North Hall High football coach David Bishop had a minor epiphany while sitting at home last December.
With his wife out of town for a few days, Bishop decided to review game film from the recently completed season, and a trend he first began to notice about a decade ago became more and more pronounced as he progressed through the Trojans’ year.
“I saw it and said, ‘Wow, everybody is passing the ball,’” Bishop said. “I recognized how much the game has changed since even 2010. So when I was putting together my schedule this year, I said we’re doing about six or seven 7-on-7 days.”
Bishop is hardly the only coach in Hall County — or the country, for that matter — to espouse that train of thought.
The recent proliferation in 7-on-7 tournaments, where teams run only passing plays without offensive or defensive linemen, has caught on quickly in northeast Georgia. In an age of pass-heavy offenses, these camps have become an integral part of many teams’ offseason programs.
“During the last 10 years, they’ve become more prevalent,” said Gainesville High coach Bruce Miller. “It’s just a chance for you to get your passing game in early, and your defense gets some work, too. You get used to playing the pass and get your team a little bit competitive early. To me, it’s a great learning experience for the kids.”
That’s especially true for a team like North Hall, which almost exclusively runs the ball out of a flexbone formation. In a region with air-raid squads like East Hall High, Greater Atlanta Christian and Dawson County High, Bishop seizes every opportunity to expose his secondary to passing threats.
“It’s really important for us from the defensive perspective,” Bishop said. “We see spread teams every week, so we’ve got to get out and defend the pass. And on offense for us, we’re looking at doing a bit more play-action passing than most other teams.”
For all the benefits found in 7-on-7 work, coaches insist it’s not “real football” and has little correlation to success on Friday nights.
The most noteworthy difference is obvious: seven players on each side instead of 11. No linemen means no pass rush, which can seriously disrupt the timing offenses aim to master and defenses seek to stop. And because there is no threat of running plays, defenders can simply settle into coverage without going through their reads.
Perhaps the most glaring drawback, at least in East Hall coach Bryan Gray’s opinion, is one-hand touch being enough for the ball carrier to be called down.
“I have never in my career seen a guy that can consistently tackle someone with one-hand touch,” he quipped. “Kids don’t get down in a hitting position, they develop habits of overreaching and things that take away from what we do on Fridays. I cringe when I see it.”
To guard against those “bad habits” taking hold, Gray said he reminds his players to keep what happens in these tournaments in perspective. Gray himself doesn’t put much stock in what transpires at 7-on-7 competitions, despite having arguably the area’s most potent passer in rising senior Austin Parker.
The Vikings have greatly reduced their participation in such camps, and they just finished that portion of their offseason program last weekend in Dalton. Miller, who said it’s possible to play in too many 7-on-7s, likes to take Gainesville to only four or five tournaments each summer.
But Gray said some coaches have abandoned the trend altogether, instead partnering with neighboring teams for 1-on-1 drills or entering 11-on-11 camps for a taste of “real football.”
For local schools, those full-team activities mark the transition from summer workouts to fall practices. The Red Elephants’ three-day session at Colquitt County High ends Thursday, while both North Hall and East Hall are participating in an 11-on-11 camp this week sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Riverside Military Academy.
“We were average (in 7-on-7s), but now the big thing is turning it over to 11-on-11 and seeing how you really compare,” Miller said. “You get to see the lines of scrimmage and how well those guys are competing.”
Still, coaches find some value in the stripped-down, pass-only events.
The main takeaway is simple evaluation of talent, which is the first hurdle coaches must clear in assembling a team. Beyond that, they’re looking for how well players compete and rise to the occasion when challenged.
It also serves to break up the monotony of offseason programs, and coaches said their players enjoy the chance to compete against other clubs during the summer.
But gone are the days when teams went to a 7-on-7 camp every weekend of the summer and sought out national tournaments. East Hall was one of those clubs just about five years ago, and now Gray believes 7-on-7s may be going out of style in favor of team and individual work.
If he’s right, Bishop might have to alter North Hall’s offseason training program once again.
“Kids can get a false sense of what’s happening,” Gray said. “Things won’t fit perfectly in the games like they do in tournaments. But the kids have been competing hard, and I’m encouraged. Now we just have to retrain them for real football for the next month.”