Whole new ball game

Transition to eight-player football provides offensive boost, but requires teams to modify strategies, schemes

News File Photo Atlanta players Manny Diaz (52) and Reece Wood (3) tackle a Grand Traverse Academy player during a 2017 eight-player football game at Atlanta High School. Teams that switch from 11-player to eight-player football usually see an immediate increase in offense and are more competitive. But that transition also requires adapting to different game plans on both sides of the ball, a narrower field and different strategies to ensure long term success.

As Troy Cheedie was preparing and game-planning for the 2017 season, he turned to a trusted source for guidance and insight.

He went to YouTube.

With his Atlanta football team about to compete in its first season of eight-player football, Cheedie needed to find ways to put his team in position to be successful.

“Myself, as a coach, I watched a lot of film on eight-man football; the Dakotas, Minnesota and other states out there, they play a lot of eight-man,” Cheedie said. “I spent a lot of time YouTubing stuff and trying to find what I thought we wanted to do.”

For the teams that switch from 11-player football to eight-player football, the transition presents a different set of challenges from traditional 11-player football for teams. Having fewer players on the field is an obvious difference, but coaches and players must also adapt to new strategies, different formations and a narrower football field.

There’s no doubt eight-player football provides a multitude of scoring opportunities. A speedster can take a kickoff return to the house with ease with fewer players to stop him on defense. A running back can burst through a gap or turn a corner and suddenly find himself in open space with a clear path to paydirt.

But the fundamentals of 11-player and eight-player football are still the same. If teams want to win, players must learn to tackle, block, run, throw and catch. Over time, the scores have become a lot less lopsided and having a strong defense becomes just as important as being able to put points on the board.

Since the eight-player playoffs began in Michigan in 2011, two championship games have been decided by two points. In last season’s Division 2 eight-player playoffs, eight of the 15 games played were decided by 14 points or less.

“At first, they’re (players are) a little skeptical because they don’t know and they hear things like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be like arena football, it’s going to be this high-scoring shootout,’ and maybe as coaches that’s what we thought, too. But it’s not,” Posen Athletic Director and former coach Wayne Karsten said. “Sure, we had games like that…now that it’s evolved, it’s not like that anymore.”

An increase in offense

For football programs that have switched, including Posen, Atlanta and Onaway, there’s usually an instant uptick in offense as players operate in more open space.

During its final season of 11-player football in 2017, Atlanta averaged just 6.37 points per game. Last season, as a new eight-player football team, the Huskies scored 25.6 points per game.

Posen scored just 6.3 points per game during the 2008 season, but switching to eight-player in 2009 saw the Vikings score 23 points per game. It got even better the next season when Posen averaged 36.2 points per game.

Onaway saw an offensive increase after switching, too. The Cardinals scored 12.6 points per game during an injury-riddled final 11-player season in 2014, but, as an eight-player team in 2015, the Cardinals scored 40.6 points per game.

The increase in offense doesn’t always guarantee more wins, but it can do a lot to invigorate a struggling program.

“If you’re not winning, what kids want to do is they want to get in the end zone; we did that a lot in 2009,” Karsten said. “We scored a lot of points.”

For teams with a strong running game, eight-player football can be just what the doctor ordered. In 2012, Posen running back Nick Hincka shattered the program’s single-season rushing record, racking up 1,754 yards on 209 carries and 16 touchdown with an average of 8.3 yards per carry. The next season, Hincka was even better, collecting 1,769 yards on 214 carries, an 8.26 average per carry.

When Posen began playing eight-player football in 2009, it ran a spread offense at the urging of Athletic Director Jack Gebauer. In recent years, the Vikings’ offense is more run-oriented, with a focus on power football, and it’s allowed many players, especially those with speed, to flourish.

“There’s nothing prettier than a three-yard run,” Karsten said. “Keeps the ball, forces the other team to play defense.”

Eight-player football allows versatility to shine through too. In 2009, quarterback Shane Hentkowski was a jack-of-all-trades for the Vikings, accumulating more than 1,100 yards of offense.

Versatility also comes through on defense. During his time with the Vikings, Hincka was one of Posen’s leading tacklers and linebackers are typically among those with the highest tackle numbers in eight-man football. During the 2015 season, Skyler Tulgestke racked up 148 tackles as one the Vikings’ defensive leaders at linebacker. That same season, Travis Sharpe was a two-way star for the Vikings, accounting for 36 offensive touchdowns and recording 87 tackles and 12 interceptions as a defensive back.

Putting a plan together

When it comes to game-planning, Cheedie isn’t alone in his use of the internet. With 32 states having eight-player football teams and more than 60 schools in Michigan playing, coaches don’t have to look far for ideas.

With an even number of players on either side of the ball, there’s not a weak side or strong side for teams to exploit. Plus there’s a lot more open space to account for. An eight-player football field is still 100 yards, but 40 yards wide, 13 1/3 yards narrower than an 11-player field.

Eligibility rules work differently, too. In eight-player football, five players have to be on the line of scrimmage, which makes the other three eligible. It allows teams the freedom to run different formations and even a lineman can be an eligible receiver, since players aren’t limited to eligibility by jersey number, as in 11-player football.

Many coaches try to adapt their schemes from 11-player football and, in many cases, teams can do just that. Chances are good that, if a coach has an idea, someone else has probably tried it and all it takes is a coach figuring out what he wants to run.

“We hit the internet, let me tell you,” Karsten said of Posen’s first eight-player season in 2009. “I talked to coaches in other states about what you do, what can we do, how to do it and it’s a lot different. It’s a different strategy, eight-man versus 11-man.”

On offense, teams have a multitude of options. For teams that like to pass, a spread offense like the pistol formation can be used. For teams that prefer to run, offenses have been built for eight-player football using the single-wing, wing-T and veer formations, among others.

On defense, teams typically go with a seven-man front, a six-man front or a five-man front and each front allows for teams to run multiple formations.

Each formation is classified by the number of linemen and linebackers in it. A 4-3-1 formation, for example, has four defensive linemen (two tackles and two ends) and three linebackers, along with one defensive back.

With a lot of defensive game plans aimed at stopping a team’s running game, having a solid defensive line can be critical for keeping teams out of the end zone.

Linebackers and defensive backs take on an increased role, too. With more open space, the eight-player game features a lot more open-field tackling and quickness is important for a defense to slow down an opponent’s run game.

“I think it all starts with your defensive linemen. The three down guys you have, they need to be able to penetrate and re-establish the line of scrimmage right away,” Cheedie said. “Your linebackers, they need to be quicker kids and need to stop the kids in the middle and stop the kids coming around the corner.”

At first glance, the differences between eight-player football and 11-man football can be jarring for coaches, players and fans alike. But, regardless of how many players are lined up on each side of the field, it’s still football and the goals are still the same.

“Just because there are fewer players, doesn’t mean the sport has changed completely. You’re still running, still blocking and tackling,” Geoff Kimmerly, media and content coordinator for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, said. “Football is still football and you’re still out there doing the same things and it’s still great for our (smaller) communities.”

James Andersen can be reached via email at sports@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.