WELCOME TO THE BIGTOP: Sumrall's offense flies high By JOSH MLOT - The Lamar Times
October 12, 2012Sumrall High School
WELCOME TO THE BIGTOP: Sumrall's offense flies high
By JOSH MLOT Sports Editor
The history of high school football in Mississippi is a funny thing. There are a lot of stories and a lot of memories, but as far as historical records go, well, let’s just say there’s not a lot to go on.
Fans of Sumrall football don’t need record books to know that what they’re watching this season is unprecedented in the school’s history and has limited company in those imaginary state record books. In a state bursting at the seams with football passion but seemingly uninterested in officially tracking its path, it will be left to best guesses and conjecture as to where the Bobcats belong.
Count Sumrall among those that aren’t really that concerned with the numbers. When head coach Shannon White installed the new-look, high-flying trapeze act he calls an offense this past offseason, it was about only one thing — victories.
High school football has always had a long, dedicated love affair with running the football. The ground has been the chosen method of attack since the sport began, and while the college and professional levels have evolved into something that looks very different, in many places high school football is still very much attached to its roots. Just not in Sumrall, Mississippi.
After years of losing football turned into nearly two decades in Sumrall, White was tasked with trying to finally end that. Year 1 of the White era appeared to be a step in the right direction, but White is a man used to winning, and in Year 2 he decided to try to speed up the process.
After assessing the team’s returning personnel and considering all of the options the coaching staff had at its disposal, the group came up with a decision that was both obvious and out of left field. What’s one of the easiest ways to create problems for the opposing defense? Give them something they never see or prepare for. What is something that high school defenses don’t look at every week? Five wide receivers, no running back and an offense that slings the ball like there is no tomorrow.
“It’s just an offense that’s not very common; it makes defenses be uncommon,” White said. “We felt like it was something we could get good at and defenses would have to alter what they do and put them in a bind. That’s kind of what we’ve been seeing. What we see on film is not what we see on Friday nights.
“We call it ‘The Circus.’ If you come to one of our games you’ll be there three hours … but it’s entertaining and you’ll see a little bit of everything. Our games are not for the faint of heart.”
Prior to the start of the season, every time someone familiar with high school football in the state of Mississippi heard that Sumrall was planning to throw the ball — and then throw the ball some more — this season, the same response was uttered by just about every one.
“Yeah, he’ll do that.”
The “he” is White. For what it’s worth, White has no idea where that reputation comes from. He says maybe it was a product of his circumstances at Taylorsville, where he was also blessed with the right personnel to be able to successfully pass the football. But even then, he swears, he really didn’t throw the ball as much as people would make it seem.
“I’ve been labeled as a passing coach or whatever,” White said, “and I don’t know why or when that started other than I was fortunate to have Jason Taylor and he put up big numbers. We threw it more than most people back in those days — 25 or 30 times a game, and that was more than most — but it’s not anymore.
“Most of the offenses I’ve coached have been very balanced. But you get labeled early on and it sticks with you. It doesn’t bother me none.”
White said his offenses always threw the ball about 20 times per game. At one time that was the equivalent of a Mike Leach offense, but the reality is that out of 60-plus plays in a football game, it’s not a large percentage.
But even if it was more than most, White has never attempted anything quite like this before.
Currently, the Bobcats are averaging nearly 40 passing attempts per game. Senior quarterback Will Simon threw the ball 66 times against Purvis earlier this season, a number that assuredly set a state record and sits among the highest ever in the nation. Projected over the 60 minutes played in college, Simon’s effort would have come up half an attempt shy of Drew Brees’ NCAA pass attempt mark. At the current rate, Simon may still set a state record for attempts in a season, edging out what Amory did a year ago.
Even Dylan Favre, in his record-setting aerial assault at St. Stanislaus in 2009, averaged “only” 36 attempts per game and never came closer than within 15 of Simon’s high mark.
While White is hesitant to include what he’s doing among record-setting company, he readily admits that the Sumrall offense is very unique. When the coaching staff made the decision to go in this direction, they didn’t model it after something someone had already done — the model wasn’t really there.
White says the scheme is basically an amalgamation of 25 years of coaching and “picking things up here and there.” The staff did talk to the coaches at Amory to find out about practice habits and how best to prepare a team looking to throw the ball so many times. That was the extent of it.
With the knowledge that the coaching staff had, it felt like this group of players — a group who had little to no experience winning football games — had what it took to run something completely out of the norm. The 2012 season was going to be gambled on just that belief. It has turned out that the coaches were right.
“We thought Will Simon could do this,” White said. “We knew we had the receiver types and we knew the offensive line could do it. We felt like, although we didn’t see a lot of Will (last year) because of his injury, we felt confident it was something he could do, and we were right about all those things.”
The dice were first rolled in the spring. That’s when the team reconvened for the start of heavy offseason work and spring practices gave the coaching staff a chance to install the new look.
“At first I thought, ‘Are we going to be able to do it?’ ” senior receiver Austin Watts said. “(Coach White) said, ‘We have all the athletes. I’ve been a part of teams with athletes, but this team has tons of them. Why not move to five wide and use all our athletes at one time?’ ”
But amidst uncertainty was also enthusiasm, and, undoubtedly, that is why the offense clicked the way it has.
“It’s a quarterback’s dream,” Simon said. “It’s a wide receiver’s dream. Why would you not want to do this? We just had everything fit this year. It’s just awesome.”
Simon sat down with the Amory film and the Dylan Favre highlights and he studied. His offensive cohorts did the equivalent at their positions. The receivers worked their routes, then worked them again, and then again.
“At practice we run these plays a thousand times,” senior receiver Devontae Watts said. “We break down each other’s routes. We’ll talk about one play for a whole thirty minutes. We keep running them until we get them right.”
Then there was the offensive line. A team can only pass the ball if it has time to do so — see: Game 1 against Oak Grove, a performance Sumrall would love to forget. White felt confident his line had what it took to learn the protection schemes, and that unit went to work just as the skill positions did.
“Coach (Scott) Minchew does a great job with our guys,” White said. “Experience is the main thing. They’re very good at technique now and picking up stunts, blitzes and twists. We’ve seen everything under the sun, and it’s taken some games to get good at protection. I think that’s been the biggest part of it and the most overlooked part of it.
“The nature of the offense is your quarterback is going to get hit and throw some interceptions. … (But) bad things happen when you run it too. Turnovers and negative plays aren’t good for any offense.
“There’s not a bad offense. I don’t know why people are so scared to throw it. I think it’s all good, whether you’re wing-T or five wide.”
There may be no such thing as a bad offensive scheme, but White will also tell you that you can’t run just anything with anyone. While credit goes to the Sumrall coaching staff for being adventurous enough to try something out of the box and make it work, they knew all along that they could only do so because of the players they had at their disposal.
Hopes were high for Simon entering his 2011 junior year, but things went wrong quickly. An early season leg injury had him on crutches rather than a football field, and from there the season was in flux. The Bobcats played at least four other players under center for various numbers of snaps before settling on Devontae Watts as a dual threat.
But with Simon healthy — and fresh off an impressive baseball season — it was clear what the preferred set up was going to be.
“I was perfectly fine with it,” Devontae said. “I know last year me at quarterback was a thing I had to do because he got hurt. When I knew Will was coming back, I was excited. That’s what Will does — he’s a quarterback. I was cool with it.”
Simon got off to an inauspicious start against Oak Grove, but the following week went 22-of-30 for 291 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in leading the Bobcats to a win over a Poplarville team that crushed Sumrall a year ago. The final score of that game was 68-53, and the starting pistol had been fired.
“Our defense has gotten to use to at times having to go right out there,” White said of the now common shootouts. “I think it took them by surprise early in the season.
“I don’t know, I’ll say this: It’s incredible to me, I hear people talk about we don’t want to score too fast. If I knew I could run the ball and play-action pass and score on the 15th play, I’d do it every time. But there is no such thing as scoring too fast. I’m amazed to hear people say you need to run some clock. We need to score, whether it’s in 10 seconds or five minutes, it doesn’t matter to me.
“I’d score on one play every time if you could. Even running plays, every play is designed to score except the quarterback sneak. It’s just a comfort zone. I’m comfortable throwing the ball. It’s just our style of play. We’re not going to beat people 47-7. Most of our games are going to be high-scoring affairs.”
Simon is just fine with that. He’s embraced the idea that his arm will carry his team to a result every week and enjoys having that responsibility. That attitude is a sign of Simon’s maturation as a player, and what White says is perhaps the biggest key to the team’s offensive success this year.
“One, he’s very smart,” White said. “You have no idea what is on him on Friday nights. His knowledge of our plays is just really impressive. He corrects me all the time. I’m working with a guy that’s very smart and has a strong arm. If he was 6-(foot)-2 or 6-3 he’d be recruited by everybody. Unfortunately he’s not, but he’s going to have a great baseball future.
“He gambles a little too much and it’s cost him, but he’s also put the ball in places that most people could not. He’s put the ball in some tight windows, and that’s not something I taught him. He can get hot and cold, and you see that in games, but he’s got great poise and he’s very tough. He can take a lick and that’s important. He’s not scared. More than anything he’s just matured. He likes the responsibility. … That’s asking a lot out of one guy. But if you have a great tailback and give it to him 20 or 30 times a game, it’s the same thing.
“I love working with him and I can only imagine how much better he’d be if he hadn’t gotten hurt last year. I think he’s gotten better. His last game or two he’s really showing some signs of just completely taking over the leadership of this offense.”
After eight weeks, Simon has thrown the ball 315 times for 2,517 yards, 24 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. He leads the state of Mississippi in passing yardage and passing touchdowns, and is top 10 in the nation in the first category.
Of course, his numbers have benefitted others. Like Austin Watts, for example. He’s one of the main reasons — along with Devontae Watts, James Jackson, Nate Hutson, Conner Landrum and a host of others — that the personnel fit the scheme.
Both of the Watts cousins are excellent athletes, competing in three sports together. Austin has exploded this year, taking full advantage of the mode of offense, and is leading the state and fifth in the country in receiving yardage at 1,074. He has nine receiving touchdowns, five rushing scores and a kick return for a TD.
“He’s just so gifted,” Simon said. “He doesn’t mind putting in the extra time to work on a slant route or something. He has the natural ability to be so good. It’s fun to play with him, I’ll say that.”
Devontae has been no slouch himself in his return to wide receiver after ceding control of the offense to Simon. He has 685 yards receiving (seventh in the state) and eight scores, plus three rushing touchdowns and a return TD.
“I think we have the best wide receiver in the state in Austin,” Simon said. “And Devontae is just as good. They all want to get better and they want to work. James is the same way and Nate is a good guy. It helps having such a solid group of guys to throw it to.”
And all of them have their niche. Devontae said he considers himself a possession guy with some big play ability, while he thinks Austin is a deep threat and Jackson is more of a runner and possession type.
Austin, meanwhile, credits what sets him apart with the reason he’s been so successful this year.
“You have to have the mentality that nobody can stop you,” he said, “and that’s the mentality I have.
“I knew I was going to get a lot of passes. Last year at this time I had maybe 15 and now I’ve got maybe 50. I believe it now, but I’d never think I’d be leading the state. I figured I’d be out there helping my team win games. Coach told me I can be the best, and now I actually believe that.”
The proof is in the pudding. Or, in this case, the passing.
The last time that Sumrall celebrated a winning football season was 1995. That 8-2 campaign capped a three-year string of strong performances, but was also just the fifth winning season in school history. Since then, the feeling of victory on the gridiron has largely been forgotten in northern Lamar County. White came to Sumrall to change that, and in the process changed the offense. The reason for the latter has everything to do with the former.
Will the Bobcats take to the air, soaring past opponents next year? Even White doesn’t know. He calls 2012 the perfect storm of athletes and skill set and depth in the right spots to make the offense work. Whether 2013 brings the same ingredients or not has yet to be seen.
“You can’t do this (with just anyone),” White said. “You’ve got to have guys … not everyone can catch the football. I’ve seen some great athletes that had all the tools but couldn’t catch the football. It’s just kind of a perfect storm for us. It’s a really good senior class filled with some skill guys, a good line and QB. The timing is right to do this.
“Whether we do this next year or not depends on what‘s available to us. But this year has been very rewarding.”
The reward has been evident to everyone. Picturing a high-flying, gung-ho attack conjures images of schoolyard football; an entertaining, fun brand of the game. The reality has been very close to that image, at least the fun part.
“Our kids love it,” White said. “They love running routes and coming to practice every day. If I was a quarterback I don’t think I’d sleep at night.”
The players concur.
“It’s tons of fun,” Austin said. “Knowing that when you line up you get to run up and down the field all night and catch passes. There’s nothing more fun for a receiver than catching passes.”
And the Bobcats are catching a lot of them. The other thing they’re doing in greater quantities than before is winning, and don’t think there’s not a connection between the two. The team that throws together grows together, and even when asked independently, the players respond alike.
“Through the past years all of us have been tense and worrying about losing,” Devontae said. “Now we’re just playing football and it’s coming through. Everyone’s playing free and in their roles and we’re actually a team now.”
Everyone is citing “team” as the key ingredient to a 5-3 record, a shot at remaining in the Region 8-3A race heading into tonight’s game against West Marion, a return trip to the playoffs and what appears to be a sure thing at this point — the team’s first winning season in 16 years.
As one of the team’s veterans, Austin minces no words in breaking down the difference this season.
“I know since I was freshman in the locker room, we’d always had groups,” Watts said. “But now everybody knows each other and we all talk and we have a team mentality. We break it down with ‘team;’ last year it was ‘Bobcats.’ Now we have everyone thinking as a whole and as one.”
Where do the Bobcats fit in history? The record books couldn’t tell the whole story anyway. Regardless of whether the passing numbers are more or less than anyone has ever put up before, it’s where those numbers are carrying Sumrall that tell the history that’s being made.
“For a team that hasn’t won in 14 or 15 years, it’s incredible,” White said. “It has nothing to do with running the clock and time management, it’s about points.
“I don’t know, maybe I don’t think like most people.”
Neither did two business partners named Barnum and Bailey.