By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Dave Argyle (DBA Photography) & Shane Marshall
Football is tough enough for players who play at the highest level as either offensive and defensive stars. Outside of the rare program with enough talented players to run its players on one side of the ball or the other, it is still quite common to see the best high school athletes going both ways.
When Jordan and Brighton played a 78-76 triple-overtime game in October, the Bengals were running on fumes by the end as top performers Osa Masina, Cody Barton and Sione Heimuli-Lund were on the field seemingly for every single play.
Bingham is one of the teams in Utah that limits its players, for the most part, to either offense or defense. Just one Miner, linebacker/offensive tackle Daniel Nacio, plays both ways, and that was out of necessity. Head coach Dave Peck feels that it gives his team an advantage, particularly when it comes to the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got the depth,” Peck said. “We started that probably about five or six years ago, and my coaches fought it. My coaches were asking if we have our best kids, why would we not play them. And I said, we’re going to wear people down and we’re at the point now with Bingham, if all they do is go offense and defense, they’re going to be great at that position.
“Our practices are going to be cut in half. I guarantee we practice probably the least amount of anybody in the state. We don’t go on Saturdays. Our goal is to never have burnout. Our practices never go more than two hours, for sure. I think the advantage is an obvious thing. You just look at the last couple of years. We just wear them out.”
At dozens of schools around the state, and elsewhere throughout the country, coaches would love to have that advantage, but necessity dictates that players go both ways.
“I wish I was a Bingham with 150 guys,” said Salem Hills head coach Joel Higginson. “If you can let them focus, they get more practice time there to hone their traits there. In game time, it’s hard for a quarterback especially to go out and kill, kill, kill as a linebacker and then go out and throw a nice touch pass on a third-and-10. That can be a tough challenge.”
The Skyhawks feature what is perhaps the state’s toughest two-way assignment. Occasionally, Jordan quarterback Austin Kafentzis will come in on defense in special situations, but at Salem Hills, Porter Gustin starts at quarterback and is the team’s leading tackler as an inside linebacker. Most teams protect their quarterback from doubling up.
“I feel like it does affect my stats (at quarterback) a little bit, but I enjoy defense just as much as offense, so it’s not too bad that way,” Gustin said. “Every once in a while I’ll come out on defense. I think I can affect the game more at quarterback, but I like playing defense better. I’ve told all the colleges that I’d rather play defense. I definitely get pretty tired, especially towards the end of the game, but I just work through it, I guess.”
Brighton was the No. 2 team in the state last year, and the Bengals have held that ranking for much of this season as well. Their best players are all two-ways stars, including their dynamic running back tandem Masina and Heimuli-Lund. Those two are also among Brighton’s top tacklers from their linebacker position.
Running back Zach Katoa of American Fork carries the bulk of the rushing load for the Cavemen, and also spends a lot of time on the field for that team’s defensive unit. American Fork is another team for whom two-way players are the rule rather than the exception.
“We practice everybody on both sides of the ball, except the quarterback,” said American Fork head coach Aaron Behm. “Everybody may not start both ways, but they’re going to know and offensive position and a defensive position. We feel like we need to get our best athletes on the field, maybe not for the whole game, but definitely at times we need to be able to do that. Also, it’s a matter of depth. We’ve asked these guys to work hard in the offseason because they’re going to be playing a lot of football.”
While he would yield to someone else if the situation was right, American Fork’s talented James Empey loves going both ways on the offensive and defensive line.
“You’re always in the game contributing,” Empey said. “If I was the best guy and needed to play both ways, I would. If there was a guy better than me at a position, then I would be where I could best benefit the team.”
Katoa says that he feels the effects of playing both ways, but not until after the game is over.
“You can’t think about it during the game.” Katoa said. “After, you definitely feel it, but you can’t think about it during the game. During the game it’s all business, but after the game you’re ready to take a nap. You don’t have time to think about it. I guess it’s just a matter of having fresh legs, but when you’re in there and playing hard, it’s an effort thing.”
So do the coaches worry about their players being out on the field so much?
“When you’re looking out, and you can see Tim (Fleming) and Porter (Gustin) and (Jaxon) Bowden and they’re gasping for air, I’m the defensive coordinator, and with my offensive coordinator, we’ve said ‘do we take them out for a couple of plays on offense, do we hold them out a few plays on defense? How do we help them get that air back?’ It’s a little bit of a strategy.
“With Porter, we really can’t afford to have him off at all on offense so we have to pick and choose a couple of times on defense where we can put an extra backer in and we’re okay. Tim is the same way. We can look it as we need to have the protection up front and Tim’s got to be in. It’s either a first down or a second down, on third and fourth down, he’s in.”
Fleming was primarily a defensive lineman only until injuries forced him to double up and take a spot of the offensive line.
“On defense, I’m pretty much always out there,” Fleming said. “Late in the game, you’re getting tired, but so is the other team, so I don’t think it affects me too much.”
Coaches and players all agree that conditioning is the key to success for the two-way teams. And all of them have a way of making sure they are ready to go each and every week.
“It’s a little tiring definitely, but it’s getting to the time of the season that we’re in as great shape as we can be in,” said Salem Hills defensive lineman/running back Jaxon Bowden. “It’s not really that bad. We have two or three backs that rotate through, just about every play.”
Salem Hills has a conditioning program called play drives that is the result of a significant amount of coaching research. That is the secret to the Skyhawks’ success.
“We run like 40 yards in four or five seconds, and you have to do 12 of them per play drive,” Gustin said. “Then, you get about a minute off and you do another play drive, and it goes on like that. Some sprints will be like 20 yards and others will be like 80.”
“Out of all the conditioning I’ve ever done, for football stuff, I think it gets you in the best football shape,” Bowden said. “We’re not doing super short ones, we’re not doing super long ones, it’s just different lengths at different times and it’s a tight time. You don’t have any time to lax off and if you do, you’ve got to do it again.”
Higginson says that his staff researched the best types of workouts for getting kids in game shape, and this was the plan they developed.
“Kids will do the minimum, so if you say you’ve got to run a 40-yard dash, some will run it in eight seconds and some will run it in four, just because mentally, they do that,” Higginson said. “So what we’ve done by putting timelines on that is making it fair and bring everybody along. Now, they know we’ve got to run 40 yards and then it’s first-and-10, and boom. And it happens fast.”
Behm suggests that it comes down to the way a team practices every single day.
“We practice with the speed we’re going to play at, and they practice for 2-1/2 hours a day and we stay on them and push them in and out of the huddle and run an up-tempo practice so that when we get to the game, it slows down a little bit,” he said.
Whether they split each day’s practice time between offensive and defensive drills and strategy, or focus on the two areas on different days, each team has a plan for making sure its two-way players have the game plan down on both sides of the ball. And, will they change their plan of attack to get their guys a little more rest during the postseason?
“We’re going to play the way we play,” Behm said. “We’d have to drag these guys off at this point, who’ve played both ways, to get them off the field. By now, they’re in the best shape that they’ve been in, at the end of the season. They’re in shape, they’re conditioned and they’re strong. They work hard in the off-season.”
Since many of these players are the most heavily recruited by colleges, they have heard from coaches at the next level about the impact of playing both ways.
“Many have told us the versatility means a lot,” Higginson said. “Kids get pigeon-holed in a position, then two of them get the full-ride scholarship and you’re only going to use one of them. They say we like to take a guy that can play the end, can play stand-up backer, can play interior and can play offense too.”
“I hear both directions from schools,” said American Fork tight end/linebacker Nate Heaps. “Some are (looking at me) straight tight end, some are saying tight end or outside linebacker. A lot of them are saying it’s good to see you can run down the field, but also stick your head in there and make a tackle.”