TAMPA — A half-decade ago, Sean Callahan would have sooner burned his blocking sleds than engage in 7-on-7 competition in the summer.
Back then, Armwood High’s football program had yet to transition from its triple option, which the Hawks had employed with speed and brute force to capture consecutive state titles. You didn’t train for that power-based offense with night after night of four-wide looks and fade routes.
“All I was doing (back then) was lifting and running,” Callahan said. “And trying to avoid (7-on-7).”
These days, the triple option has been supplanted by trips right, at least in the offseason. The Hawks have become as steeped in the burgeoning 7-on-7 subculture as anyone.
In a seven-weekend span this summer, Armwood will compete in five major tournaments around central Florida. Among them: The inaugural Battle of the Bay — sponsored in part by the Tampa Bay Times — at Jefferson High on June 22.
“So you’ve got to ask, why does a guy like me buy into it now?” Callahan said.
Well, for the same reasons nearly every other high school program on the planet does.
Though still predicated on power, the Hawks’ offense is far more balanced these days, making passing-game refinement essential.
As high school offenses have gravitated toward spread formations, learning how to defend them is equally critical.
“Are we on our reads? Are we running the right routes?” Callahan asked rhetorically. “If we’re in man-to-man (coverage) are we running through? In zone, are we sitting in the zone? Things like that — are our kids getting it?”
But the benefits extend far beyond that, area coaches insist.
“It just keeps (kids) from getting bored,” said Pasco coach Tom McHugh, whose team was among eight North Suncoast squads that convened at Land O’Lakes High on Tuesday for a weekly 7-on-7 league. “Heck, I get bored from the weight room.”
Such is the common refrain among coaches, virtually all of whom have come to embrace 7-on-7 with varying degrees of reticence and rapture. As a result, competitive prep football — in some semblance — now is staged almost year-round.
In a sense, it’s football’s version of AAU hoops or American Legion baseball. Teams legally can stage 7-on-7 competition in the spring if they compete in a sanctioned league underwritten by an organization (such as the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department).
As for summers, the Florida High School Athletic Association doesn’t regulate the athletic activities of its member football programs as long as they don’t wear helmets or engage in physical contact (excluding organized camps held by a third party).
These days, virtually every local team from Ballast Point to Brooksville exploits the loopholes. From this weekend (when USF hosts dozens of teams at its annual Sling ‘N’ Shoot camp) to July 20-21 (Sling ‘N’ Shoot II), a significant 7-on-7 tourney will be staged locally.
“It’s part of football,” Callahan said. “It’s really become a culture.”
The rules of play vary mildly from tourney to tourney. Generally, games are staged on 40- or 45-yard fields. Offenses get three downs to gain 15 or 20 yards, but four downs once inside the 10. Quarterbacks get four seconds to throw; points are awarded for a pick.
If you’re touched, you’re tackled. Typical contests are 20 minutes.
“You’re practicing competing and you’re practicing how to deal with momentum,” Plant secondary coach Bo Puckett said. “Any coach in America who wants to argue that, we can sit there all day.”
Hudson coach Mark Kantor is even more succinct. “It lets you compete. If you can compete, your kids get better and life is good.”
Question is, will life be good in the fall? That’s a question no succession of passing tournaments will answer.
“Winning a 7-on-7 game means absolutely nothing to me,” Callahan said.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re getting it done in the weight room, we’ve got to make sure that we’re being physical still, and then 7-on-7 is good. But if you just think 7-on-7 is going to be the answer, it’s not.”
HomeTeam Unsigned Preps Battle of the Bay
When: June 22
Time: Games start at 9 a.m., quarterfinals at 3, championship at 4:30.
Field: Alonso, Armwood, Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins, Countryside, Gaither, Hernando, Jefferson, Largo, Nature Coast Tech, Pasco, Plant, Plant City, Tampa Bay Tech, Tampa Catholic and Zephyrhills.
Outlook: The inaugural invitational is serving as fundraiser for the non-profit Unsigned Preps, an organization headed by former Leto star Ricky Sailor that is designed to help high school players find colleges through a yearly bus tour to campuses across the south as well as providing guidance counseling and SAT and ACT prep course to help produce well-rounded student-athletes. The tournament will pit 16 of the best high school football programs against each other in the popular 7-on-7 format. Pool play will feature cross-county matchups, and each team will be seeded into a single-elimination bracket designed to produce a county vs. county championship showdown between the best of Hillsborough County against the best of Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando.
Joey Knight can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JoeyHomeTeam.