Football Coaches Are Reaching Into Their Bag of Tricks : High schools: Gimmick plays are used to stay competitive, keep defenses off balance and frustrate the enemy.
Another touchdown for Valencia, hence another kickoff. In a game that was rapidly turning into a rout, this was becoming routine.
But all logic, not to mention high school football tradition, was suspended the moment Magnolia players got to the ball.
The Sentinels fielded the kick, then formed a huddle on the 30-yard line. When they broke, each player headed in a different direction, hunched over as if he had the ball.
The Valencia players froze. On the sideline, Coach Mike Marrujo was yelling, “Tackle everybody!”
Then it got really weird.
When the ballcarrier was discovered, the laterals began. A simple kickoff became a Marx Brothers’ routine.
By the time it was over, with the ball at midfield, the crowd was buzzing, the Sentinel players were snickering, and Marrujo was fuming.
“I can laugh about it now, but then I was a little ticked off,” Marrujo said. “I really don’t like those plays.”
Like ‘em or not, Mike, they’re inevitable.
For such a conservative game, football has generated plenty of offbeat, sometimes downright silly, ways to move the ball.
While some coaches dislike gimmick plays, others see them as equalizers against a better opponent. And in a pinch, all will pull them out of the playbook.
Gadget or trick plays can keep a defense off balance and drive an opposing coach nuts. Heck, sometimes they even work.
“Really, every play has a gimmick,” Costa Mesa Coach Tom Baldwin said. “The game is based on deception. You want to force the defense into making a mistake. Of course, there are some extremes.”
Those range from the tame, such as a reverse, to the wild, such as the Magnolia kickoff return, to the truly unbelievable, such as Canyon’s polecat formation (seven players wide left, two wide right and the center as an eligible receiver).
“We come up with this stuff in the dark hours of the morning,” Canyon Coach Loren Shumer said. “Sometime around 2 a.m., when we’re awake worrying.”
There’s nothing new about trick plays. They’ve been a part of the game since that first pig bladder was inflated and tossed around.
The versions might have been altered, with coaches adding a wrinkle here or there, but basically, the strategy remains the same: Fool the other guy.
“Really, we all just copy Amos Alonzo Stagg,” said Baldwin of the legendary college coach. “He came up with everything, and we just change it around a little.”
The fake field goal has been a favorite to tinker with.
Baldwin himself has used the old “get the tee” gag, where the holder runs to the sideline as if he forgot the kicking tee. The ball then is snapped to the kicker, who throws to the holder along the sideline.
Tom Meiss, former coach at Santa Ana and Orange, would have two guys line up in the backfield on the same side; one would come running to the sideline while the other yelled, “Get off the field, there’s too many men.” Again, the ball would be snapped to the kicker, who would throw to the player heading to the sideline.
But for true imagination, there was former Diamond Bar Coach Terry Roche, who had the holder run to the sideline and do a few cartwheels in a game against Chino. As a confused defense watched, the ball was snapped to the kicker, who threw a pass to a wide receiver for a touchdown.
“Everyone wants to fool somebody, it’s just human nature,” Dana Hills Coach Don Douglass said. “Of course, if the play backfires, everyone laughs at you.”
Shumer has been on both sides of the humor.
Last season, Canyon used the polecat formation for the first time against Villa Park. The offense is an extreme version of the run-and-shoot, with one of its options being a pass back to the center.
The Comanches ran from the polecat formation on six consecutive plays against Villa Park--one gained yards, one lost yards and penalties were called on the other four.
But in Friday’s season opener, quarterback Brian Jalowiec ran 43 yards out of the formation for the second touchdown in Canyon’s 16-0 victory over Sonora.
“Other coaches must hate it when we use it,” Shumer said. “I know my own offensive line coach (Ron Douglas) hates it. When I call for it, he walks to the other end of the bench.”
The benefits of a gadget play can be reaped for weeks to come, as opposing coaches must spend time in practice going over how to defend the unusual.
“Those plays drive a defensive coordinator crazy, but we’ll be ready this year,” Villa Park Coach Pat Mahoney said. “It’ll cost us valuable time, but the week before the Canyon game, we’ll practice defending that thing.”
But many teams will resort to a trick play out desperation, not strategy. Underdogs, with little to lose, are likely to try the extreme.
Magnolia, which won one game last season, ran three different--all highly unusual--kickoff returns against Valencia. The Sentinels also attempted gadget plays out of their offense.
“It was one of those cases where even a drowning man tries to swim,” Magnolia Coach Bill Friedrich said.
But the Sentinels went under. Valencia won, 35-0.
“Poor teams usually don’t execute well to begin with,” Don Douglass said. “They have a tendency to botch up trick plays. It takes some ability to make them work. But if you have the talent, why bother with gadget plays?”
Well, for starters, they can work.
A quick touchdown can do wonders for momentum. A quick touchdown that fools and embarrasses the other team can be devastating.
For years, El Toro--one of the top teams of the ‘80s--used a version of the flea flicker. The tailback would take the handoff, then turn and pitch the ball back to the quarterback, who threw to a receiver streaking down the field.
“I think they’ve burned us three or four times with that thing over the years,” Douglass said. “Every time it unsettled us. It took our emotion away.”
Most coaches said they would be reluctant to use a gimmick in an important game. The risks and stakes, they said, are too high.
They prefer to stick to the traditional stuff when a league title or playoff game is on the line.
“By and large, trick plays are overrated,” Capistrano Valley Coach Eric Patton said. “You don’t see many in a close game, especially one that’s important.”
But that didn’t stop Patton from calling two gadget plays in the Division II championship game last season. The Cougars first ran a fake punt, which failed, then started their game-winning drive with the hook ‘n’ ladder.
On the play, the quarterback passes downfield to a receiver who has run a hook pattern. He then laterals to a running back, who ideally is running full speed when he gets the ball. The play made a first down and led to a field goal that gave Capistrano Valley a 17-15 victory over Paramount.
“What can I say? We were going to lose if we didn’t do something,” Patton said.
Coach Roger Takahashi felt much the same two years ago, when La Quinta played undefeated Valencia in the first round of the Division VI playoffs.
The Aztecs pulled their version of the flea-flicker. The running back swept to the right, then handed off to a receiver who had doubled back. The receiver then pitched it back to the quarterback, who threw to the tight end deep down the middle.
It set up La Quinta’s second touchdown. The Aztecs won, 19-14.
Valencia was burned again last season by Brea-Olinda in a game that decided the Orange League title. The Wildcats ran a double pass, where the quarterback lateraled to a receiver who then passed down field, and it led to a field goal.
Brea won, 23-21.
“I really hate those type of plays,” Marrujo said. “Everyone wants to get something for nothing. I guess it’s the American way.”
If that’s true, there are those who get down-right patriotic. At times coaches will bend the rules to the point of breaking them.
Quarterbacks have gone in motion, running backs have done back flips before the snap and receivers run on the field at the last moment. All of which takes some acting worthy of an Academy Award.
“La Habra used to run a play where the quarterback would lateral to the wide receiver on one hop,” Sunny Hills Coach Tim Devaney said. “They would act real disgusted, like it was an incomplete pass. Then, the receiver would turn and throw deep. We had to prepare for that one every year.”
Baldwin said he has even seen quarterbacks walk to the line of scrimmage, then say, “That’s the wrong football.” The center then hands the ball to the quarterback, who would walk toward the official. He then turns and throws a long pass.
A mazingly, there are times when the ridiculous works.
“The one I always see at freshman games, is the one where the quarterback walks to the line of scrimmage and says, ‘This is a check hike,’ ” Marrujo said, referring to the old sandlot term for a practice snap. “And every time I see it, it works.”
The young players, many lacking experience in organized football, are unaware that you can’t practice in the middle of a game. They relax, and the quarterback gets a nearly uncontested play.
But Marrujo said he discourages his lower level coaches from using such plays.
“If you make a living eating garbage, you’ll eventually get poisoned,” Marrujo said. “To be honest, I’ve never been one for gimmick plays”
Never say never.
Last season, Valencia beat Savanna, 27-17. The Tigers scored touchdowns on a halfback pass and a reverse.
It stunned Savanna Coach Fred DiPalma, a former Marrujo assistant.
“If there was ever a game where I thought we didn’t have to worry about that junk, it was against Valencia,” DiPalma said. “The worst part about it is they worked. Boy, if you can’t trust Mike Marrujo, who can you trust?”