Sailing through air
Sailors' passing game stealing the show
In Mark Drake’s previous 29 years as head football coach at Steamboat Springs High School, the running game has almost always been the focal point of the offense.
But in the words of the veteran coach, “Throwing the ball is a lot more fun.”
Through the first six games of the 2003 schedule, Steamboat’s offensive production has emerged as the biggest story of the season and arguably the most surprising development in the Western Slope League.
Steamboat has compiled 2,433 total yards, 1,424 of which have come through the air. Nearly 59 percent of the Sailors’ offensive output this season has come from throwing the ball.
In Drake’s history as Steamboat’s coach, he has sent numerous players on to collegiate football at all levels and even won a state championship, but he has never had a passing offense like the one he’s guiding this season.
“There were years we couldn’t have done this,” Drake said. “It has been a lot of fun. The kids are enjoying it, and throwing the ball is a lot more fun than playing smash-mouth football, but you have to have the talent to throw the football.”
The talent starts with senior quarterback David May. He remains humble and a bit hesitant to talk about his individual season, passing off credit to the job being done by Steamboat’s relatively inexperienced and frequently undersized offensive line and its stable of receivers.
But May’s numbers speak for him. After throwing for 200 yards and a touchdown in Friday night’s win over Delta, May has thrown for 1,223 yards and 11 touchdowns through the air. He has completed 85 of 144 passes, a percentage of nearly 60 percent, and thrown only three interceptions. Using NCAA statistics, that’s a quarterback rating of 151.4.
Overall, 13 of the Sailors’ 30 offensive touchdowns this season have come through the air with five receivers accounting for those 13 scores. Nine receivers have been used in this year’s offensive scheme.
May started a majority of Steamboat’s games last season because Joel Adams, the original starting quarterback, went down with a knee injury early. But May said he never felt completely in control of the offense and learned quickly he had lessons to learn on quarterbacking a varsity football team.
“Last year, when I came up to the line, I knew who I was going to throw it to and locked in,” May said. “This year, I have been able to make the reads and see what the defense is giving me.”
May credits the initial stages of his maturation process to a new seven-on-seven passing camp he and 10 of his teammates went to in Highlands Ranch during the summer.
Junior Kevin Dombey went as the center to snap the ball. Otherwise, it was a camp solely designed for backs, receivers, tight ends and signal callers to practice.
Steamboat defeated several larger schools, and it was there, the players said, that they started to believe this year’s offense had the skill and speed to be explosive.
“There’s really not a whole lot of ways to defend us,” said senior receiver/back Lonny Radford. “Compared with the last few years, the offense is a lot more complex. Coach Drake is an offensive coach, and he loves offense, and I think having big offensive production is making him excited.”
Drake doesn’t know how many plays are in this year’s playbook, but it isn’t the plays that provide the Sailors such a varied offensive look; it’s the three or four formations Steamboat will use for the same play.
On one play alone — May’s favorite, called Right Split 99 Y Hitch A option — five receivers go out, and May finds his target based on the coverage. In that one play, depending on the look the defense gives even before the snap, May finds his player. Should the defense change the look, May finds a different receiver. And, as has been the case this season, every Sailor running a route can catch the football.
“I would hate to have to plan practice against us,” Drake said. “Look at the different formations. You get duals, jazz, bunch and cover. It would be tough to defend, and then you have to decide to play man and bring pressure or drop and cover.”
Teams have changed their look between zone and man defenses and attempted to apply heavy pressure on May, but the offensive line continues to do a solid job of protecting their quarterback, and Brad Bonner, often the lone back in the backfield, has consistently picked up blitzing players before they reach May.
May and his receivers continue to improve on their short-route timing when May, a hard player to take down at 6-foot-1, 188 pounds, is forced to get rid of the ball quickly.
And when a defense rushes four linemen and drops its linebackers into coverage to help the secondary, the Sailors’ receivers have exploited the soft areas of the zone in the middle and on the outside.
“Opponents don’t have the scout team that can give the same look as our first team offense,” wideout/back Shea Hurley said. “Everyone can catch, and David has the confidence to throw to anyone.”
Drake is as big a football fan as anyone, watching games at all levels. He said he’s constantly seeing plays in person or on television that he contemplates implementing into his system, but this is the first year all his passing concoctions have been put to use.
He came to the realization that his team may be forced to air it out on offense this summer, when it became clear the average weight of his offensive line was not going to exceed 200 pounds. And this year the Sailors have had a difficult time running the ball, particularly up the middle, largely because they are undersized and inexperienced.
However, the unit continues to improve, and a steak dinner — courtesy of May and wide receiver Chris Dombey — is on the line and for the line — if the offense passes for more than 1,500 yards this season. After Friday’s 49-14 win against Delta, Steamboat has 1,424 passing yards, and there are four games left on the regular season schedule.
Drake didn’t know anything about the steak dinners. But the selfless attitude he’s seen from every one of his players this year makes the 5-1 start overall perhaps more enjoyable than a properly executed 43 counter play.
“David loves the game and puts a lot of time and pride into it,” Drake said. “I’m glad that he’s the humble person he is because there are some years when some would get the big head, and it would cause dissension. Same with the receivers, but it’s nice to see it all come together, especially in our complex offense.”
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