This time last year, Mars Hill football coach Darrell Higgins felt secure in the starter for each position on offense and defense.
This year, he has 12 positions where the projected starter hasn’t been determined yet or will be new to that spot.
So with that in mind, Higgins’ focus for scrimmages such as Thursday’s 7 on 7 tournament at Florence High has shifted from building confidence through winning to building experience by giving young players a chance to learn.
“We’re more concerned with letting a lot of people play,” Higgins said Tuesday, pointing out this fall no one will care who won a 7 on 7 scrimmage.
“We’re getting you ready for Friday night, and that’s what we use it as.”
Florence is hosting a seven-team 7 on 7 tournament starting at 9 a.m. Thursday, with Russellville, Sheffield, Wilson, North Jackson and Giles County (Tenn.) joining the Falcons and Panthers.
Teams will get to play each other in short scrimmages until about 12:20 p.m., and a tournament will run from 1:30 until about 3 p.m. Teams will be seeded for it based on how they performed in the morning. The scrimmages take place on the fields behind Florence High School.
Russellville will host a 7 on 7 day with more than 20 teams on July 26, and Lexington will host Lauderdale County and Central for a 7 on 7 day July 31. Many teams have 7 on 7 scrimmages built into workdays featuring another local team throughout the summer.
With linemen and special teams players missing from a 7 on 7 scrimmage, and the rest of the players competing in shorts and without pads, there’s a limit on how much the score can tell you.
A player who looks sharp in a 7 on 7 situation, Florence coach Will Hester said, might not perform as well in a full contact situation later if he isn’t ready for the tackling.
Teams exclusively run passing plays in 7 on 7s, so run-dominant teams in particular are utilizing an offense that looks nothing like what they’ll run in the fall.
“It’s basically basketball on grass,” Sheffield coach David Hufstedler said.
Still, coaches know players want to fare well against players from another school and watch for how those players handle what happens.
“It’s all about how you’re going to handle the adversity of the game, how you’re going to handle the adversity of competition, and how you’re going to respond to that,” Hester said.
A 7 on 7 isn’t suited for Mars Hill to showcase its Wing-T offense. And while Higgins is curious to see how the passing game looks for the defending Class 1A champs with a new starter taking over after Joseph Hanson graduated, he’ll also be watching which players conduct themselves the best.
“Well, first of all we want to see who’s going to compete,” Higgins said. “You’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some, but how are you going to compete play in and play out?”
Sheffield has finished fourth in its region each of the last two years, qualifying for the playoffs but each time getting shut out by a powerhouse. A higher finish in the region, like the Bulldogs had in 2016, could set them up for a longer postseason.
“We don’t go into a 7 on 7 looking to simulate a true football game. We look at it as letting our best guys go against somebody else’s best guys,” Hufstedler said.
Hufstedler wants to be two solid players at each position, but that’s an ongoing process that happens over a long period of time.
“Nobody’s going to get hired or fired based on a 7 on 7 competition,” he said.
Still, the 7 on 7 moments can expose weaknesses. He acknowledges at a 2A school it’s hard to get a true competitive balance at practice, and these scrimmages can sometimes teach a player who feels like he’s a pretty good player that he isn’t ready for the fall yet.
A defensive back who’s struggling to cover a receiver or a quarterback whose timing is off might have more work to do.
“You may be winning our one on one battles every day in practice, but you’re not getting the true sense of what the competition’s going to be like on Friday nights,” Hufstedler said.
Florence qualified for the playoffs as a No. 4 seed each of the last two years, falling to Pinson Valley in the 6A first round in 2017 and then Thompson in the 7A first round last year.
Hester enters his second season as Florence’s head coach, and he said a big difference this summer is coaches are more familiar with their roles and more familiar with the players’ strengths and weaknesses.
“(Last year) everybody was drinking out of a fire hose. Everything was moving really fast,” Hester said. “It’s a lot more normal now than last summer was. I think our kids are thriving on that.”