7-on-7 passing tournaments drawing more summertime interest and talent to high school football
It’s a scene you can find all over the country - a game of touch football on a hot summer afternoon. Only this game has referees. And yard lines. And a scoreboard.
This is 7-on-7 football, the high school gridiron’s answer to summer league basketball and one that appears to be growing across the country. Not only does it give quarterbacks, receivers, linebackers and cornerbacks the chance to sharpen skills - it gives coaches a chance to work with returning players (and attract new ones) in what might pass for the off-season.
In past summers, Dion Leonard spent long days running up and down the hardwood in a steaming-hot gymnasium. This year, however, the Willow Run High School senior-to-be is strapping on a football helmet.
Leonard, who hopes to compete for the Flyers’ starting quarterback position this season, has eschewed AAU basketball and spent a couple nights this week playing in Chelsea High School’s 7-on-7 passing league. He and the Flyers competed at one-day events at Eastern Michigan University and Adrian College earlier this summer.
“It really helps us get kids out to play,” Willow Run coach Rufus Pipkins said of the 7-on-7 practices. “Kids don’t want to spend all summer just lifting weights. For us to be successful, we have to get our kids out to participate.”
There are two drastically different styles of 7-on-7 events. The league in Chelsea, run by Bulldogs head coach Brad Bush, is a coaching-focused camp that doesn’t bother to keep score or declare winners even though teams are playing head to head. You’re likely to see a coach run into the secondary to stop a play and correct a receiver who made the wrong read.
The other style is a 7-on-7 tournament - or shootout, as they’re more commonly termed - like the one that Saline High School hosted on July 11. There, 16 teams competed in morning pool play and then held a single-elimination tournament in the afternoon.
That style of tournament is what has been gaining popularity across the country - and it’s giving fans, sponsors and even recruiting experts more time to watch young athletes compete.
For instance, play continues today at the National High School Coaches Association National Select 7-on-7 Championships in Hoover, Ala. The Nike-sponsored event includes 28 teams from 10 states, whittled down from about 200 after qualifying tournaments.
While exact rules vary based on the location, the gist of 7-on-7 competition is the same everywhere. Helmets and cleats are the only football gear allowed, and there are no linemen on the field. There are no running plays - the quarterback must throw a pass on every snap - and the receivers are down after either a one-handed or two-handed touch by a defender.
In competitive tournaments, teams get the ball at the 40-yard-line and have three downs to gain 15 yards for a first down. Quarterbacks must release the ball within four seconds of the snap. The length of games varies, depending on how many games need to be played to complete the tournament.
Events like this have become commonplace in the football-crazy South, but it’s hardly a regional phenomenon. Rob Cuff, executive director of the Utah High School Activities Association, estimates at least half the prep football programs in his state participate in 7-on-7.
“I think it’s grown considerably,” Cuff said. “I think it’s kind of the thing to do right now in the summer, especially for your skill-position people.”
As members of the stringently-regulated MHSAA, local teams aren’t eligible to compete in those national tournaments. In fact, football coaches are still hard-pressed to compete with basketball coaches in the state for their players' time.
“Football in Michigan is allowed seven days of 7-on-7 passing,” Bush said. “AAU has no rules governing them. High school basketball in Michigan is allowed 20 days of competition in the summer. Football is much more legislated in Michigan than in other states.”At Saline, coach Mike Glennie split his seven dates among the 16-team tournament the Hornets hosted and trips to four-team camps with a heavier emphasis on coaching in South Lyon, DeWitt, Dexter and Detroit.
“As the MHSAA rules allow, it is an opportunity for your athletes to get reps, touch the ball and compete,” Glennie said. “That is, after all, what they really want to do.”
Lincoln coach Chris Westfall split his team’s dates evenly between tournaments and camps, taking his Railsplitters to both the Saline and Chelsea events. Throw in trips to Eastern Michigan and Wayne State, and Westfall estimates his offense will compete against 15 to 25 different defenses - and vice versa.
“I’m a big fan of the competitive style,” he said. “No matter what you do, kids are going to play harder when you’re trying to win something.
“We have to keep them excited and enthusiastic. I’m content with our turnout for running and lifting, but we have to keep them involved in other ways.”
Pipkins says the 7-on-7 tournaments are taking on a life of their own, drawing more and more fans to watch and more and more players to compete.
“Football is one of those sports where you can’t just go to the park and simulate a good game, like you can with basketball,” he said. “But these 7-on-7 tournaments feature the agility of basketball. I think there really is a trend and they’re going to keep getting more popular.
“And then kids will start participating more in the summer because it’s the next sport (in the fall season, versus basketball in the winter). It has really helped us out.”
Rich Rezler covers high schools for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at 734-623-2553 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Associated Press contributed to this report.