When an unknown, freshly hired 24-year-old head football coach waltzed into North Stafford High School last year and announced his plans to scrap the wing-T offense and install a sophisticated passing attack, the news rattled several Wolverines.
"I think the most I'd ever thrown in a game was eight times, and here he was talking about throwing 15 to 20 times a game," senior quarterback Chris Ashinhurst recalled. "I got really nervous."
Ashinhurst, who wound up leading Coach Chris Beatty's inaugural team to North Stafford's first winning season since 1992 and its first playoff appearance since that same year, is jittery no longer. He does not have time to be. No. 13 North Stafford (4-0), which plays at Culpeper (5-0) tonight for sole possession of first place in Virginia's AAA Commonwealth District, runs a no-huddle offense that features more receivers than a stereo repair shop.
"I guess you could kind of compare it to back-yard football," Ashinhurst said, "because everybody's a wide receiver in back-yard football."
Scribbling statisticians, discombobulated chain crews, harried officials and gasping defenders are the ones most likely to feel overwhelmed these days, struggling to keep pace with an offense that aims to snap the ball no longer than 18 seconds after the end of the previous play. The standard of 15 to 20 passes is still in effect, only now that's per half, not per game.
The architect behind the Wolverines' offense--novel on the high school level--is Beatty, now 26, a Chantilly High School graduate who played wide receiver at East Tennessee State University and in the Canadian Football League.
Beatty played in a no-huddle attack with Baltimore in the CFL, and to him it made perfect sense for North Stafford, coming off consecutive 2-8 seasons, to throw more. When he watched film of the Wolverines after being hired in May 1998, he saw plenty of ability in his new team. But to him it looked like the best talent played in the backfield.
"I felt like if we played a more wide-open offense, particularly this year, that we'd have an opportunity to get the ball to all the good athletes that we have," Beatty said. "How are you ever going to get the ball to six [running backs]? You're not. But if you have five of them on the field at the same time like we do, then all of them have a chance to touch the ball."
It helps to have a quarterback like the 5-foot-11, 186-pound Ashinhurst, a player so respected by the North Stafford coaching staff that he serves as offensive coordinator for the junior varsity team.
Beatty knew he could work with Ashinhurst on his mechanics and defensive reads, but he lucked out when it came to the quarterback's intelligence.
"Halfway through the first practice [last season], I knew I had the quarterback I needed to do the stuff I wanted to do," Beatty said. "I gave Chris a playbook that's 60 to 70 pages thick. He can pick it up quicker than anybody I've ever played with, and that's including all the pro people."
Within five seconds of taking the snap, Ashinhurst must recognize defensive alignments, sniff out blitzes and spot mismatches. All the while, he is thinking about what the team should do next.
"He always has to be a play ahead to get the timing down," Beatty said. "We have an idea of how [many yards] each play is designed to make: If we get this, we're looking at second and three."
Through four games, Ashinhurst has completed 81 passes--to 10 receivers--in 134 attempts for 1,107 yards and six touchdowns with four interceptions. He has been sacked only four times.
"He's one of the few high school quarterbacks you see go from his number one receiver to his number two receiver to his number three receiver," Potomac Coach Keith King said.
The favorite targets for Ashinhurst are junior Nate Ilaoa (28 catches), senior Paris Edwards (22), senior running back Allen Woodbridge (10) and sophomore Josh Baldwin (eight).
The Wolverines' no-huddle is not infallible or unstoppable. Their scoring rate inside the 20-yard line is a subpar 60 percent because with less field to cover, the offense is easier to defend close to the goal line.
After scoring a combined 100 points the first three games, the offense gained a modest 215 yards last week against Brooke Point, turned over the ball three times and did not score in a 7-0 win. The Black-Hawks surprised North Stafford with defensive wrinkles that in turn forced the offense to adjust on the move.
Beatty said his lack of high school head coaching experience and unconventional ideas resulted in a cool reception from the North Stafford community after he was hired. And, he still hears the occasional exasperated cry of, "Run the ball, Coach!" from the home bleachers when the Wolverines are inside the 10 or in short-yardage situations.
"If you get all the way down the field doing something, you're doing something right, so you don't necessarily have to change," Beatty said with a shrug.
The coach, who as a physical education teacher dresses casually, looks so young that the staff in his own school sometimes mistakes him for a meandering student and demands to see his hall pass. One skeptical substitute teacher, not taking the word of the coach or a student, fetched a secretary to confirm that the boyish Beatty indeed was not an impostor.
Three times this season while shaking hands before games, opposing coaches have breezed past Beatty not realizing he is the head coach.
The confusion is understandable. He wears an earring, is prone to sing and dance during pregame warm-ups, just like the players. After wins, he dives into a throng of Wolverines, mosh-pit style, a ritual the team calls the "Lambeau Leap" because of a tryout Beatty once had with the Green Bay Packers. And every Thursday, the players wear the wildest hats they can find, and selected Wolverines dance around the biggest hat after practice. Naturally, Beatty follows suit.
"I've had people stop me in stores and say, 'Man, I've never seen a high school team do stuff like you guys do,' " he said. "I'd rather pay four bucks to see us play than four bucks to go see two teams run it back and forth."
CAPTION: Coach Chris Beatty is the brains behind no-huddle offense, which last season helped North Stafford to its first winning record and first postseason appearance since 1992.