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Why run when they can fly?

A greater number of county schools are turning to the allure of passing offenses.

By BOB PUTNAM, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002

The latest incarnation of offensive formations in Pinellas County seems all wrong.

The spread offense?

The pro set?

The shotgun?

The run-and-shoot?

What in the name of the I-formation is going on here?

For years, county teams have stuck to a basic offensive philosophy of establishing the run, avoiding mistakes and taking what the defense gives them.

But there is change in the air. This season, teams are shucking their roots, establishing the pass and pushing the ball downfield.

Preseason games and jamborees showed off new offenses. Lakewood threw the ball. So did Admiral Farragut. And Clearwater. And Osceola. Even two of the more conservative teams, East Lake and Seminole, opened up their playbooks.

"It looks like the teams that have kids who can get loose are going to try and throw the ball around a little bit," Northeast coach Jerry Austin said.

For the past decade, it was heresy for county teams to play football as if they were manipulating the controls of a video game.

Gibbs offensive coordinator Dave Cleppe was the only heretic. In 1993, Cleppe had an up-and-coming quarterback, Shaun King, and went to Florida State University to learn the intricacies of the Seminoles' fastbreak offense.

"I saw they had a lot of success with what they were doing and I wanted to copy it," Cleppe said. "At first, we were only going to use it when we fell behind, but it worked so well we used it the entire game."

For programs built on running games, watching a quarterback toss the football constantly took some getting used to. But the nonbelievers were converted by the success of Gibbs and others.

In the past three seasons, Lakewood has run a variation of the spread offense and made the playoffs twice. John Davis, who guided Clearwater Central Catholic to six consecutive playoff berths before taking over at Countryside this season, has had a balanced attack out of a pro-set formation.

Personnel dictates how well teams can throw. Gibbs, Lakewood and CCC had strong aerial attacks because they had quarterbacks who could read defenses and make quick decisions.

But the forward pass also becomes an attractive option when the quarterback does not have the luxury of handing off to a bread-and-butter back. That is the case this season. Fifteen of the top 20 leading rushers in the county last year graduated, including the top 12.

So teams are taking advantage of what they have, namely quarterbacks. Twelve of the top 20 signal-callers return this season.

There are other reasons why teams have amped up their offenses. Putting four or five receivers in a formation counteracts the eight-man fronts defenses use to stop the run. An aerial assault creates wide alleys for running backs.

"It makes sense to me to spread people out and give your running backs room to run," said Largo coach Rick Rodriguez, who will use five-receiver sets.

Clearwater assistant coaches Otis Dixon and Jermaine Clemons know the benefits of being a running back in such a system.

The former Tornado players had brilliant careers in USF's spread offense. Clemons gained 132 yards in the Bulls' inaugural game and Dixon is tied with Marquel Blackwell and Dyral McMillan as the school's single-season leaders in rushing touchdowns with nine.

Borrowing pages from their USF playbook, Dixon and Clemons have installed the same type of offense at Clearwater. In last week's preseason game, Derelle Houser threw a 75-yard touchdown pass and completed four passes on another scoring drive.

But while everyone is airing it out, leave it to the Gladiators to buck the trend. Gibbs will grind it out.

"We're not like everybody else," Cleppe said.

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