Low numbers from one aspect may push St. Andrew’s-Sewanee to offensive numbers its football team hasn’t had in years.
The Mountain Lions, forced to finish one 2010 game with 10 players, forfeited its final two games and then decided to give up their TSSAA football affiliation and go to eight-man football in the Middle Tennessee Athletic Conference. They will remain TSSAA participants in all other sports.
“We ran out of numbers last year after being on the edge throughout the season,” coach Ellis Mayfield said. “It was Week 7 that we started the game with 13 kids and ended up the fourth quarter with 10 on the field. We had some injuries we weren’t going to be able to bounce back from in time and wound up forfeiting.”
Mayfield already had been following the eight-man league, which had been courting SAS for a couple of years and will provide nine conference games for the Mountain Lions.
“I had been seeing the scores and I was intrigued,” he said. “I wound up going up to watch their championship game. It’s football — eight guys going full out, blocking and tackling.”
SAS wanted to continue football but has been handicapped by numbers and the relative inexperience of some of its player pool, which includes foreign-born students who never have played American football.
“We want to play football and we have kids who want to play, so [eight-man football] is what we decided to do,” Mayfield said. “The administration was very supportive.”
There were some misgivings from some of the players.
“We had to dispel the notion that we were reducing our commitment to football,” the coach said. “We had to answer questions from the players and their parents. This league opens up a whole new possibility.”
SAS might wind up competing for a championship, something that was unlikely to happen with its Division II-A TSSAA membership.
“We were beating our heads against the wall. We had Davidson Academy on our schedule,” Mayfield said.
With the forfeits, the Mountain Lions posted a 2-8 record, beating Tennessee School for the Deaf and King’s Academy but also losing 44-0 to Donelson Christian, 21-0 to Riverside Christian and 40-8 to Zion Christian. After the season-opening 54-36 win over TSD, SAS managed a meager five touchdowns.
“Now we’ll go into and play games that are competitive, and that’s the whole point,” Mayfield said. “We weren’t backing down but rather adjusting in order to enhance our students’ athletic experience. We want that experience to be both meaningful and safe.”
Eight-man football breathes new life into the program at a school with 203 day and boarding students.
Mayfield said offense definitely has an edge because the Tennessee league plays on standard football fields (53 1/3-by-100 yards plus 10-yard end zones) as opposed to smaller fields (40-by-80 or 40-by-100) employed in some states.
“It’s a huge challenge on both defense and special teams,” Mayfield said. “You almost have to assume you’re going to give up at least 30 points, and you have to figure out how you’re going to stay in the game. Shutouts are very, very rare.”
The most common eight-man offensive concept does away with the tackles and one back, leaving a team with a center, two guards, two receivers, a quarterback and two running backs, but that is just a base formation.
“You can overload one side and cover a receiver for a power look or you can spread the field as much as you want. It opens all the windows of possibilities,” Mayfield said.
The tempo of the game is usually faster-paced, and most coaches employ a number of trick plays: direct snaps, wildcat formations and fake punts and field goals. Basic offensive formations are either the I formation or the T formation, but offenses often are more prone to wide-open running games rather than passing.
The most common defensive formation is a 3-3-2 (three linemen, three linebackers and two backs), but the schemes range from four down linemen and one defensive back to five linemen and three linebackers.
There are eight-man football leagues in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington.
SAS’s schedule this year will include Franklin Classical, Aaron Academy, the Middle Tennessee Heat, Sacred Heart, Christian Community School, Franklin Christian Academy, Holloway and the Webb School in Bell Buckle, once SAS’s big sports rival and another school venturing into eight-man football for the first time.