Wednesday, October 31, 2012
With single wing, Nauset blasts to past -- and uncharted territory
By Eric Adler
NORTH EASTHAM, Mass. –- Last Friday night, the Nauset Regional football team wrote another chapter in its developing success story, racing up and down the field with baffling ball fakes, well-rehearsed reverses and other plays of deception to take down Atlantic Coast League foe Falmouth 49-14 and raise its record to 8-0 for the first time in school history.
But if you want to know how the Warrriors' wonderful work of non-fiction got started in the first place, you have to go back a few years to when offensive coordinator Ray Ciarleglio made a trip -– appropriately enough –- to the library.
In 2007, Ciarleglio held the same position for the North Kingstown, R.I. football team when he checked out an ostensibly dusty hardcover about the single wing offense. He then approached head coach Keith Kenyon about installing it to solve the Skippers' short-yardage woes.
Only Kenyon liked it so much that after reading up on it himself, he ordered a set of instructional DVDs and decided to make the single wing his team's primary plan of attack. It worked like a charm as the Skippers produced a winning record that season, and the following year (2008) made it to the state championship.
What was most remarkable about North Kingstown's title run was that they did it with a century-old offense -– created by Pop Warner, and later popularized by Notre Dame's Knute Rockne with his famous box formation -– but one that hasn't been used much since the Eisenhower era. It fell out of favor as offenses switched to the T-formation, forcing opponents to defend a larger area of the field, and also became more prone to passing.
To those unfamiliar, the single wing features an unbalanced line with four backs set up in various locations behind the center. Each of them –- the fullback, tailback, wing back and blocking back (the de facto quarterback) -– can take the direct snap and are capable of running, blocking, throwing, or, as is often the case, acting as a decoy.
It's not an offense intended for gimmicks and gadgets, but it has the same "gotcha" effect all the same. The core of ball carriers combined with constant criss-crossing confuses some defenders, and catches others flat-footed.
Players like junior Jimmy Sullivan (1,221 all-purpose yards, 12 TDs) have thrived under Nauset's single-wing offense, which has the Warriors 8-0 for the first time in school history.
Two years after Kenyon guided North Kingstown to the state title game, he took over as Nauset's coach, bringing Ciarleglio and his single wing playbook with him. But in spite of the success he had, there were some skeptics who dismissed his scheme for being out of style. Teams who used the single wing lived in the dark ages and were destined to self-destruct. Kenyon's critics had ample ammunition after Nauset was "beaten up" during its one and only pre-season scrimmage against Austin Prep. But the confident coach kept his cool.
"There were some people who were negative, and even the kids looked at us funny at first," said Kenyon. "They had run a spread offense in the past and were used to throwing it 30-40 times a game, and now we were running 30-40 times a game. But success has a way of validating what you do."
And it didn't take long for that to happen.
It was early in the first quarter of the Warriors' 2010 season-opener against Old Rochester when Kenyon sent in a play as simple in name as it is in design: 321 weak-side sweep. The play began with wing back Peter Hennigan lining up on the back edge of the tight end. He turned toward the center of the field, took a handoff from spinning fullback Nick El-Bayeh, and curled around the left end (the 1-hole) for a 60-yard touchdown.
Nauset hit many more big plays that day, obliterating Old Rochester 42-18. By then everyone, from the boosters to the marching band, was on board with the single wing.
The Warriors finished the season with a 6-5 record, a remarkable turnaround for a team that experienced only four combined wins in its previous five years, punctuated by back-to-back 0-10 campaigns in 2005 and 2006.
Nauset built on that success with a 7-4 mark last year, and this season's senior-laden team stands atop the Atlantic Coast League with a chance to go to the postseason for the first time in the program's 17-year history.
"We had two 300-pound linemen and some other big kids who could move you off the ball, so we felt we had the personnel to use the single wing that first year, and we still feel we do," said Kenyon. "In the majority of our offensive plays, there's a double team, a trapper and a pull through guy, so there's a lot of humanity at the point of attack. There's a lot of physicality to this offense. You've got to be tough to play it."
Plenty of teams are tough enough, but Nauset is the only one in the Bay State that routinely runs the single wing, impervious to the stale stigma it carries.
"It's not an offense that's in vogue," said Kenyon, noting his 83-year-old father, Bud, ran it while playing for Springfield College. "Some people think it's archaic. They'll say, why do you want to run an offense from the 1940s or 1950s. It can be complicated too. From the tailback to the fullback to the blocking back to the wing back, everybody's got to block."
But when it works, as it often does for the Warriors –- ranked No. 20 this week in ESPNBoston.com's statewide poll –- it's a thing of beauty. Through the first eight games, Nauset has outscored the opposition 236-93. Countless hours in the weight room and many more pouring over game film can be attributed to the team's success, but ultimately what's working in their favor is the element of surprise.
"Most teams have trouble dealing with the single wing because they've never seen it before," said Kenyon. "It's a very hard offense for competing teams to simulate in practice in one week."
Mashpee coach Matt Triveri, whose Falcons won the MIAA Eastern Mass. Division 4 Super Bowl last year and have faced the Warriors the past three seasons, can attest to that.
"We're a traditional 4-4 team, but with all their motions and criss-crossing, you really can't play man-to-man against them," said Triveri. "It's similar to when we face option teams. We have to stay disciplined. And even though they're overloaded to one side, they're very balanced with their ability to throw the football. Two years ago, we held them to negative 15 yards rushing in the first half, but they had 170 passing on us. On top of that, they have athletic kids who block well and can set the edge. They create problems, no doubt about it."
At the heart of Nauset's versatile attack are tailbacks Jimmy Sulivan and Colby Frodel, fullbacks Connor Martin and Gabe DeStephano, wingbacks Cade Frodel and Frank DeStephano, and blocking back Jamie Law.
Not to be overlooked is the offensive line, anchored by center Eric Marston and Brown-bound 6-foot-2, 235-pound tackle Dakota Girard. The unit is coached by Bob Griffin, the winningest coach for the University of Rhode Island.
Sullivan leads the Warriors with 830 rushing yards, a 7.28 yard-per-carry average, and nine touchdowns. He's also thrown for three scores, and the Frodel brothers have each tossed a TD. But the Warriors are nothing if not balanced, with nine different players running for a score. In last Friday night's game against Falmouth, for instance, Colby Frodel ran for 74 yards and two TDs and threw for one on a halfback option. Sullivan ran for 72 yards and a score, and Harry Lynch hauled in two scoring passes totaling 112 yards. All told, the Warriors had three scoring plays of 40 or more yards.
"There's so much going on that it's easy for defensive linemen and linebackers to get caught in the backfield," said Law. "There's a lot of false keys. It's never one player or one pulling guard that takes you to the ball. Our offense creates so much confusion. I know I wouldn't want to play against it."
Just as impressive was the Warriors' stout defense, which forced four turnovers against the Clippers -- including three interceptions, one of which was returned 52 yards for a score by Frodel.
"The single wing actually makes us better on defense too," said Kenyon. "Because we're hitting so much on offense (many of his players go both ways), it's made us more of a physical than finesse team."
The Warriors have also shown their smarts, able to adjust to an ever-changing landscape of defensive fronts. And to make matters more difficult for the opposition, they add an extra layer of subterfuge.
"Our kids have become so advanced now that they make decoy calls at the line of scrimmage," said Kenyon. "They're chirping and barking out stuff, and half the time I don't know what they're talking about. They do it with the snap count and the blocking schemes. They've come up with their own nomenclature for the whole thing and are having fun with it. Nobody except for them knows what they're talking about. They've taken it to another level, more than any of the single wing teams that I've coached."
That a once relic offense has experienced a renaissance at Nauset speaks to the team's unselfishness. No one's concerned with stats or star power, only team success. Perhaps the most meaningful thing the single wing has done is change the culture at the National Seashore school.
"When I was a freshmen we'd come into games saying 'we're gonna get killed,' but now there's an expectation to win," said Law. "We're a group of guys who have come together for one common goal. A lot of newspapers have been asking 'Is Nauset for real?" but our motto is to prove ourselves every week and prove we're a better team than the week before."
Next up for Nauset is Sandwich, followed by Plymouth South, who shares the lead in the ACL. Then it's onto their annual Thanksgiving Day clash with defending Division 2A Super Bowl champion Dennis-Yarmouth. The Dolphins hold an 11-5 edge in the Thanksgiving series, including their current nine-game win streak.
Asked if an offense as old as the Titanic is capable of producing a title, Kenyon said, "The offense suits our kids, but it's the kids who make it work. They're the one who will take us to the next level if we're going to get there."
And if they do, what an end to their story that would be.