With abundant athletic ability, a dream of playing quarterback and a terrific arm, former wide receiver D.J. Skie was handed the keys to Stillwater’s 7-on-7 summer football team offense in early June with one basic instruction:

Have fun.

Expectations were nonexistent. Stillwater coach Beau LaBore was just looking for a little offseason bonding, using a pass-happy game reminiscent of schoolyard touch football. For his team, he also hoped to get a jump on the quarterback search that loomed ahead.

“We don’t really stress 7-on-7 at all,” LaBore said. “[The players] pretty much organize it themselves. We just look at it as a way to get the players together and have some fun.”

And fun they had, so much so that they surprised everyone by winning what is perhaps the biggest local competition of the summer in the burgeoning world of 7-on-7 football.

These days, nearly every high school fields a summer team, though the level of formality and seriousness widely varies.

The 7-on-7 football boom is a relatively recent phenomenon, emerging in the vacuum created by the fall season being high school football’s only competitive period. Coaches have long sought the same avenues to expand their game in ways high school sports such as hockey, basketball and soccer enjoy.

“We played 7-on-7 back in 1982, when I was coaching football,” said Kevin Merkle, Minnesota State High School League associate director who oversees the sport. “Of course, it wasn’t as big of a deal back then. It was just some players getting together once a week.”

Stillwater’s collection of 12 players and two coaches pretty much did just that — until their upset of Lakeville South 45-38 on June 22 in the championship game of the Vikings’ 7-on-7 tournament at Winter Park. The victory earned them a spot in the NFL national tournament in Indianapolis, which began on July 14.

“That was crazy,” said Skie, whose eye-opening performance this summer has vaulted him into a likely starting role this fall despite not playing quarterback since eighth grade. “To be honest, we really didn’t practice that much before we won it. But since we’re going to nationals, we’ve been taking it more seriously.”

Discounting the breathless hyperbole ascribed to it in Internet recruiting reports, 7-on-7 passing games are only slightly more structured than your average touch football game.

There are no linemen and no direct contact is allowed. Teams generally consist of 12 to 14 players, sometimes more, who play both offense and defense, seven to a side. It’s all passing, with quarterbacks limited to four seconds to get a pass away before a play is called dead.

Teams start on the opponent’s 40-yard-line. First downs are earned by gaining 20 yards rather than the usual 10. Interceptions count as turnovers, but cannot be returned for a score. When one possession concludes, teams flip-flop sides and start again from the 40. Referees are present, but rarely do more than keep time, determine completions and spot the ball.

Big plays are frequent, scores are high and athleticism moves front-and-center.

“Kids love it,” Cambridge-Isanti coach Mike Hennen said. “It’s basically basketball on grass.”

Passing, defending both valued

It’s no coincidence that the rise of 7-on-7 leagues coincided with football’s embrace of complex passing attacks. The running game might still be the popcorn kernel, but passing is the heat that makes it explode.

“Unless you’re a program that always has a huge line and a stud running back, I think you have to do some 7-on-7,” LaBore said. “We’re still a run-first team, so I’m not sure how much this will help our offense, but we are always looking at ways to open things up a little more.”

Interestingly, many coaches say 7-on-7 play helps defenses as much as offenses.

“That’s really the biggest thing for us,” Lakeville South coach Larry Thompson said.

Lakeville South has been at the forefront of the recent 7-on-7 surge, having represented the Vikings in three of the past six NFL tournaments. “On offense, when do you get four seconds to throw? But the defensive backs and linebackers really can learn something from this.”

The biggest complaint from the defensive players? Not being able to hit a receiver coming free in their area.

“Is it hard to restrain myself?” asked Jake Owens, a fullback/linebacker from Rogers. “Oh, yeah. That might be the hardest part.”

Playing touch, learning much

Some schools put high importance on 7-on-7, while others see it as a nice diversion from the drudgery of summertime conditioning. Nowhere is this dichotomy more obvious than at neighboring north-metro schools Maple Grove and Osseo.

Maple Grove hosts a Monday night 7-on-7 league that includes such teams as St. Michael-Albertville, Champlin Park, Rogers and Cambridge-Isanti. The games are loosely organized, with teams taking the field with whomever shows up that night. “It’s not serious,” St. Michael-Albertville coach Jared Essler said. “It’s mostly just about getting the kids together to play a little football.”

Intraschool district rival Osseo, four miles to the east, hosts a four-team Tuesday night league that is far more structured. DeLaSalle, Edina and Andover join the Orioles for highly competitive games, complete with helmets and coaches in midseason form, yelling commands. The competition occasionally gets heated enough that players have to be separated.

“At Osseo, we don’t get kids starting at 6 years old. We don’t get them until they’re 15,” coach Derrin Lamker said. “There’s a lot of things they still need to learn. We want to emulate game speed. We could go out and play backyard touch football, but we’re trying to run our offense so we get better at it.”

Nationally, the growing popularity of 7-on-7 has spawned all-star teams formed to play in tournaments around the country, similar to AAU basketball. Recruiting websites cover leagues and tournaments with the same gusto in which they cover regular-season games. College coaches and recruiters are often found sitting in the stands, evaluating talent.

These developments have high school administrators wary.

“We don’t want it to become like AAU basketball,” Merkle said. “We had a national summit about this a couple of years ago. It’s not something we have much control over, but we might be able to utilize some of the rules we use for travel and things like that. For the most part, we’re hoping coaches keep it in the proper perspective.”

Experience trumps outcome

The NFL tournament is arguably the biggest in the nation, with 32 teams — one representing each NFL team — competing. Current NFL stars such as Cam Newton and Vernon Davis played in it. Stillwater, like other entrants, got an all-expenses-paid trip and a complete set of Nike gear for each player, a package that amounts to about $30,000 per team.

Despite being neophytes to a tournament in which some teams require a Division I scholarship offer to be eligible, Stillwater went 5-2 in pool play. In the first round of the playoffs, it lost 20-17 to a team representing the Detroit Lions that won last year’s tournament.

But the result was far less important than the experience, said linebacker Andrew Lammers.

“For me, it took me back to my youth playground days, just running around having fun with my buddies,” Lammers said. “It’s a great opportunity and an honor to play against some high-level competition.”

While LaBore refused to put much stock in his team’s summertime success, he did admit that it helped rid the players of the sour taste leftover from 2013, when they lost their last six games after a promising 3-0 start.

“After we won the Vikings tournament, I told the team we could meet at [Buffalo Wild Wings] in Stillwater. Everyone showed up,” he said.

“You should have seen them. They were thrilled. It was like they had won a real championship. You could see the confidence on their faces. That was the best part of the whole thing.”