David Sommers still remembers the moment when Holy Family’s no-huddle offense took root and a high-octane passing attack was born.
The Tigers had qualified for the Class 3A state playoffs for the first time back in 2011 after moving up from 2A the year before. Playing against eventual state champion Windsor in the first round, Holy Family found it couldn’t match up with the Wizards’ size. But when the Tigers went no-huddle in a two-minute offense, the team was much more competitive.
Holy Family made the change in scheme permanent heading into the 2012 season and has never looked back. For his part, Sommers, who quarterbacked the Tigers from 2011-13, helped establish an offense that was scoring nearly 20 points more a game just four years later.
“I think it made the game a lot more exciting. We started putting up more points and had drives where we scored fast,” said Sommers, now a redshirt junior wide receiver at Colorado School of Mines in Golden. “It also helped with controlling the tempo, too. We had the ability to go fast, and we could also slow it down if we needed too.”
Holy Family has made the passing game its bread-and-butter, but the Tigers are far from alone in that area. Programs like Bear Creek, Arvada West and Mullen in the 1990s used an aerial attack to break records and play for state titles, helping to pave the way for future pass-heavy offenses like Fairview, Valor Christian and D’Evelyn, among others.
A glance at the CHSAA records book would back that up. While a handful of those former Bear Creek quarterbacks own the top career passing marks, single-season records from the past decade have climbed into the top-10 in nearly every category.
“You look at those Bear Creek teams holding a lot of those (passing records), and all of a sudden you look at the last five to seven years and it’s been incredible how many of those records may have been added to,” said Fairview coach Tom McCartney, who is in his 25th season of coaching the Knights.
“I think with the college game, and CU being in the Pac-12 and how many teams can really light up the scoreboard … the last seven to 10 years has been an incredible offensive output,” McCartney continued. “It’s coming down to the high school level as well.”
“It takes a special quarterback.”
Under McCartney’s guidance, Fairview quarterbacks have put on quite the show in recent years. The Knights own the top three spots in the state records book for single-season completions and have three of the top six spots in single-season passing yards.
On the way to the 2013 state championship game, quarterback Anders Hill threw for nearly 3,900 yards and 36 touchdowns, and wide receiver Sam Martin set a state record with 1,860 yards. His 112 receptions was a record that stood for two years before D’Evelyn’s Charlie Davis beat it by one catch in 2015. (The Jaguars also have three players in the top 10 for career receptions.)
One year later, Johnny Feauto took his turn, throwing for 3,953 yards and 40 touchdowns (tied for sixth in the state’s history). That’s to say nothing of Taylor Tharp, who in 2002 set state records for attempts (484) and completions (293).
“Sometimes I feel like those are obviously just stats, but you still want to win,” McCartney said. “Tharp took our team to two state championship appearances, and Johnny had an undefeated regular season. Anders took us to the title game.
“I definitely take pride in the achievements of those teams.”
Fairview opened the 2017 season with three consecutive victories behind sophomore quarterback Aiden Atkinson. The 6-foot-3 Atkinson is averaging 306 yards a game to go along with eight touchdowns.
“I’ve been extremely impressed with Aidan. He’s also a 4.0 (student) and he’s really smart. He knows how to apply it to the football field as well,” McCartney said. “He’s very, very hungry to learn.”
Second-year Aspen coach Karson Pike feels the same way about his senior quarterback, RJ Peshek. After winning only two games each of the past two years, the 2A Skiers jumped out to a 3-0 start that included an 80-point showing the first week of the season against Middle Park.
Operating out of a no-huddle offense designed to wear down opposing defenses, Peshek has passed for 748 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 268 yards and six scores.
“RJ is a special kid. His dad coaches on the staff as defensive coordinator, so he’s been going home with a coach ever since little league,” Pike said. “What it boils down to is he wants to flat-out win, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes.”
Pike came to Aspen after several years of working as an assistant with a handful of smaller colleges. He brought the no-huddle offense with him after seeing the success of an up-tempo offense at his previous stops.
Aspen took some time to acclimate to the offense, but Pike said the biggest key was his players sacrificed their time in the offseason to get better. With only one senior graduating from last year, the experience factor has also helped the Skiers get off to a strong start.
But it still takes a quarterback who can grab the reins and run that type of offense.
“You can get a lot of work done in the passing game if you want to dedicate yourself to that,” Pike said of the offseason work. “I think you can be successful, but it takes a special quarterback, no question.”
After Sommers graduated and headed to Mines, Holy Family coach Mike Gabriel found a new signal-caller in Chris Helbig. In his two years of leading Holy Family, the Tigers averaged 46.0 and 48.1 points per game, and in 2015 Helbig passed for 3,517 yards and 39 touchdowns – both of which are good for eighth-best in state history.
Helbig also owns the state record with 43 completions in a single game. So current Tigers quarterback Stone Samaras recognized the task ahead of him when he took over in 2016.
“I got thrown in freshman year and I was oblivious to the whole thing,” Samaras said. “Sophomore year, coming out the very first game and starting, it really hit me: ‘Holy cow, I’m taking Chris Helbig’s spot and I’ve got to fill his shoes.'”
Samaras did just that though, passing for nearly 2,800 yards and 33 touchdowns as a sophomore, with three players catching at least 46 passes. Samaras has eight touchdown passes in three games this fall for the top-ranked Tigers, seven of which have gone to junior Kyle Helbig.
“Stone had big shoes to fill, as did Chris. But he grew up this offseason and he’s taking control of the offense,” Gabriel said. “A lot of the stuff you see on field, he’s adjusting to. He’s leading that side of the ball for sure.”
There’s good and bad to an up-tempo offense.
Every coach will tell you though that balance needs to be added to the equation for any offense to be successful. Even with the impressive passing numbers teams have put up, there will be times where running the ball is necessary.
Fairview senior Mariano Kemp is averaging 7.2 yards per carry for the Knights through three games and has seven touchdowns. Last fall, Holy Family’s Michael Zeman rushed for 2,185 yards and 23 touchdowns.
“You are going to see some tough weather from time to time, and you are going to see some interesting defenses. You’ve got to be ready for those kinds of things,” McCartney said. “There are certain situations where you’ve got to run the ball.”
Another key factor from a fast-paced offense is the wear-and-tear it creates for its defense. As Holy Family’s offense struggled to find a rhythm last Friday night against No. 2 Fort Morgan – enduring a number of three-and-out possessions – the Tigers’ defense had to rise to the challenge and keep the Mustangs in check.
The team did just that in a 16-13 victory.
“It’s a big challenge if you’re not in rhythm and you don’t get at least one first down,” Gabriel said. “A three-and-out can kill your defense, but we’ve got the defense to back it up this year. I think we’re better suited to do both.”
But it still comes back to executing through the air in order for that style of offense to work. As McCartney pointed out, as more and more teams find success with spread offenses, the trickle-down effect to the high school game may also increase.
Sommers had the opportunity to catch passes from Harlon Hill trophy winner Justin Dvorak at Mines last fall. Dvorak threw for more than 4,500 yards and 53 touchdowns in a spread offense that produced another Harlon Hill winner, Chad Friehauf, back in 2004.
“I think the numbers kind of speak for itself. The spread creates matchups and 1-on-1 situations,” Sommers said. “It’s not just assignment football for the defense. You can mix and match and basically pick the perfect play, while in certain other offenses you don’t have that exact ability.”
There are other factors that work in the favor of up-tempo offenses. The popularity of 7-on-7 camps allows athletes to get the work in over the summer and nail down timing headed into fall.
“First, I think it’s safer because now instead of what’s called ‘phone-booth football’ – where everybody lines up inside the hash and runs at each other for 48 minutes – now you’re looking at players in 1-on-1 space,” Pike said. “The other factor is you can’t do a lot in the summer, but you can always throw.”
A lot of that success boils down to personnel and ability. As the constant edits to the state’s record books in recent years show, with the game continuing to evolve, Colorado continues to produce some impressive talent.
“As a coach it’s great when you have great players. I think just having an identity and staying true to it and believing in it is probably one of the biggest factors,” McCartney said. “But when you get great players and have an identity you believe in, that’s a good mix.”