Standing with his offensive line on the Fairfax High football field, Coach Trey Taylor held a thick sheet of paper as he watched his players try to execute his blocking scheme.
It was a morning practice in early August, and the team was still trying to grasp a new playbook under the direction of a new head coach. With Taylor watching intently as he read the calls, the linemen worked through the scheme with a hiccup here and another there.
While there was evident frustration on the field, Taylor knew giant leaps of progress wouldn’t come overnight, in the following weeks or possibly even months. The seasoned coach had revamped an offensive playbook three times in the past five years for two local teams, each designed with its own “bells and whistles.”
“It takes time,” said Taylor, who was the head coach for a successful South Lakes team the past four years. “What we try to do with the system is that it is flexible enough that we can really accentuate our strengths and hopefully hide and minimize our weaknesses.”
When it comes to building a high school playbook, coaches have their own methodologies. Some have stuck to their roots, clinging to what has brought them success with minor tweaks. Others have chosen to start fresh, adjusting to each new group of players.
“I think some coaches think that the last guy with a pencil wins, so you end up drawing up these great plays,” Taylor said. “I just got to the realization that simpler is better.”
Using the same offense as he did at South Lakes, Taylor is trying to replicate his former team’s success using “pretty universal” methods that can work with any personnel. He’s also used to adding and subtracting from the playbook based on player and coach feedback.
“It is an ever-evolving process,” said Taylor, who inherits a Rebels squad that, before last year’s four-win season, had won a single game combined in 2015 and 2016. “It is never a playbook that is done. It is always getting tweaked and adjusted.”
With his offense in the shotgun formation the majority of the time, Taylor wants to get the ball to the best athletes and let them operate in space. To do so, the offense will try to use as many different formations as it can.
Fairfax has five running plays but can run 50 formations to confuse the defense. Sophomore quarterback George Ward praised Taylor both for the creativity of the calls and the clarity in which they have been taught.
“I’m not the guy to go out and buy the book that someone wrote and install their offense,” said Taylor, who posted a 34-15 record at South Lakes. “But I might steal a chapter from this book or a chapter from another book and put it together into an offense for us.”
The approach of adding wrinkles to an already stable offense is one taken by new DeMatha offensive coordinator Chris Grier, who was hired after being the head coach at Sherwood since 2013. Before Sherwood, he was the DeMatha freshman coach, so he understands the school’s long-standing playing style, but he also has seen the variety of ways personnel can be used.
“There’s no need to reinvent ourselves,” Grier said. “We will be blending some of the stuff that is new and the history of the program. We will always have a side to us where we are going to challenge you and we are going to see if you can stop us.”
In DeMatha’s favor is the fact that private schools can unofficially “recruit” their players. They can run a system that doesn't have to adapt as much year after year because of personnel. That is in contrast to Grier’s time at Sherwood, a Maryland public high school, where the team was “incredibly dynamic year to year.”
When current West Virginia wide receiver Marcus Simms played under Grier at Sherwood, Grier would notice Simms lined up in a one-on-one situation and dump the whole play call instead of letting Simms call his route instead.
But other schools mask weaknesses and find slight advantages by using a straightforward playbook and executing smaller commands.
When Taylor first got to South Lakes, he installed a zone-blocking system for his line, like the one he had as Robinson’s head coach in 2011-12, but found that his players weren’t equipped to handle a scheme meant for bigger-bodied offensive linemen. After that first season, which Taylor described as being a bit of a “laboratory,” he tore up the playbook and implemented the wing-T to better fit the strengths of the team’s smaller linemen.
“In my years of coaching, we have gone everywhere from the I [formation] to the wing-T, or we were a big option team at one point,” Taylor said. “[Also] a lot of midline and veer, and then we got back into the [shotgun] because we had a Division I quarterback. And so it is [an] ever-evolving process.”
Of course, for the Rebels to be successful, the players will have to understand Taylor’s philosophy and new terminology. The Fairfax seniors have now learned three offensive systems in their high school careers, almost like learning a foreign language each season.
“I think the hardest part was that Coach Taylor came in very late, so we didn’t have much time to get used to it, but all the plays have different strong suits,” Ward said. “I think this is the best offense I have run with since I started playing football. It’s simple, but it’s complicated at the same time.”
Fairfax (1-1) hosts Lee on Friday.
“Everyone has done a great job with the playbook and great job of teaching it to us,” Ward said. “Now it’s just about the rest of the season.”