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:
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.”