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High school passing leagues a popular teaching tool for local football programs
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West Hall’s Keith McCroan catches a pass with Apalachee High’s Kyle Jackson covering during the team’s passing league contest Monday afternoon at West Hall. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

High school passing leagues are all about football teams trying to replicate the game played in the fall, even though it plays out more like two-hand touch with helmets. The playbook is exposed at varying levels, depending on the coaches discretion.

And defense is an equal part of what the coach evaluates, despite what the name may imply, where offensive plays are limited to throwing.

“We get a lot of work from a defensive standpoint,” said North Hall coach Bob Christmas. “The biggest thing is that it teaches our players to compete.

“Sometimes, you think you’re playing hard, but realize you need to dig a little deeper.”

Passing leagues mean just as much to West Hall first-year coach Tony Lotti, who said he will run the ball heavily during the regular season, as it does to the spread offense under Gainesville coach Bruce Miller.

“It helps us get the instillation down of our offense,” Miller said. “It’s one of the most important things that we do as a team all summer long, along with going to the West Georgia (University) defensive camp.”

Passing leagues are often two teams lining up and taking turns running their offenses. However, some opt for the passing tournaments, like the Gainesville/Hall County Fellowship of Christian Athletes event Thursday at Johnson High. Seven Hall County programs, along with Commerce, North Forsyth and Gilmer will all be on hand for the event in Oakwood, primarily focused on their own development, but also looking to see what the competition has in store for the regular season.

And, during the summer, breaking up the monotony of doing conditioning drills with players wearing the same jersey is usually enough to get the competitive juices flowing.

“The biggest thing that passing leagues do is give your team a chance to compete a little,” Lakeview Academy coach Matthew Gruhn said.

During summer passing leagues, schools that have more pass-happy offenses are a little bit more attractive to go against.

Even though the Red Elephants, led by an all-state quarterback and rising junior Deshaun Watson, are certain to give defenses fits during the regular season, they are an attractive throwing opponent for coaches to get a taste of how their defense can respond to seeing every pass play in the book. The same goes for Jefferson and its rising senior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, a 1,900-yard passer in 2011.

“For me, it’s extremely important to throw against other teams in the summer,” Lotti said. “It gives a reference for where we stand and what we can improve on.”

One thing West Hall’s coach said is important is to make sure players don’t stray from technique and strategy that will be successful in the regular season, even though there is no premeditated hitting going on this time of the summer. Lotti wants his new players to stay in the mindset that they are needing to play at game speed. That way, transition into pads will be much smoother in August.

And trying new players at new positions is certainly a good idea to make the pieces a coach has on deck work best.

For example, when West Hall threw against Apalachee on Monday, Lotti wasn’t afraid to let new players take a crack at playing wide receiver.

When Keith McCroan got a chance to show what he could do for the Spartans at receiver, he responded with a diving touchdown grab in the back of the end zone. That certainly earned points with the coach.

Passing leagues are also, in the most basic terms, a teachable moment.

When one of West Hall’s quarterback’s threw a touchdown, after scanning the field for close to five seconds, it was called back. The infraction on the play wasn’t a penalty: West Hall’s coach called it a sack on his own player.

Lotti says that expecting that much time to throw is a bad habit to develop. It’s better to fix it during the summer than have his quarterback get punished during the regular season.

“I’m trying to teach the players to keep an internal clock in their heads,” Lotti added. “Expecting that much time to throw isn’t realistic.”

The defense is equally important to watch perform for Lotti, especially making sure the linebackers’ first step is toward the line of scrimmage, even though its a given that a pass play is coming in these leagues.

Miller says that his Gainesville offense will do a little bit of everything in summer passing. By the time they reach actual practice, they’re essentially finished installing the offense.

The Red Elephants’ coach says they do it all during summer passing leagues: The traditional drop-back pass, screen passes and trick plays are all fair game.

“It’s great for us to work on our offense like this during the summer,” Miller said. “We’ll probably throw against another team two times a week during the summer.”

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