Published Friday, October 05, 2012

Prep Football: Area coaches have unique ideas on the coin toss


It’s the first of a myriad of immediate and influential decisions made on a football every Friday night in the fall, and at times, a pivotal one that sets the stage between high school teams on a weekly basis.

Well before choosing between the buck sweep and the waggle on offense or to play cover 3 or use an all-out blitz defensively, one call can make as much a difference between success and failure.

Tonight is no different.

The answer to heads or tails — or more importantly a referee’s question to “kick or receive” — can provide as much an influence on a high school lineup’s chances of picking up a victory.

Yep, the way a simple coin toss with odds no better than 50-50 is handled can increase the probability of going home a big winner.

As simple as it seems, to defer or not to defer in football’s Shakespearian translation is the question every coaching staff has to make on a weekly basis. How they handle those choices and ensuing opportunities could play a factor as Coweta’s teams open region play over the next two weeks.

A simple flip can provide a wide range of opinions depending on which staff — and set of team captains —chooses before kickoff.

“It just depends on the team and the game,” said Northgate head coach Tommy Walburn prior to tonight’s 4B-AAAAA subregion opener at Whitewater. “First thing it depends on is the conditions, the wind or rain. Maybe I want the wind to kick off and pin them back. I’ll flip up some grass, I’ll look at the flag. If I feel like our offense has a definite advantage on their defense I’ll keep the ball.”

While weather sometimes takes precedent on that choice, clear skies and 70-plus degree temperatures expected for the first weekend in October don’t expect to factor into tonight’s decision in Fayetteville as much as others.

Taking the opening kickoff and scoring on the road in hostile surroundings, however, weighs just as heavy for Northgate (2-3) tonight as putting the Vikings’ veteran defense on the field to start the game.

Getting an early stop against a 4-1 Whitewater team with the chance of scoring late in the first half and then getting the ball back after halftime could also provide the different in victory or defeat in a crucial first game in subregion play.

“Some time people question why. Each game this year, I’ve deferred. And the reason I deferred is that defense is supposed to be our strength. Plus, I like getting the ball at the beginning of the second half,” Walburn said. “I love to score right before halftime and get the ball coming out.”

Handling emotions early among 15, 16 and 17 year-olds who have waited a week or more in between games can be challenging. Among a survey of head coaches within the county, deferring to receive the second half kickoff is a popular choice — including those with the most potent of offenses this year.

Even with his team’s offense now averaging a decimal under 50-points through a 5-0 start, county Heritage School head coach Kevin Prisant among those more likely to defer.

“I used to work for a coach who wanted the ball first every time,” said Prisant, whose Hawks are off to the best start in the school’s seven-year varsity history. “[But] I like to defer to the second half.”

One of four county teams with a bye tonight in preparation for respective region openers next Friday, The Heritage School has put up offensive numbers worthy of winning a fantasy football league halfway into the season. The Hawks have gained 1,280 yards rushing and 12 TDs so far, including 456 in last week’s impressive win over Class AAA opponent Southland. They’ve thrown for another 400-plus and eight more touchdowns.

So why wouldn’t Prisant want to get his hands on the ball first on a Friday night?

“At the beginning of a game you’re more likely to see a quarterback overthrow a runner or jump offsides and get a penalty just from all the adrenaline,” he said. “I feel like in the second half, they’ve already been out there for two quarters. They’re a little more comfortable.”

In other cases, the background of a head coach can also weigh somewhat into the decision. A former defensive coordinator prior to his promotion four years ago at East Coweta, head coach Clint Wade is sometimes the deciding vote in the pregame discussions that happen Thursdays between designated team captains and the Indians’ staff.

“I let the captains and our coaching staff work all that out,” Wade said last week. “But if they can’t decide and it’s up to me, we DEFER. I’m a defensive guy and I like to have them hit first and try to feed off that energy. Friday nights they’re all ready to explode and that seems to get them into things. In the past that’s worked out well.

That, of course, is a bit of a switch from his longtime predecessor’s philosophies with an East Coweta program that hasn’t missed the GHSA state playoffs in 16 years heading into next week’s Region 3-AAAAAA opener at 1-4 overall.

“I know Coach [Danny] Cronic was the other way around,” Wade said of his former boss, who also held the role of offensive coordinator during the majority of his 18-year tenure at the school. “If we won the toss, I knew I was going to have some time on my hands cause he wanted that ball first. Every coach is different, of course.”

Sometimes, however, opponents can cause coaching staffs to be swayed from the norm. Two weeks ago against Troup County, Newnan chose to receive with hopes that it could keep the Tigers’ offense from getting into an early rhythm.

“We had a good feeling that Troup County was going to come out in that unbalanced wishbone and try and hog the football,” Cougars head coach Mike McDonald said. “So we said we are going to take it and try and get them out of that.”

It doesn’t always work, though. In this case, “we drove it the length of the field and fumbled,” McDonald said. “But it was going well until then. You just look at the film and see what it team throws at you.”

Like Wade, McDonald’s background as a defensive coordinator under former Cougars head coach Robert Herring prior to his own promotion in 2009, tends to present the preference to let the defense get first action on the field.

“You just get a feel for it. I usually like to defer,” he said. “That is just kind of what I like to do, defer, and put the defense out there to see if we can get a quick three and out or a turnover or something.”

Opting between offense and defense isn’t the only factor that weighs into the decision, however. Some coaches are specific on which side of the field they wish to defend in the first quarter with hopes of giving their offenses an advantage in the closing minutes of each half.

“If we have to kick the ball to open the game, unless there’s a substantial wind, we always kick away from the scoreboard in the first quarter,” Walburn said. “In the second and fourth quarter when we’re driving, most of our stadiums have a scoreboard at one end instead of both, being able to drive toward the scoreboard where the quarterback can see how much time we have and the down.”

“We always try to kick away from our scoreboard,” Prisant added. “That’s one thing I try to remind our captains no matter the situation. It’s easier to be driving the ball toward that end just in case we need a score late.”

While as much a symbolic and equally rewarding role prior to kickoff on Friday nights, respective team captains are responsible for making sure pregame strategies are carried out at the middle of the field. At Northgate, each senior regardless of playing time, gets a chance to be a captain at least once during the year.

Others, like Heritage, hold a secret ballot among coaches to avoid any bias and announce them on Thursdays.

“We use it as much as a reward for the previous week,” Prisant said. “We keep the vote one hundred percent confidential from each other.”

Most Friday’s one of the selected players is designated as the “speaking captain,” and “we usually find the one that likes to talk,” quipped Walburn.

While rare, there’s been cases at all levels of football where the coin flip has gone awry. Some NFL fans may still remember Jerome Bettis’ memorable “Tails” call that went unheard in a Thanksgiving game that went into overtime between the Steelers and Detroit Lions.

During the 1998 Class AA state championship at Early County, Carrollton High wound up kicking off to begin both halves after its speaking captain became confused with the referee’s instructions. It wound up not costing the Trojans in a 37-18 victory.

To prevent any potential problems, Newnan special teams coach Bob Sandlin, the Cougars’ longest tenured staff member outside of trainer James “Radar” Brantley, coordinates instructions with each week’s captains and routinely leads them onto the field for the coin toss.

“The big thing is to communicate with you kids. If the other teams win the toss and defers, you have to make sure you take that football,” McDonald said, adding of Sandlin, “He is really good about getting them headed in the right mindset.”

To their credit, though, high school officials were praised by the area’s head coaches for their diligence. Most know of a respective coach’s plans well before the coin is flipped on a Friday night.

“Georgia high school officials do a good job. They’ll come and talk to the coaches before the game and ask what we want to do. And he’ll write it down so there’s no confusion,” Walburn said. “I tell the kids, but the referee will help them just in case.”

In any case, though, what can be gained through the coin toss won’t mean a flip if players can’t execute their coaching staff’s game plan. Ultimately, whether on offense or defense, carrying out those philosophies gives teams better than 50-50 odds.

“It just depends on who you’re playing. If you think you can do something offensively, you want the ball. But if you want to make the defense make a statement, you defer,” said Trinity Christian second-year head coach Chris Hanson. “We name the captains on Thursday and get together with them and say this is what we want to do. I know some coaches have superstitions whatever they might want to call (the flip). But my whole philosophy is whatever I want them to do first, I want them to attack.”

(Sports writer Doug Gorman contributed to this story)

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