Healdsburg prepares for an unconventional offense

By ERIC BRANCH
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Some football teams can inspire fear.

Piedmont High, on the other hand, can provoke thoughts of lion tamers, tightrope walkers and unicyclists.

“Before we played one team their coach said this is like the circus is coming to town,” Piedmont coach Kurt Bryan said. “He meant it in a nice way. He meant that we play an entertaining brand of football.”

Entertaining, yes. And unconventional. And something the likes of which many football fans have never seen.

Get ready, Healdsburg. The circus is coming to town.

The high school football season will open tonight and one of the more intriguing matchups of the opening weekend will arrive Saturday night when Healdsburg hosts Piedmont, the originators of the A-11 Offense.

The A-11’s base formation has three linemen, two quarterbacks (or one quarterback and one running back) and six players split wide, three on each side. Two players on each side are wide receivers and the other, in A-11 parlance, is an “anchor.” The anchors, wearing jersey numbers from 50-79, are not eligible receivers — that is, they can’t catch a forward pass.

But they can run a reverse, or catch a lateral or throw a double pass or motion into the backfield and take a handoff or …

Healdsburg coach Tom Kirkpatrick said defensive coordinator Bob Besancon has been muttering about the new addition to the schedule.

“There is a little bit of truth to that,” Besancon said with a laugh. “The first time I saw it I was like ‘What did you do here? I don’t have a clue what these guys are trying to do.’”

Bryan and assistant coach Steve Humphries created the offense and unveiled it in 2007. After a 5-6 record in his first season at Piedmont, Bryan was inspired to change after the Highlanders — a school of about 850 with a 28-man roster this season — were physically manhandled in a 13-6 playoff loss to Miramonte.

In response, he created a system that spread out defenses, created wide receiver vs. linebacker mismatches and, hopefully, befuddled opponents with only a few days to prepare for football anarchy.

Where else do see you a player with a lineman’s number sprint 78 yards for a touchdown, like Piedmont’s Carl Hendrickson — No.52 — did last year? And where else can you see the “Big Nasty,” Piedmont’s jumbo formation that features nine players wearing Nos.50-79?

“We no longer game plan for what we want to do,” Bryan said. “We game plan for what will be a nightmare for our opponents. And hopefully we execute it.”

Said Kirkpatrick, “It’s so unconventional and trying to prepare for something like that in one week, it can be really difficult. If you’re not ready and you don’t line up correctly, they can really take advantage of that.”

The A-11 has received national attention, but it’s not quite sweeping the country. Asked what other schools in California use the A-11 as their base offense, Bryan mentioned only West Valley in Hemet. Elliot Christian, a small school in Lodi, is also implementing the system this season.

Bryan estimates, though, that at least 500 schools across the country use elements of the A-11. He said play packages on the A-11 website (a11offense.com) received 3,000 downloads in August.

Bryan and Humphries are true believers — they frequently speak at coach’s clinics about the merits of their system — and they have some numbers to back up their beliefs.

Since 2007, the Highlanders are 21-12 and are averaging 27.3 points a game. In the three season prior to the arrival of the A-11, Piedmont was 13-17-2 and averaged 24.5 points.

Bryan and Humphries acknowledge they have detractors, football purists who scoff at their system.

Not surprisingly, they don’t plan to change.

“They can say all they want,” Humphries said. “We’re just moving ahead and continuing to innovate as much as possible.”