Woodland returns to its roots with spread offense

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Woodland coaches, from left, Josh Woodin, Jack DeBiase, and Cody Kingsley relay the offensive signals into quarterback Tanner Kinglsey during the Holy Cross game Nov. 3. The Hawks returned to the spread offense this season and have been lighting up the scoreboard. –STAN STRUSKY

Almost a full year ago, Woodland head coach Tim Shea and offensive coordinator Tim Phipps knew they were going to reinstall the spread offense for the 2012 season.

The proposition scared the coaching staff, but it wasn’t because they thought it would be too much for junior quarterback Tanner Kingsley to handle.

“I was concerned about going back to the spread and having immediate comparisons to teams of the past,” says Phipps, the only original member of the Hawks’ staff still with the program. “I didn’t want that to happen because I wanted this team not to say, ‘We want to be like them,’ but to say, ‘We want to be respected by those teams.’”

They’ve made a pretty good case so far for themselves to be considered among the best teams in school history.

There were some pretty darned great teams who came before this year’s Hawks. The 2004 and 2005 teams still bear the standard for all Woodland squads, with the program’s only two state and Naugatuck Valley League titles to their credit.

They ran the spread offense about as well as any Connecticut high school team has ever done. Those teams — and consequently, this one — have one decision in the program’s infancy to look back upon and see how things could have been totally different.

“When we first started (at the freshmen level in 2001), we used a pro-style offense with a tight end, wings and an I-backfield,” Phipps says. “When we made the decision to move up to varsity (in 2002) we couldn’t run that offense against our competition, in part because of our experience and size.

“Coach (Chris) Anderson started to research and we came down to two choices: We were either going to be a triple-option team and not block their biggest guys or we would be a spread team and base it on the principle that Southington was using of catch-and-throw and a good short game.”

That’s right: Woodland could have turned into a triple-option football team with the ball almost never traveling through the air. Yikes.

The coaching staff knew it was the right decision to go spread, though. After all, they thought it was only a matter of time before they reaped the benefits.

“It was real basic,” Shea says. “We knew we were going to take our lumps. We had one protection, one run play and we knew we were going to get our asses kicked. But by the time those guys were seniors, we were going to win the whole thing.”

The Hawks stayed in that offense for the next five years, taking a pocketful of wins and championships with them, before changing the scheme to the wing-T in 2007.

“What brought us out of it in 2007 was a big offensive line, legitimate running backs and almost a perfect world for any type of offense we wanted,” Phipps says. “So we went to the wing-T to keep our strengths on the offensive line.”

Tanner’s older brother Cody, now the school’s wide receivers coach, was the quarterback on that 2007 team. Just because he was the first quarterback in six years to not run the spread, though, didn’t mean he had it easy.

“It didn’t alleviate what we asked of Cody,” Phipps says. “It was actually tougher in ways. There was a lot more play-action, a lot more going on in the backfield and a lot of read progressions. And we still had elements of the spread, so he had a lot on his plate.”

The wing-T remained the school’s base offense for the better part of the last five years until transitioning last year into a team that was priming for a switch back to the offense of old.

“We knew about this time last year that we were going back to the spread stuff,” Shea says. “We had it all out on the board the Monday after Thanksgiving.”

Woodland has reaped the benefits of the new, old offense this fall, averaging more than 40 points per game en route to the program’s first Copper Division championship in five years.

Despite the similar way things look on the field, though, the coaching staff is hesitant to draw many comparisons between the 2012 Hawks and their historical brethren.

First, this version of the spread is more complex than the first version, the coaches say.

“The spread has evolved so much since then, from basic patterns and basic blocking schemes to all the reads that have to be made,” Shea says. “A lot of it now involved thinking out of the box. It’s no longer just stepping back and throwing. These kids have to do as much homework as it is playing. It’s so much faster now.”

Differences, too, come from the fact that this team has not seen any film or any of the playbook from the first incarnation of the spread.

“From coaching in the past, there was too much of going back and saying that we did this in 2004 and this in 2005. I didn’t want it to be like that,” Phipps says. “I wanted it to be that the 2012 Woodland Hawks did this. I think the kids want to uphold the traditions set by past teams but they want their own identity. That’s why they have not seen a lick of film from those championships years. They recognize it but we don’t bring it up.”

Indeed, the players reflect that point of view.

“It’s a good feeling to bring back stuff that they did,” wide receiver Brian Reis said. “But we don’t really compare. We’re our own team. We’re not worried about what they did; we’re worried about what we need to do the rest of this season.”

“I’m not going to compare us,” said wideout Anthony Scirpo, who has broken several records from the first spread era. “If we win a state title, maybe I would. But until then, they’ve earned that right to be above us. I just want to be doing what we’re doing.”

But the Woodland coaches don’t feel like it’s a matter of the old teams being better or worse. This year’s team has more youth overall, they say, but has been responsible for learning more.

Phipps and Shea do like to compare the types of kids around which each team was based, though.

“We can talk about certain things with these kids that we used to talk about with the old guys,” Shea says. “We’re not afraid to talk about some things with these guys and we’ve been waiting for that. We find ourselves saying the same little things that we said to those teams.”

“If you go position by position, Tanner embodies the same fighting spirit that Jared Katchmar had,” Phipps says. “He wants to win even though he has a different style than Jared did. I think the receivers of the past would respect what these receivers do and would say they’d want to play with these guys. I think guys like Matt Dorosh and Eric Alfiere would look at these tight ends and say, ‘That’s how you play.’”

Woodland is a win away from joining the school’s list of teams — four in the last eight years — who have made the postseason. In that achievement, Phipps says, would solidify the mutual respect between young and old.

“It’s tough to compare the groups,” Phipps says. “Hopefully when it’s all said and done, the 2004 team, the 2005 team, the 2007 team and the 2010 team — all the teams who made the playoffs — look at this team and respect the fact that these guys have upheld their traditions.”