The Stone Bridge High School football team has had one of Virginia’s most consistently successful football programs in large part thanks to Head Coach Mickey Thompson’s offense system that is anything but routine. As the team prepares for yet another regional championship game on Dec. 2 against Massaponax High School in Stafford County, it could be the key to the Bulldogs’ quest for another state championship.
In modern football, from middle school to the professional ranks, most teams feature an offense that has the quarterback lined up either directly or a few feet behind the center, who snaps the ball to the quarterback to start play. The quarterback then takes the ball and he alone decides to throw it, hand it off to a teammate or keep it himself.
Stone Bridge doesn’t run it that way. The team works out of a modified single wing, a system from the early days of football that has been abandoned by most teams.
In the Bulldogs’ system, players rarely line up directly behind the center. Instead several players, usually a quarterback and a running back, line up a few feet behind the center and to his left and right respectively. The ball could be snapped to the quarterback, but it could also be snapped to another player, usually a running back. Sometimes the quarterback isn’t even in the play, and Stone Bridge goes with two running backs, or a running back and a full back, or a different combination entirely.
With two or more players in position to throw, hand off or run, this adds a complexity that makes keeping up with the Bulldogs even more difficult for opponents.
“Being a quarterback in the system is interesting,” said Easton Turner, the team’s starter. “You’re expected to run the ball a lot, you don’t get as many throws, but when you do throw, they’re big shots, they’re big plays and I think any quarterback would be excited to play in an offense like that.”
The system allows for adjustments from play to play, depending on where the opposing defense lines up and where Turner and the offense identifie weak areas in their opponents.
“There’s no one play. If (a defender) is lined up this way, if this guy is lined up that way, there’s a call and it all changes,” Turner said. “It’s almost a completely different play, but it’s all the same language.”
The most dangerous element of the offense is The Spinner. In a rare football play, the player that receives the snap will literally spin around before handing off, faking a hand off or keeping the ball to run past perplexed defenders.
This in part has allowed running backs Joshua Breece and Bradley Block to earn all-conference honors.
“(Opponents) aren’t prepared for The Spinner,” Thompson said.
On top of all that, the team will change its plan from game to game or even between offensive possessions to throw, run or hand off more or less, depending on the team’s success.
“There’s so many things I could be doing on a play. I enjoy playing in this offense because you can come in one week and they’ll say we’re going to throw the ball a lot or one week you could be running it 10 plus times, so you never know what you’re going to get,” Turner said.
Turner isn’t exaggerating. Two weeks ago in a playoff game against Broad Run, Turner saw the Spartans playing single coverage against the pass and he went on to throw for nearly 200 yards and two touchdowns. The week prior, the Bulldogs’ running game proved the difference.
The downside of the intricate, moving portions of play is the risk for a miscommunication between players or a fumble on an exchange. But Thompson’s regimented practices and routines he’s instilled in hundreds of players during his 16 years at Stone Bridge have made the offense’s complexities routine.
Turner said that, if necessary, the team will work an entire practice to make sure a single play is executed to perfection by all 11 players on the field. He also credits the team’s success to the efforts of the coaches.
“Our schemes are really good and our coaching staff spends more time than any other coaching staff in this area or in the state,” Turner said. “They’ll be in here every single day, every single night and they’ve got things to do with their families and stuff, but they’re in here trying to figure out how to hit one hole the right way and how it can open up 30 different avenues on how we can score.”
Stone Bridge has had dozens of players excel in high school and go on to do the same at the collegiate level. While the Bulldogs have had plenty of talent through the years, Thompson helped pioneer the system years ago for a program that didn’t have the same athletic abilities.
Prior to coming to Stone Bridge when the school opened in 2000, Thompson coached at Park View. When the Patriots moved up to AAA, then the highest and most competitive of Virginia’s high school classifications, the team didn’t have the physical abilities to match up with the heightened competition. Thompson saw Giles High School in Petersburg run a modified single wing against Park View and saw an opportunity for his squad.
Thompson flew his staff to Colorado to witness a pioneering single wing offense there. Taking what he learned, Thompson also met with area coach Greg Shultz at least once a week for the following year, spending a significant amount of that time figuring out ways to block for the new offense. After years of perfecting the offense, Thompson’s Stone Bridge teams had a unique set up for its skill position players – and six or seven ways for the rest of the unit to block for them.
Thompson’s offense, and a consistently solid defense, went on to propel the Bulldogs to 16 winning seasons, six state championship game appearances and a state title.
Now the team faces its latest challenge in a trip to Massaponax for the regional championship game on Dec. 2. The top ranked team in the region this season, the Panthers have squared off against the Bulldogs in the playoffs the past two seasons, with Massaponax winning in 2014 and Stone Bridge winning last year.
Massaponax runs its own rare offense, a veer option look that can help the team dominate time of possession and, more importantly, the score board.
“We’re having a difficult time preparing for them. They’re having a difficult time preparing for us,” Thompson said. “Until you get out there and see what we’re running and they adapt some of their schemes, and same with us, I don’t know what to expect.”
Heading into the biggest game of the year, Stone Bridge is hoping its offense will continue confusing its opponents, and that it leads them to another state championship appearance.