, chances are you’ll see a team working primarily out of the spread. It won’t look like the offenses of yore, but coaches up and down the state believe it’s here to stay.
Ground Chuck, though, will likely be one of the last holdouts. The Hawks have gone 34-2 in the last three seasons, including 24 wins in a row, and are two-time defending Division 1 Super Bowl champions.
“I tried a hurry-up spread once,” said Stevenson, “and I told my assistant coaches, if I ever try that again, hold me underwater until the bubbles stop coming up.
“I don’t like it. We’re going to run downhill at you. If you’re not used to practicing against that, you’re not going to beat us.”
Everett Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.