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July 11, 2009

Gen Xers and Os: the first 7-on-7 generation

Arlington quarterback Matt Joeckel and brother Luke have played in about 200, 7-on-7 games in the last five summers. They've been part of state tournament winning teams as seventh, eighth and ninth-graders and are trying for another at the 12th Annual Fox Sports Southwest State Tournament at Texas A&M.

The Joeckels are representative of a generation of Texas high school football players who have embraced the spring and summer leagues of all-pass, one-touch-tackle that has helped rejuvenate many programs by building off-season team camaraderie as well as producing a growing cascade of high-level quarterbacks and receivers.

Once known for its run-oriented emphasis of Wing-T or Wishbone formation offenses, Texas football has blossomed into recruiting central for offensive skill position players for dozens of major college programs around the country.

Matt Joeckel already is one of several quarterbacks for the Class of 2010 who have made commitments to sign next February. Joeckel is a Texas A&M commit while Texas quarterback commit Connor Wood of Houston Second Baptist burst onto the scene last spring when he showed he could lead his smaller private school against top competition in 7-on-7 leagues.

In addition to supplying nearly every Big 12 school with quarterbacks for the upcoming season, there will be Texas trained starting quarterbacks at Alabama (Greg McElroy), Mississippi's Jevan Snead, Florida State's Christian Ponder and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett.

All blossomed with help from development in 7-on-7.

"I didn't have any question that if Texas ever started playing 7-on-7 like other parts of the country that you'd see an explosion of talent at quarterback," says Bobby Burton, the editor of the rivals.com recruiting site that is the No. 1 source of college football recruiting. "It only made sense with the passion for football and the number of athletes in the state."

Burton, who was based in Houston and Austin through the 1990s, and Fox Sports Net Southwest general manager Jon Heidtke quickly came up with the idea of a state tournament once the University Interscholastic League allowed high school teammates to compete together during the off-season beginning in 1996.

By 1998, Burton and Heidtke staged the first state tournament. It's no surprise that Southlake Carroll won the first summer title and it signaled a state championship run in the fall seasons by Southlake Carroll.

Success in the 7-on-7 season doesn't guarantee fall success but it does allow dedicated players to practice together almost year round and Southlake Carroll's dominance in Class 5A can partly be traced to the off-season workout ethic and team camaraderie that the 7-on-7 competition helped inspire.

"Fifteen years ago, you could drive around to parks all through Texas during the summer and never see kids out throwing and catching the football," Lewisville coach Dick Olin said." Now, these kids are out everywhere."

The state's 7-on-7 competition begins in mid-May. Nearly every Class 5A and 4A program competes in some kind of 7-on-7 league or tournament. Designated qualifying tournaments are held every Saturday to determine the 64 qualifiers for the state tournament. There's a 32-team field for a Class 3A and under bracket which was won by Celina over Rice Consolidated on Friday afternoon.

That totals to nearly 100 teams with about 20 players on each roster and thousands of spectators have made a steaming hot mid-July weekend in the Brazos Valley a highly valued destination point.

If there is a Godfather to 7-on-7, it is Olin. He started the first leagues during his long tenure at Baytown Lee before moving to Lewisville this spring. Lee won 7-on-7 state tournament titles in 2001 and 2005. When the UIL first allowed high school programs to compete together during the spring and summer in 1996, Olin helped get the concept going.

"The first summer of tournaments there were usually about four teams and they were more like exhibitions," Olin said. "And I spent every day that week calling them to make sure they were coming."

The UIL had long banned high school teams from participating together in the off-season. The catalyst for the UIL ban was Thomas Jefferson's 1962 state basketball championship. The team spent the summer practicing together in Colorado. To prevent such off-season preparation, the UIL severely limited non-season participation in all sports for more than 30 years. Typical of the severe restrictions, players could be deemed ineligible for off-season participation in church leagues.

But as the rest of the country gravitated toward off-season leagues in basketball, baseball and soccer, the UIL made its move in 1996 to get ahead of the curve by allowing off-season participation among teammates. The key component for football was the UIL encouraging high school teams to stay together in 7-on-7.

A 7-on-7 state board of directors consisting of high school coaches runs the qualifying tournaments and the board prohibits all-star teams in its tournaments. In 7-on-7, high school head coaches can't coach their teams, but they can watch from the back of the end zone. The UIL's biggest concern is to prevent 7-on-7 from becoming a mandatory expectation.

Football coaches are content to have more control over the leagues than the off-season programs of other sports. Other non-school programs are dominated by "select teams" in which players from various schools are recruited by coaches and organizations.

In contrast to the potential divisiveness of select team recruiting, participation for 7-on-7 is seen as a good way for football programs to build team chemistry among returning varsity players and upcoming junior varsity ones.

"We've been in 7-on-7 since the start," says venerable Arlington Lamar coach Eddy Peach. "I didn't expect it to take off like this. But the kids look forward to it. Ours have made it to the state tournament every year."

Over the last five years, the camaraderie of working together has helped transform Arlington High School back into a perennial playoff contender. Matt has blossomed into a major college quarterback prospect. He used to split time at quarterback with Luke in middle school.

But as Luke grew into a 6-6, 270-pound offensive lineman who also is a Texas A&M commitment, Luke spent time as a slot receiver before volunteering at games to serve as a deep snapper in Shotgun formation for Matt. The center is the only ineligible receiver.

The Colts hope the 7-on-7 season helps prepare them for even bigger things for next football season. The Colts played in so many summer tournaments and leagues last season that their paring down their schedule to avoid burnout if they reach the state tournament again. The state tournament pool play and single-elimination brackets in near 100-degree temperatures and high humidity is a grueling, eight-hour day for the eventual winners.

"There's no doubt it's made a big difference in how the (football) team has developed," says Dave Joeckel, who coaches the Colts' 7-on-7 team.

Arlington won its first state playoff game since 2003 last season. The Colts hope the current 7-on-7 season helps prepare them for even bigger things.

"It would be hard to get so many guys together just to run some routes and throw the football around," Matt says. "But we've been doing it so long together, it's what we do every Saturday."










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