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.
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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?
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.
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”.