When Pinecrest Academy quarterback Ryan McCarthy takes the field before a game, he usually hasn’t stressed too much about the nuances of the offense he’s going to run or the defense he’s facing. As a facilitator of the triple-option offense, most famously run these days on the flats at Georgia Tech by head coach Paul Johnson, McCarthy’s playbook is pretty cut and dry.
The challenge comes during games, when McCarthy has to make three lightning-fast decisions each play for 48 minutes. If he makes the wrong read, a drive could stall. Passing quarterbacks can get away with a few inaccurate throws, but a bad pitch can doom a drive and a game for the Paladins.
In Pinecrest’s offense, a single play is the bare bones: the quarterback, fullback and wingbacks all make the same movements from play to play, but the defense has to figure out which one of them actually has the ball.
It sounds like a lot of pressure, but for the junior leader, running the triple option has become second nature. It’s not for everyone, but McCarthy loves how the fundamentals behind the “old school” offense mirror the mentality of his team: unselfish.
“We don’t have a selfish person on our football team and I think that’s why it works so well,” McCarthy said. “Sometimes because of the way the defense is playing you, you may only give the ball to certain people. If you’re playing receiver, you’ve still got to be able to block on most plays.”
McCarthy led the team in rushing last season, which wasn’t shocking considering his background as a running back. It’s why he’s so comfortable in the offense. The learning curve, which began for him in the eighth grade, was understanding where to go with the ball based on the defense’s alignment on each play.
“You have to learn the techniques of defensive lineman. You have to know where they are lined up to call the play,” McCarthy said.
For West Forsyth quarterback Kiernen Hamilton, things are little bit different. Hamilton is in his first season as the signal caller for the Wolverines after moving from a tiny program an hour outside Manhattan in New York, where he quarterbacked a traditional offense on a team with just over 40 players.
Now Hamilton is running a complex, modern read-option offense, and just like his duties on the field —where the Wolverines want to get in and out of plays as fast as possible – he’s been working at a rapid pace off of it to catch up. So far, so good.
“Each day I spend at least 45 minutes to an hour just looking over plays,” Hamilton, a 6-foot-3 junior, said. “Having the playbook down is key. Knowing what everyone does, from receivers to running backs to offensive line.”
Hamilton’s duties are a little different than McCarthy’s. He can hand the ball to his tailback on any given down, or keep the ball and run the opposite direction, hopefully fooling the defensive end. He also has an option to fake both of those runs and sneak a pass to a receiver. In a way, it’s a triple-option in its own right, but it requires discipline of the eyes. Any premature looks in any given direction can tip off the defense to what he’s doing.
“You have to keep your head steady and your eyes disciplined when you make your reads,” Hamilton said. “You also want to know what the other team’s strengths and weaknesses are. But you’ve got to kind of make everything look the same.”
Hamilton prides himself on owning the complexities of the offense he’s learning. He said he tries to emulate the personality and work ethic of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. Though, his first practice with West presented some fundamental challenges.
“I had never run the shotgun before, so that was new for me,” Hamilton said.
Senior Jacob Bailey at North Forsyth and junior Jagger Hartshorn at Central are in unique roles. Both quarterbacks play in similar systems—the double-wing at North and the wishbone at Central. Both offenses focus heavily on run plays. Neither offers up the glamorous quarterback role that has become so stereotypical, but both quarterbacks love the challenge.
“You’ve got to be mentally strong to run our offense,” Bailey said. “It’s all blocking and hard running. I give a lot of glory to our running backs, but you can’t be selfish and let that get to you. You’re going to get your chance to shine in this offense.”
Bailey, who’s played in run-based offenses since middle school, has molded his identity around the offense.
“I pride myself on being a silent leader. I lead by the way I work,” Bailey said.
Hartshorn, who will take over at quarterback after arriving in the middle of last season from Pennsylvania, likes the responsibility he has before plays.
“Once I actually started learning everything and being able to audible everything I’ve had a great time with the offense. It’s a lot of fun,” Hartshorn said. “As a quarterback, we just have to know what the coaches want us to do each play, lead the team, and really just make sure everyone is happy.”