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Even long-snappers specialize in HS football

Things Done Changed: In 30 years since the first American Family Insurance ALL-USA team, position-specific coaching has become norm



Former American Family Insurance ALL-USA selection Chris Weinke, left, keeps a watchful eye on Ryan Tannenhill while working out at the IMG Madden Football Academy before last year's NFL Draft. / Chip J Litherland for USA TODAY Sports.

Ever since the inaugural American Family Insurance ALL-USA team was named 30 years ago, a lot has changed in high school football. Players are bigger. Gear is lighter. Players are more specialized. In “Things Done Changed,” we’ll look at how the game has evolved.

Poor Travis Goethel.

When the Oakland Raiders backup linebacker ineptly tried to fill in for injured long snapper Jon Condo last September, his three flubbed snaps led to three San Diego Charger field goals. The Raiders lost by eight.

There wasn’t much sympathy to be had for Goethel in the Twittersphere following his disastrous performance, but perhaps there should have been.

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That’s not his job. Goethel hadn’t snapped a ball in a meaningful game since high school. He filled in because the Raiders don’t carry a backup long-snapper even though snapping is a niche skill perfected by countless reps.

Chris Rubio, who played for UCLA from 1993-98, has helped young players perfect the art of the long snap during the past 11 years. At Rubio’s first camp, he had eight participants. At his upcoming camp in Las Vegas from Jan. 19-20, he expects 180.

The growth of Rubio’s camps speaks to a larger trend. As football has become more complex at all levels, specialization has become much more prevalent for high school players ever since the first American Family Insurance ALL-USA football team was announced 30 years ago. Thus the increase in position-specific training, be it for kickers, long snappers or, most commonly, quarterbacks.

Steve Clarkson embodies specialization more than anybody. Perhaps the most well-known quarterback guru around, Clarkson offers private coaching and hosts camps throughout the year. He calls himself the “Dream Maker” – and has some grounds to do so. His pupils regularly end up at big-time colleges – one of his current protégés, Eastern Christian Academy (Elkton, Md.) junior David Sills V, got a scholarship offer from USC at age 13.

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Clarkson’s training has worked. His protégés include Matt Leinart, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Barkley, Terrelle Pryor and Jimmy Clausen.

Back when Chris Weinke was an American Family Insurance ALL-USA quarterback in 1989, this sort of specialized coaching was unheard of.

“The opportunity to become the best they can be for that opportunity to play college football is, I think, what’s driving this,” he said.

Weinke is now at the forefront of the trend. He’s the director of football at IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.), which holds position-specific football camps throughout the year.

In addition to year-long camps and private coaching, the  advent and popularity of 7-on-7 – or “passing” – leagues during the past 30 years has made football a year-round sport, further increasing the opportunities for high school players to master their position.

And further decreasing multi-sport athletes.

Though specialization has fueled his career, Weinke admits there’s a downside, too. As high school athletes eschew other sports to focus on football year-round, they risk burnout and rob themselves of an opportunity to develop other skills and general athleticism, he says.

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Weinke would know. He was in his mid-20s when he became the quarterback for Florida State, having spent six years playing minor league baseball after being drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays. He played football, hockey and baseball at Cretin-Derham (St. Paul, Minn.), and believes each sport made him better at the next.

Still, if the goal is to maximize an athlete’s chance to land a college scholarship, this kind of training probably makes sense. From the Class of 2012, 70 of Rubio’s protégés either earned scholarships or preferred walk-on status with college programs.

And with spread and read-option offenses becoming even more popular at the high school level and schemes on both sides of the ball becoming more complex as coaches look for any possible edge, we’re likely to see even more specialization moving forward.

“The game continues to change, the players continues to change and the training continues to change,” Weinke says.

For better or worse.

 

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