The Originator

Few teams in the country play at such a frenetic pace, put up such flammable offensive numbers, or have as much fun as this wildly-successful Central Illinois program. Led by Derek Leonard, this team has been ahead of the curve on nearly everything the modern game now takes for granted.

There’s a play­ful one-lin­er that Derek Leonard is par­tic­u­lar­ly fond of, instilled years ago by his father Ken, the all-time win­ningest high school coach in Illinois his­to­ry. He liked to say that he ran a man offense” — as in, Get the man the ball.”

On the sur­face, it’s a phrase that sounds unapolo­get­i­cal­ly old school, if not for its sim­plic­i­ty, than for its direct­ness. But when you stop to think about it, there isn’t any­thing con­ser­v­a­tive about the phrase. Nothing is more open-mind­ed than get­ting the ball in your playmaker’s hands any way you can, and not real­ly car­ing how. 

Sometimes being cre­ative just to be cre­ative isn’t a good thing,” Leonard says. But being cre­ative because you need to be, or by necessity…I think that’s how it’s always been.”

And it’s that mind­set that has allowed Rochester High School to be ahead of the times in so many of football’s new nor­mals. Not to men­tion dom­i­nat­ing the Illinois land­scape, win­ning state titles in sev­en of their last eight seasons.

Years before your com­mon high school team thought to throw the ball 40 – 50 times a game, the Rockets were run­ning a wide-open, no-hud­dle offense that took aggres­sive down­field shots. It came about as the result of both Derek play­ing for an equal­ly ahead-of-his-time col­lege coach, plus some for­tu­itous meet­ings with two of spread offense’s most impor­tant ear­ly inno­va­tors — Randy Walker and Urban Meyer.

Years before Chip Kelly’s blur” tem­po spawned a cav­al­cade of no-hud­dle imi­ta­tors, Rochester was already oper­at­ing what Leonard calls a neck-break” tem­po, aim­ing to snap the ball as soon as the offi­cial blew the whis­tle to start the 25-sec­ond play clock. And with NFHS mov­ing to a 40-sec­ond play clock that starts once the pre­vi­ous play is whis­tled dead, Leonard thinks they can actu­al­ly go even faster.

We’ve come full cir­cle from the days of the West Coast offense, with its play calls that rivaled fed­er­al tax code in length. One-word asso­ci­a­tions are all the rage these days, some­thing Rochester has been doing for near­ly a decade and a half. Leonard sim­ply hollers a code word for for­ma­tion and play. No play strip for the quar­ter­back, no kill calls, no hot calls. Outside of the occa­sion­al check with me” from the side­line, it’s pret­ty much a sim­ple process of line up, yell it and rip it. Then rinse and repeat.

Where’s the game going? Our part­ners at X&O Labs show you the lat­est trends, and how you can adapt.

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Years before side­line replay tech­nol­o­gy became so read­i­ly avail­able, the staff was already func­tion­ing with a home­made set­up — push­ing a live feed through sev­er­al iPads from the press box. Where oth­er pro­grams might unfurl a gar­den vari­ety of high-tech cam­eras to film every inch of prac­tice, the Rockets instead film from atop scaf­fold­ing, or some­times from the bed of a pick­up truck near the prac­tice field. 

Their medi­um? Simply a smart­phone — and not even a tri­pod or mono­pod affixed to it, either — which they do out of con­ve­nience, not neces­si­ty. Leonard finds the qual­i­ty of today’s phones to be ter­rif­ic, and the load­ing times for phone footage are friend­lier. Before, staffers might have to wait it out a bit. (Did our cam­era guy have din­ner yet? Will it be here in the morn­ing?) But now, the review starts as soon as they leave the field.

Creativity by neces­si­ty means the Rockets aren’t afraid to throw you for a loop, with some of the most abstract for­ma­tions allowed by mod­ern rules. Players nev­er seem to have more fun than when they’re in their Polecat” offense, a vari­ety of swing­ing gate-style for­ma­tions. It’s bizarre. It’s con­fus­ing. It looks like some­thing you’d see in an are­na league.

When Tiger Ellison first came up with the Lonesome Polecat” offense as a high school coach in Ohio in the 1950s, he was ridiculed. But for the defen­sive coor­di­na­tors out there tell us how you scheme this one up on the whiteboard?

No, this isn't from eight-man football. But good luck formulating the tendency data with Derek Leonard's beloved "Polecat" formations.

But Leonard’s atten­tion to the details has been just as impor­tant as his open-mindedness.

Rochester’s staff is lean, but ver­sa­tile. Before assist­ed report­ing tools were so main­stream, some Rochester staffers would spend all week­end, and then into Monday or some­times Tuesday, break­ing down film and extract­ing all the data. When you’re in the thick of the sea­son rou­tine, the dif­fer­ence between three days and five days to pre­pare for an oppo­nent can feel as long as the Grand Canyon.

Reporting tools have cut that time in half in recent years, which has led to more engag­ing all-staff meet­ings on Sunday nights. Able to whit­tle their focus down to the ten­den­cies of an opponent’s indi­vid­ual play­ers, not just the team’s over­all behav­iors, staffers can present more con­vinc­ing cas­es for their suggestions.

The key to it all, of course, is to find a hap­py medi­um between their gut instincts and what the sci­ence actu­al­ly reveals.

It’s ana­lyt­ics in gen­er­al right now,” Leonard says. Some peo­ple get so ana­lyt­i­cal-hap­py that they’ll change every­thing just because of the ana­lyt­ics, and I don’t think that’s right. But I don’t think it’s right to go the oth­er way, either. You’ve got to come in between. Our staff does a good job with this.”

Time and again, these deep dives have made all the dif­fer­ence on Friday nights. Leonard often goes into staff meet­ings with a pre­con­ceived idea of how he wants to attack oppo­nents, only to have the data laid out to him sug­gest some tweaks. It all adds up.

Unique formations are staple of the frenetic offense deployed at Rochester, which has won seven Illinois state titles in the last eight seasons.

One of Leonard’s favorite game plans from recent years was when he had to scheme for super­star Malik Turner, now of the Seattle Seahawks. A study of posi­tion­ing with­in for­ma­tions revealed Turner was more like­ly to get the ball in cer­tain areas when he lined up in par­tic­u­lar for­ma­tions. When the oppo­nent showed it dur­ing the game, the Rockets pounced with a dou­ble team. Turner even­tu­al­ly broke through with a ter­rif­ic sec­ond half, but that start­ing strat­e­gy proved cru­cial for the Rockets to squeak a 21 – 20 win.

Or there was that time sev­er­al years ago, when after three days of research­ing a state semi­fi­nal oppo­nent, Leonard’s staff had a break­through. They found that 98 per­cent of the time the oppo­nent lined up in a par­tic­u­lar Single Wing for­ma­tion with heavy per­son­nel, the direc­tion of the play was going behind the full­back. Rochester ham­mered the full­back in those sit­u­a­tions, one of the many smart plays that led to a 66 – 0 win.

So how are the Rockets ahead of the times now? I think we’re ahead of the curve because we’re ahead of the curve,” said Leonard.

What I mean is this. We’ve been doing this stuff for so long — the no-hud­dle, hav­ing Hudl, the ten­den­cies — that we’re way ahead of oth­er peo­ple still, if that makes sense. I watch peo­ple make adjust­ments, they come out with this great thing and, man, I’ve been doing it for 3 – 4 years. I’ve just had this thing longer.”

That said, don’t be sur­prised if the Rockets break canon this fall and try some­thing dif­fer­ent — some­thing heav­ier. Leonard will enter the sea­son with four run­ning backs that he feels real­ly good about, and might try some­thing that looks like it came from a 100-year-old play­book — with a shot­gun twist, of course.

Because, above all the bells and whis­tles, at the end of the day they’re still run­ning a man offense”.