For the vast majority of the country, 11-on-11 football is what people picture when they think about the sport.
But at small schools and in rural communities across the country, truncated versions of the game are the norm. Horizon Christian Academy will make a shift that direction this fall, with the Warriors transitioning over to eight-man football.
While Horizon will still play in the GICAA alongside some of the same squads it’s played in the past, reception to the change by the players was originally lukewarm at best.
“In the beginning, they were (mixed),” Horizon head coach Damon Taylor said. “We played eight-man in middle school a couple of years ago and the kids loved it. In the beginning, they were like, 'I don't know.' The team that we played in the championship two years ago is now eight-man. It's something that's moving on down. It's one of things that we have to get accustomed to.”
Eight-man football is a lot like the standard version of the game most people are familiar with, with a few tweaks. Typically, two linemen and a skill player are removed on offense, and two defensive backs and a lineman are removed on defense.
The smaller number of on-field players affects the strategy and style of play. There are plays in 11-man football, many of which coming out of an I formation, that don’t work in eight-man. Taylor describes the offense as more of a pass-oriented ‘run and gun’ style of attack. It’s not uncommon for eight-man teams to bypass the conventional field goals and extra points in favor of fourth down or two-point conversions. Games tend to be higher-scoring.
“It's going to be exciting to watch,” Taylor said. “People want to see people score, so that's going to be cool for our fans to see. Hopefully it's us doing the majority of the scoring. It's going to be fun.”
The change comes primarily because of numbers. Horizon historically has had issues with dressing an adequate amount of players for 11-man football. During the 2017 season, the Warriors were always outmatched and outnumbered, which ultimately led to an 0-10 campaign.
“We showed up to football games and we maybe had 16 or 17 kids, maybe 14 ready to dress,” Taylor said. “The other team had 35 (or) 40. That's tough. For the health of the school, we just should have transitioned to eight-man. It’s a different ballgame – we’re playing apples (to) apples now.”
The Warriors feel like they’re on even ground because there’s a 19-man limit on eight-man teams in the GICAA, which is around the number of players they had on their field practicing on Wednesday. Taylor says conditioning is a much bigger part of preparation, because there’s more space to cover with fewer players.
Horizon also gains is the ability to practice with offensive and defensive units on the field at the same time, an aspect of preparation most high school teams take for granted.
“(That's) something that we haven't had in the last couple of years,” Taylor said. “We didn't have anybody to practice against. At practice, we had 24 or 25 kids sometimes. Sometimes we’d go to practice with 15. Being able to practice against an offense and a defense is going to help us.”
For senior Horizon quarterback Jake McTyre, the switch to eight-man is a welcome change, even if it means a faster game.
“There’s not as much coverage reads,” he said. “It’s a lot more straightforward. There’s less linemen, so you have to get the ball off a little bit quicker. It’s just a different game. It’s a lot faster. You’ve got to make decisions quickly but in a lot of ways, it’s a lot easier because there’s a lot less to think about.”
The hope for Horizon is that the end result is a product that is not only more competitive for the Warriors, but one that is more enjoyable to play as well.
“The kids have really taken to it,” Taylor said. “I think they're going to have more fun than they think they will.”