Back in the primitive days of the 20th century, the United States evidently regarded its middle-school boys as dim bulbs incapable of processing complicated information relative to the elusive science of American football. Yet hark, here at the brink of 2019, an evolution has flowered.
For a good while now, college coach after college coach has been telling anyone who will ask that quarterbacks arrive on campus skillful as never before in reading sinister defenses of vicious complexity. Remember that period of adjustment new collegians used to need, a factor understood by all Americans addled with the sport? It seems to have withered dead.
As a hilt, here’s a College Football Playoff with four teams and four first-year starters at quarterback, with zero of the four teams having had to compensate for many boneheaded blunders from the greenhorn under center. Even while born in August 1997 (Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray), March 1998 (Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Notre Dame’s Ian Book) and — steel yourself — October 1999 (Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence), these four have a collective touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 120-21, so they’re about to pilot a three-game event watched by millions, a sign of either teenage progress or a deranged culture.
“Even our 12-year-olds, our 13-year-olds, understand cover-one, cover-two, cover-zero” defenses, said Prescott Bailey, who coaches Ewa Beach Hammerheads, the program for which Tagovailoa once played, founded by Ewa Beach native and former Dallas Cowboys draftee Mike Ulufale.
“Quarterbacks know, right now [at very young ages], when they motion a guy, they’re doing it to see if they’re in zone,” said Robert Faleafine, the president of Jr. Sports Prep Hawaii, who has coached in it as well. “They’re doing it to see if they’re in man. At this level. They’re watching that. So receivers are already being taught how to sit in zone, and to see whether the cornerback bails or if he sits. They learn these things already. At 11! At this level. It’s crazy!”
NFL teams were doing,” Gattis said. “College teams ran NFL systems, high school teams ran NFL systems, and it went all the way down to little league. And now in today’s age, I think football is rising from the bottom, working to the top. You see, you know, little league and Pop Warner programs that are running spread systems. These kids are in spread systems from the time they’re 8 years old to the time they go to high school.”
To accentuate that, there’s the skill-sharpening of 7-on-7 camps and leagues, a factor stressed by Michael Locksley, Alabama’s lead offensive coordinator and Maryland’s new head coach.
“I think the big thing is, their understanding of defensive structures and coverages, and with all the 7-on-7 stuff that people do,” Locksley said. “Nowadays, you’ve got all the 7-on-7 leagues. These guys are learning the passing game a lot earlier than, say, a guy who turned around and handed it off 40 times a game in high school. Now they’re coming in with understanding and knowledge of passing concepts, and for me that’s probably been the biggest change from the high school quarterback of 10 years ago to the high school quarterback of now.”
Tagovailoa, just now 20, has been interviewed like mad this December, and he can’t remember any plays he conducted for the Hammerheads and later the Ewa Beach Sabers, amid all the camps and gurus and toil of his younger youth. “I have a pretty good memory, but I don’t think my memory traces that far back,” he said. “I mean, it’s definitely helped me, throughout the years, with understanding where guys need to be at, [with] my footwork, I’d say.”
The youth coaches tend to have played at some level, of course. Ask them about their playing days and the relative level of sophistication, and they might start laughing, as Maetele did before he said of nowadays, “They’re football-smart by the time they get into high school. They’ve pretty much seen all the offenses and defenses there are.”
“It even impresses me, because I’ll sit there, I see ’em motion,” said Faleafine, the president. “I see they no longer run the quarterback to the sideline [and say], ‘OK, run this,’ right? None of that. It’s all hand signs now. … It’s all, you walk into a high school now, those signals, easy for you, you comprehend, you know, ‘trips’ right, ‘power’ this. It’s fascinating.”
He said these lads running their spreads sometimes resemble, as much as they can, say, Chip Kelly’s Oregon, with the traps and the versatility and whatnot. “You know, so Tua, he was running the spread,” he said, before recalling an all-star game Tagovailoa played as a seventh-grader against a team from Washington state: “Washington came down. They were huge. They were a program like ours. But they couldn’t stop the passing game.”
‘Hawaii has gone football-mad’
Hawaii makes a good epitome. In some real and curious way, its surge in football visibility this decade has bonded it unprecedentedly with the mainland. Where Hawaiian players once limited themselves largely to the Pacific and Mountain time zones, Tagovailoa’s venture all the way to Alabama has helped amplify possibility.
Coaches from LSU, Georgia et al are alighting to walk the outdoor hallway of Honolulu’s airport. In quite a wow, the 50th state has loosed four major quarterbacks upon the American Southeast — Tagovailoa, Mackenzie Milton of UCF, Jordan Ta’amu of Mississippi and Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans. It’s an era when, as Faleafine told it, Hawaiians utter strange new passages such as, “What time’s the Alabama game on?”