By Tom Robinson, NEPASportsNation.com
Steve Jervis, Keith Olsommer and their assistants have plenty of responsibilities for the 88th annual Scranton Lions Club Dream Game.
They have to put in offensive and defensive systems in a relatively short preparation period, make talent assessments to get players in the best positions while keeping everyone involved, devise an offensive game plan and, on game night, they still have to try to make the right play calls.
Their responsibilities, however, will not be to try to outcoach each other as much as might be in the case in a high school season showdown. Rules in place for the all-star game, featuring graduates of the Lackawanna Football Conference and presented by Northeast Rehab, limit coaching adjustments on defense and special teams.
Practicality, and the desire to showcase the players’ talent in a format that is entertaining for fans taking in a charity game outside the normal season, remove zone coverages, blitzes and other defensive strategies from the equation.
“It’s important to give the kids the opportunity to go out and play at a high level,” said Olsommer, the Delaware Valley coach who is leading the County team. “These guys are here because they played exceptional football with their teams all year and they were able to play fast.
“ … If you’re trying to, in seven practices, put in an entire game plan, they’re going to get out on the field and their brains are going to get in the way of their athleticism. I think when things are simpler and narrowed down, it just allows the game to get played at a higher speed.”
Offenses need simply to learn the plays the team is using, not the adjustments necessary to run each play against a variety of different defensive looks. They already know how the defense will align.
Linemen don’t need to determine what defensive front they are blocking against in the ground game. Quarterbacks don’t have to try to make pre-snap assessments of coverages on pass plays, but rather just determine who is open once the play starts.
If the rule modifications achieve their goals, the game will feature some offensive fireworks without fans watching the game realizing that anything has changed. Unless you are the analytical type of fan who looks for coverage adjustments or hints of blitzes prior to the snap, you’re not likely to notice anything different about the game until special teams stay in place and do not rush punts, extra points or field goals.
The Dream Game uses rules that are similar to those in place in many football all-star games. The inspiration, in fact, came from the higher-level, all-star games in which the Pennsylvania High School Football Coaches Association is involved – the Big 33 Football Classic and annual East-West Games among the state’s top players.
“It all started with the Big 33,” said Lackawanna Trail’s Jervis, who is coaching the City team. “On the Big 33 level, they came up with some rules so the two different states could be on the same page. They used them in the East-West came, too.
“(Abington Heights coach) Joe Repshis and I were active in the state coaches’ association and we thought we probably should have the same rules here, number one, because it works; and number two, because some of our kids might do both games.”
Jervis explained some of those rules.
- A 4-3 defense in which the center cannot be covered up by a defensive lineman. That move was made in part in case a true center was not among the offensive line all-stars eligible for the game.
- Zone defense is forbidden in the secondary. Teams use man-to-man defense with the only difference being whether the free safety is truly “free” or is assigned a man, according to the formation. Secondary personnel in man-to-man coverage cannot begin more than seven yards off the line of scrimmage.
- Defensive ends cannot line up wide of the offensive linemen.
- Linebackers can’t blitz and must begin from four yards in depth.
“You want to create some explosive plays,” Jervis said.
The offense has less restrictions, but must have at least one running back. It can put one man in motion, but cannot employ multiple shifts prior to the snap.
When Dream Game organizers held their Media Night July 11, Jervis and Olsommer exchanged formations they will use, helping the defenses prepare the proper alignment for each. They were not expected to inform the opponent what plays will be run from those formations.
On game night at Valley View’s John Henzes/Veterans Memorial Stadium, fans don’t need to look for coverages and defensive alignments. They can be sure someone is in an effort to keep the game fair.
In most recent Dream Games, Jervis has been positioned in a booth in the pressbox with Repshis while teaming with other coaches from around the LFC to monitor the application of the rules. Brian Fahey, Evan Prall, Mark DeAntona, Greg Arcuri and Greg Dolhon are among the coaches who have taken part in the process.
That team, in communication through headsets between the pressbox and sideline, works with the on-field game officials to make sure the contest is conducted as intended.
Most ventures outside the rules are corrected through reminders and warnings, but occasionally a flag has to be thrown to penalize a team that does not correct its actions.
“We want to keep it as fair as possible,” said Jervis, who finds himself on the other side of that process Wednesday.
While coaches may need a reminder, violations of the spirit of the rules often come from players making what would be natural in-game adjustments in other situations, without necessarily thinking about how they might be breaking the rules.
Among the issues addressed over the past decade have been defensive ends realizing a speed advantage and sneaking further outside to wreak havoc by using a new angle to get into the offensive backfield and linebackers creeping up closer to the line of scrimmage, helping to stuff the run.
Allowances are made in short-yardage situations, but otherwise teams are expected to start plays from a uniform defensive alignment.
The number of defensive standouts on the rosters for the game mean plenty of big plays can be expected from the defenses, as well as the offenses. Those plays, however, are not expected to evolve from defensive schemes by Jervis or Olsommer.