For some, 7-on-7 football comes across as a meaningless pickup game of tag football.
There’s no tackling. No linemen. No pass rush. No special teams play. And not many spectators.
But try telling that to the high school coaches and players who participate in it, especially those at Saturday’s NFL High School Player Development 7-on-7 Regional Tournament at the Saints’ training facility in Metairie.
”We treat this like a real game,” said Newman running back Kendall Bussey. “You come out and compete and you want to win. You’re having fun, but you want to win. It’s disappointing to lose here, just like it would be in the regular season.”
Nineteen teams from Louisiana and Mississippi competed in Saturday’s annual event that sends the winner to the National 7 on 7 Tournament to be be held in Indianapolis in mid-July.
St. Augustine won the Saints’ tournament last year and reached the semifinals of the national tournament in Cleveland, but lost in the semifinals on Saturday. Newman lost in the other semifinal.
“We wanted to win it again and go back to the national championship,” said St. Aug standout receiver Stanley Morgan, who caught 12 touchdowns on the day before being hampered by cramps in the semifinals.
Morgan, considered one of the nation’s top receivers, said 7 on 7 football has its benefits.
“It gives me a chance to work on my routes and helps me with getting the chemistry with my quarterback,” Morgan said. “And it’s very competitive.”
And it’s that competition that makes most coaches enjoy having their teams compete in 7 on 7.
“Every team learns from competition and this gives us competition,” West Jefferson coach Kevin Fox said. “Competition is heightened when you have another team out there in anything. You can be pitching quarters and the height is raised when you have another team out there.”
Newman coach Nelson Stewart agrees.
“This is good for us because passing is so much a part of our offense and what we do,” Stewart said. “But the biggest thing is we get a chance to have our kids compete during the summer. Obviously in football, it’s a rarity where you can match up and play the game against someone else, and this is as close as we can get to it. We are able to pay against some bigger classifications and it’s all about competing. It gives us a chance to do what basketball and baseball do.”
In addition to Saturday’s event, Stewart’s team competes in a league that plays games every week.
East St. John coach Phillip Banko doesn’t compete in many 7 on 7 tournaments, but makes sure to compete in the Saints event.
“As a head coach, I don’t like playing to win a game of touch football because in the fall the game is a lot different,” Banko said. “But the Saints take good care of the kids and they educate them about grades, eligibility and character and you get to practice where the Saints practice. You can’t beat that.”
The biggest drawback, of course, is that the sport lacks some of the main ingredients of true football, mainly tackling and linemen on both sides of the ball.
“It has it’s unrealistic parts,” Fox said. “There’s no line and no rush and guys might hold the ball longer than they normally would. The routes may go deeper and guys throwing it over the top and in a real game they may not be able to do that. But I approach it as a game time situation, so we don’t run routes in 7 on 7 that we wouldn’t run in a game or line up in formations that I wouldn’t run in a game. So I don’t really care about winning or losing in 7 on 7. If we get better from it, then I’m happy.”
But that didn’t take away from Saturday’s competitiveness.
Tylertown (Miss.) beat St. Martin’s (Miss.) on the last play of the championship game, marking the first time a non-Louisiana school has won the event.
Not bad for a school that excels in the pass-oriented 7 on 7 despite running the ball “70 percent of the time” during the season , Tylertown coach Jason Johnson said.
“We like to pound the ball, but we like competition, and 7 on 7 keeps us with an edge all summer long,” Johnson said.
Saturday’s game also helped Johnson’s team because, unlike many 7 on 7 leagues, coaches had to remain on the sideline instead of being allowed on the field.
“It forced us to learn our two-minute drill immediately, and that will help us once the season starts,” said Johnson, whose team scored on the final drive with less than a minute left.
Now his team will get an all-expense paid trip to Indianapolis to compete against 31 other teams representing the other NFL franchises.
“They are going to get tremendous educational life skills from the NFL,” said Jason Trosclair, the Saints’ director of youth programs for the Saints. “We want them to be stronger people. We wish we could send every team.”
Trosclair points out how the Saints’ 7 on 7 tournament differs from those held at college campuses.
“We are not looking to recruit any guys like the other ones, and we aren’t here to evaluate anybody,” he said. “This is a good, clean competition and a chance to represent the Saints and get those life skills lessons.”
Trosclair expects the Saints tournament to be even bigger next year, possibly growing to 32 teams.
St. Augustine coach Cyril Crutchfield is hoping his team is back in the mix after losing in the semis to the eventual champions.
“The kids really like it,” Crutchfield said. “They put a lot of time in the weight room and conditioning and 7 on 7 is something where we get to bond and have a lot of fun. We see 7 on 7 as a game, so my coaching style doesn’t change. For us, 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 is the same. We are going at it.”