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Football: Spread offense goes from innovative to standard in Forsyth County
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Staff illustration - photo by Brian Paglia

Shawn Cahill decided to do it because he could. 

The offense the current West Forsyth head coach was running five years ago at Lanier High had four athletic, versatile running backs, so it made sense to put them all over the field, to run the ball or catch it, and to run the offense at an especially swift pace to exhaust and confuse defenses. So began Cahill's involvement with an up-tempo spread offense, which still features strongly in his playbook with the Wolverines.

He's no trailblazer, though. The concept of using the entire width of a football field and cramming as many snaps as possible into a game has become increasingly popular in the past two decades. It started at the high school and small college level and gained popularity when more prominent programs like Mike Leach's Texas Tech teams and Chip Kelly's Oregon squads ran it to great success.

And at some point since then, what was once innovative became standard, especially in Forsyth County. 

North Forsyth's Ben Bales
North Forsyth senior quarterback Ben Bales goes to throw during the Raiders' scrimmage against Gainesville Friday, Aug. 11, 2017. - photo by Brian Paglia

Some of the last holdouts fell away with recent coaching changes. Robert Craft brought in one of the more pure examples of the offense when he took over for Jason Galt, who ran a double-wing at North Forsyth. Terance Mathis, Pinecrest Academy's first-year head coach, did away with Todd Winter's option-based offense and has put spread elements in the Paladins' playbook. Even if teams don't use it as a default or go-to -- like South Forsyth, which relies on a power running attack using a fullback -- they have the capability to speed the game up and go horizontal. 

"We can let the game dictate whether we need to push it more towards a running game or a passing game," South head coach Jeff Arnette said. "It gives us the option to do both of them, so that's the part that I like."

Indeed, part of the appeal of a spread offense lies in its flexibility. The concept can be geared towards running the ball, with either tailbacks or dual-threat quarterbacks, or heavily weighted towards throwing it. A team can decide whatever works best for them based on what kind of players they have. 

As the spread has become less novel, though, it's also become less effective. Teams are better prepared for it defensively because they see it from their own offense in practice, and 7-on-7 competition in summer further conditions teams to defend that type of offense. 

"Four or five years, you could always find an open receiver," Cahill said.

Today, the prospect of facing a non-spread offense can be the daunting one. North had to face Sequoyah's run-based wing-T offense in its season opener, and the Raiders had to spend time not only on figuring out how to defend that particular approach but on teaching the scout team to run an offense so different from their own at full speed.

That issue can affect a team's scheduling decisions: If a non-region opponent runs an offense unlike anything a team would see in region play, there might not be much incentive to schedule that team and have to and learn that offense. 

"It does nothing for us, and we're going to spend one week or two weeks getting ready for a wing-T that you're never going to see again," Cahill said.

As for what's going to be the next widespread innovation -- the new spread -- nobody is quite sure yet. Craft pointed to run-pass option plays, which teams like Auburn have used to great effectiveness. Cahill settled on the term "multiple," projecting that teams will diversify their offensive offerings so that they can pick what works best with their current players. Arnette didn't offer any specific prediction.

"If I knew, I'd start getting ready for it now," he said.

And a team doesn't necessarily have to go forward to innovate. At Lanier, Cahill eventually backed off the swift tempo he'd set with his early spread offenses to make sure his two-way players didn't get too tired. They even went into huddles, the antithesis of many spread offenses. The huddle created its own wave of confusion, strangely enough. Defenders were used to seeing players go right to their spots after plays. Cahill could get the same unbalanced look that he once could with the spread.

The path of football, like many things, might just be a circle. 

"So we (were) like, 'Okay, they're not used to seeing this right now,'" Cahill said. "'So let's run this.'"