Think that high school classes such as Honors Calculus, Accelerated Modern World Conflicts or Environmental Engineering are tough?
Try playing defense for your high school football team.
Are you capable of making your reads, staying in your lanes and putting a hat on the ball every time the pigskin is snapped?
Will you be able to recognize when your opponents on the other side of the ball come out in a Wildcat formation, intent on running a Split Zone?
Is it in you to decipher audibles, make your checks at the line of scrimmage and adjust accordingly — all in a matter of seconds?
If you want to be successful at this level, you better be able to.
More now than at any other time in history, high school football defenses must stay ahead of the curve to keep up with the constant change that offenses present them with. It means being able to read and react, make adjustments on the fly and never, ever getting caught out of position.
"It comes down to the offense is trying to dictate the game," said Peter Bush, the defensive backs coach at Swampscott High, "and the defense is trying to dictate the tempo of what the offense does. Whoever wins that battle is most likely going to be on top at the end of the game."
"The whole game plan starts with your defense. It has to be the strongest part of your team," added Beverly High captain Joe Wioncek, who will play both linebacker and safety this fall. "(Playing well defensively) can really be a huge momentum changer."
The phrase 'defense wins championships' has been around for as long as white laces have been on brown footballs; that axiom won't ever change. What has changed is the way these units must be ready for any play at any time — and stop it.
"With the advent of the spread 'em and shred 'em offenses, combined with the traditional Wing-T offenses we see a lot of, it's more important than ever to be able to recognize and react defensively," said Hamilton-Wenham head coach Andrew Morency.
"You'll have, in one game, a play where a team will put kids on an island (i.e., spreading the field and garnering 1-on-1 matchups) in a spread-out offense, and on the very next play they'll have a big fullback banging up the middle of the line against you. As a coach and a player, you have to be more diversified than ever to be successful defensively."
Kurt Hunziker, who figures to be one of the North Shore's premier defenders this season as a junior linebacker for the Masconomet Chieftains, cut the argument down to its very core.
"If you don't have defense," said Hunziker, "you don't have a team."
It used to be fairly easy — or so it seemed.
For a long time, high school defenses didn't have to worry about too much chicanery or tomfoolery on the part of their opponents. Sure, some squads threw the ball more than others, and almost everyone ran a trick play from time to time.
But for the most part, teams ran the football more than 80 percent of the time, and defenses did what they had to in an attempt to stop it. Even as that percentage changed in the 1980s and into the '90s, with more teams putting the ball in the air with greater frequency, most defenses used either a 5-2 (five linemen and two linebackers) or 4-4 (two ends, two tackles, two inside linebackers and two outside 'backers) to shut down the opposition.
But like 8-tracks, Zubaz pants and great movies starring Robert DeNiro, those things are in the past. They've been replaced with more intricate and technical defensive game plans designed on stopping a particular offense one week — which could be switched entirely the following week, depending on the opponent and the style of offense they favor.
"You have to be able to be flexible as a defensive unit," said Bush. "The flexibility with these offenses has gotten to the point where they might be spread gun teams, but their first option is still running the football. All of a sudden, your defense sees them come out in the spread, so they widen the field and spread with the formation ... and you're left with open running lanes. So even with these spread offenses, they're still looking at what you're aligned in and if they see running lanes, they'll audible to a run play."
And it's not just the spread offense — the biggest buzzword in North Shore football lexicon in the 21st century — that defenses must guard against. It's also variations of the spread, not to mention traditional favorites like the Stack-I, the Wing-T (and its relative, the Delaware Wing-T), in addition to empty backfields, multiple formations and even no-huddle attacks.
Bush recalls last season when he was coaching at Danvers High and Lynn English was running a no-huddle offense, allowing them to run plays in rapid succession without the Falcons being able to substitute defensively.
"If you know going in that a team might have that tendency (of going no-huddle), you have to put together packages beforehand saying, 'OK, I've got to have these guys on the field defensively all the time," said Bush.
When he was a quarterback at Swampscott High a decade-and-a-half ago, everyone on both sides of the ball huddled up after every play, said Bush. Now that some offenses read plays off a wristband in a hurry-up situation, defenses are learning to cope with that — sometimes wearing wristbands of their own with defensive formations and plays.
"That's how you have to practice for those situations," Bush added. "We huddle as a defense right now, but when we go against spread or no-huddle teams, you can't. You've got to go off of those wristbands and the signals that the coaches relay to the players as quickly as possible."
Doing your 1/11th
Being prepared and knowing what you want to do defensively before a play is run is one thing. But when the football is exchanged from center to quarterback and chaos ensues on every play, sometimes the best scripted plans go by the wayside.
That's where instinct has to kick in.
"Defensively you have to have instincts for the game," said Wioncek. "You can go through form tackling and drops and reads as many times as you want, and it definitely helps. But most of that goes out the window when the ball snaps once and you're in the game. Not every tackle is going to be a form tackle, and you can't always make that perfect read on the ball. You have to rely on your instincts."
In almost every instance, it's the work defenses put in before and after practices — watching film and breaking down opponents' tendencies — that can help them get a leg up on what an offense might do.
But that system is also reliant on all 11 members of a defense being on the same page. Sure, the captains might be the ones making the checks and defensive calls, but if each player isn't doing what coaches love to call "their 1/11th" to make the whole thing work, it'll all go for naught.
That means players having the foresight to know their alignments and staying within their lanes. Just as important, it requires players to worry about their own jobs while trusting their teammates to do the same.
Masconomet, the five-time defending Cape Ann League Large titlists, employs a 4-4 scheme as its base defense most of the time. It allows its defensive linemen to put pressure on the opponent's backfield while the linebackers, who are only 3-4 yards off the ball, can attack the run or drop back into pass coverage with ease.
But having lost three linebackers, two defensive ends, a safety and both corners from last year's Super Bowl club, Hunziker and his mates know they'll need to step it up and make their own mark defensively.
"All the momentum you carry throughout a game really starts with the defense," said Hunziker, who's often paired up against a tight end or running back and is responsible for either keeping the ball out of their hands or stopping them once they get it.
"The real momentum comes from the goal line stops or the 3-and-outs that really spark the crowd and get the team riled up. Offense can get it done — but not without your defense stopping its opponent."
Ready for anything
Brendan Oliver of Danvers knows all about a defense shutting down a high powered offense. A star outside linebacker (and quarterback) at the Pingree School, he and his defensive mates negated Brigham Young University-bound quarterback Jordan Johnson and his Brooks School teammates, 7-6, to win the New England Prep School Athletic Conference championship in the Clark/Francis Bowl last fall.
"They came down and scored in, I think, the first five plays of the game, and we were kind of shaken up," admitted Oliver. "But on their next drive we resisted and showed we weren't going to give up. They went 3-and-out, which threw them off their rhythm ... and they didn't score again."
Playing a 3-4 defensive scheme, the Highlanders rely on using their speed and athleticism to beat their opponents off the snap, swarm to the football and prevent big yardage from being gained.
"From a linebacker standpoint, what we key on is the guards," Oliver said. "If they pull and come to the outside, you contain. If you see them downfield blocking, you fill the hole."
It's the same thing for Salem's All-League middle linebacker, senior Antonio Reyes. As someone whose greatest strengths are his instincts and football IQ, the Witches' two-year captain is a read-and-react tackling force.
"I read the guards, then (focus) on the nearest back," Reyes said of his mindset just prior to the snap. "If the guard pulls right, our first read step should be with our right foot and the guard to the nearest back will bring you to the ball. Once you see a play action play (develop), you drop back into coverage."
Wioncek, who will also play quarterback for the Panthers this season, knows it can be just as tough trying to read the ball from that side of the football. A huge reason for that, he said, is the terrific work and preparation of the defensive coordinators — in this case, the Northeastern Conference.
"(A certain formation) might seem like a Cover 2 or a Cover 4, but then it will roll to a Cover 3 or a Cover 6. It's tough for a QB; you'll be looking at the defense trying to get your pre-snap reads, and they'll be shifting all over the place," he said.
Like many coaches, Morency feels the trickle-down nature of football, with high school teams emulating schemes and formations they see at the collegiate level, means defenses must find a way to keep up with the ever-evolving offenses they'll be facing.
"Like most things, football has trends — and this is now one of them," said the H-W head man. "If the offense is setting the bar on a trend, the defense is going to have to figure it out pretty quickly.
"At this level, with shorter quarters and third down efficiency being so important, every play is a big play," Morency concluded. "That means your defense has to be ready — for anything."
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Salem News correspondent Nick Traicoff contributed to this story.