Daryl Patton first started coaching 7on7 football when he was at Bryant, Ark., in 1998. In the 30 years before his hiring there, the school had a winning season only twice. While Bryant couldn’t compete straight up with some schools in regular football, 7on7 was a different story.
“When I started playing 7on7, there were guys in the state, guys like Gus Malzahn (the current Auburn coach who was the head coach at Shiloh Christian in Springdale then), who were really advocates of 7on7,” Patton said. “At Bryant, we had to find some way to get our players some confidence and 7on7 was the answer. We started winning and having some success.”
In 1999, his team at Bryant went undefeated in the regular season and won its first playoff game. Within a few years, he was hired by Fayetteville, where he has won four state titles, including this past season. He credits 7on7 for some of that success.
“When we go out there to play on a weekend, you’ll see about 250 passes thrown against you,” Patton said. “There’s no way possible where we could hold a practice where our quarterback would be able to throw 250 passes, plus you’re talking quality quarterbacks at any given tournament. It’s made a world of difference. By the end of the summer, our quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs and linebackers already know our terminology.”
While 7on7 was an answer for Patton, it has become a problem for some high school coaches. With so many 7on7 events involving all-star teams, there’s a concern the events increase transfers between high schools and take away from the team concept, much like summer AAU basketball has done to high school basketball.
That’s why coaches such as Patton are on board with the new USA Football national 7on7 competition, which will have 10 regional competitions this summer, culminating in a 32-team national championship July 14-16 in Hoover, Ala. All the teams in the event are to be culled from actual high school teams rather than all-star teams that use players from different schools.
The first regional event is June 11 in Atlanta.
“Our kids are constantly tempted to play for all-star 7on7 teams,” said Columbus (Miami) coach Chris Merritt. “Some of the guys working in that realm can’t get jobs with high schools because of their backgrounds. There’s no association or body to govern it. As high school coaches, this gives us an opportunity to take our teams back.”
USA Football is the sport’s national governing body and a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
USA Football has created the position of 7on7 director and hired Brandon Sheppard, who was the executive director of the National Select 7on7 event at Hoover from 2002 to last year. This event is expected to essentially replace the National Select event but will be run under the auspices of USA Football with different regional sites and rules.
“Our program is about offering an opportunity for the high school coach to keep his kids involved during the summer,” he said. “He may have a kid come to him saying he wants to be part of a national tournament. Now, the coach can turn that back on him and say, we’re going to do that, but as a team. We’re offering this in opposition to the all-star model.”
Various state associations have different rules for 7on7. In Texas and Ohio, for example, high school teams can play together but cannot be coached by their high school coach. In some states, teams aren’t allowed to travel out of state for events. Other states, such as South Carolina, cap the number of days a team can play in 7on7 events over the summer.
“The No. 1 difficulty for a national event is the different state association rules,” Sheppard said. “That’s going to limit us from having one school from every state. Schools in the state of Michigan cannot travel more than 300 miles out of the state line. They’ll never be able to attend unless we move the event to Michigan. The other difficulty is schools still have to spend money for the travel arrangements and it’s not for the whole team. Sometimes, that’s a hard expense to justify. On the flip side, it puts us as close as possible to having a national championship in football.”
Spartanburg, S.C. football coach Chris Miller, like Patton, was an early adopter of 7on7. His school will host one of the 10 regional events.
“We’re just trying to compete and get our kids better,” Miller said. “It helps our players learn our formations and plays. For some other people out there, 7on7 is a way to make money and they get into all-star competition. I trust this group because I’ve been dealing with them a long time.”