Grip It and Rip It becoming a staple of offseason football
NEW CANAAN -- Sam Johnson spent Saturday morning on a practice field near Dunning Stadium, crouching down and delivering a football to his quarterback out of a shotgun formation. With each release Johnson, the center for Brookfield High School, stood up and watched as his team's receivers run patterns.
There were no opponents to block, and after each play Johnson would go back to the line of scrimmage and repeat the mundane routine all over again.
"I just sit there and snap the ball," Johnson said. "The hard part is the running in between plays. It's like watching a game on TV, except you know the people who are playing."
Johnson's position is the unglamorous side of 7 on 7 football, the growing phenomenon that, with the advent of spread formations, give teams an avenue for doing more than just weight training in the offseason.
In a sense, Johnson's job is a microcosm of the debate about the benefits of 7 on 7, which certainly help quarterbacks get in sync with receivers, but some think can cause players, especially on the defensive end, to pick up bad habits.
Greenwich coach Rich Albonizio likes to refer to it as fake football, though after years of resistance his position has moved from a far extreme toward the middle.
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"It's good for the secondary and receivers, but there is no blitzing and no defense," Albonizio said Saturday during the fifth annual Grip It and Rip It passing camp hosted by New Canaan. "But it is better than nothing."
The New Canaan event is one of the most prestigious and best run in the state. This year it attracted 31 teams, including 10 FCIAC and 18 Connecticut schools.
"We just started doing this three years ago and this is the first time we've come to this one," said Trinity Catholic coach Pete Stokes, whose team traditionally has relied on a strong running game. "This is really good, first class. If you are going to go to one, you are going to come to this one. This has just exploded. To have all these kids out here is good stuff."
Indeed, during pool play there were eight games going on simultaneously on four fields. Play is confined to 40 yards. Teams have four plays to gain 20 yards and get a first down. Touchdowns, as with conventional football, count for six points, and conversions one or two points depending on the opted distance from the goal line. Each game is playing with a 25-minute running clock.
"This is really good for us to get our timing down with receivers and get ready for the season," said Nick Cascione of New Canaan, who along with Teddy Bossidy is a candidate to replace Matt Milano, who broke most of the school's passing records as a two-year starter. "It really helps with the reads."
The Rams' quarterback situation is just one of the many storylines for teams that took part at Saturday's event.
"This is one we always want to win because we are hosting it," Bossidy said. "And this is not so much competition between us as getting our timing down. I think 7 on 7 helps get you ready for the start of the season."
New Canaan has been to six straight state championship games, but has lost two in a row after winning four in succession.
The first of those two losses was to Masuk, which was defeated by eventual state champion Daniel Hand in last year's Class L semifinals, ending a 24-game winning streak. Masuk coach John Murphy will be heading into a season for the first time in three years without quarterback Casey Cochran, who last year was the Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year.
"The reps we get at these are invaluable, especially for the new guys out there," said Murphy, who is preparing junior Malik Cummings to take over at quarterback.
Murphy is just starting to field what should be one of the most oft-asked questions during the preseason: is there life for Masuk after Cochran?
"Absolutely," Murphy said. "The things Casey can do, most high school quarterbacks can't do. But there was life before Casey. In the 14 years before him we won 80 percent of our games. For three years with him it was 83 percent."
One of the biggest revelations Saturday was provided by Stokes: the conservative Trinity offense is going to be opened up more this season, even with the return of Shaquan Howsie, the star running back who missed most of last year with a torn ACL.
"It's ridiculous for me to say, but we are going to switch a little bit out of this offense. We are going to run, but Danny is good with this stuff so we are also going to throw," said Stokes, referring to Danny O'Leary, the Crusaders' returning starting quarterback.
Greenwich, with a number of players back from the team that lost to Staples in the FCIAC final a year ago, figures to be a strong contender again, which is one reason Albonizio, despite his reservations, was hardly a passive observer Saturday.
"This is the first thing with football that kids can do in the offseason," he said. "I think they love this stuff."
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