Dante Ferguson was a defensive coordinator at three different high schools before landing the head coach job at Stone Mountain last season.
But his playing days in the late 1980s were spent at Vanderbilt University as a tight end in a spread offense under then-head coach Watson Brown. Ferguson has been a fan of the wide-open offense ever since.
“I like to make defensive coordinators earn their living,” Ferguson said. “You still have teams running the wing-T but more defenses are figuring out how to stop it. You have to diversify your offense and keep defenses off balance.”
Stone Mountain is one of several teams in the county that runs some version of the spread offense. The spread focuses on the passing game but its primary function is to give offenses more options while making it difficult for defenses to pinpoint one area of coverage.
Towers, Redan, Cedar Grove, Decatur, Arabia Mountain and M.L. King also run offenses with some sort of spread package.
Redan coach Clinton Lawrence is one of a few new coaches who have installed the offense this season. Lawrence was pleased with his new offense last week in a 24-23 win over Columbia in a preseason scrimmage. Raiders’ quarterback Akil Dan-Fadio threw a 65-yard touchdown in the game.
“I’m more of a personnel coach than a system coach,” Lawrence said. “It works when you have a lot of skill guys who can take over a game. We also have a lot of good scatbacks and this system fits our personnel better. We keep the basics of the spread and change it to fit our players.”
Dan-Fadio figures to blossom in the new offense after passing for 920 yards and seven touchdowns in 2009. Lawrence is hoping the spread will help his team improve on last season’s 1-9 record.
“It enables us to open up a game and spread the ball around,” Lawrence said. “It’s coming around and we’re getting better.”
It’s an offensive scheme that more and more programs are picking up each season. Outside DeKalb County, one of the most significant switches has come at Colquitt County in south Georgia.
Under the tutelage of third-year coach Rush Propst, Colquitt has emerged as a state power and advanced to the Class AAAAA semifinals last season with a spread offense.
Ferguson had the Pirates on track for a 6-4 record and its most wins since 2004 but the team had to forfeit five games for having an ineligible player on the roster due to a paperwork error by an assistant coach.
Most of the Pirates’ skill players return, which is good news for Ferguson’s spread offense.
“We have a quarterback who does a great job spreading the ball around,” Ferguson said. “We have three different receivers and a running back that get involved in the offense. It causes problems for defenses and forces them to spread the field.”
A spread offense also allows a team to be effective with an undersized offensive line because the blocking schemes are different than other types of offenses.
“Your offensive line doesn’t have to be big, and that’s the case with us,” Ferguson said. “It’s zone blocking, so your linemen basically are blocking an area.”
Several players in the past three seasons have earned college scholarships for their success in the spread offense at Cedar Grove. The next in line is likely senior receiver Vincent Dallas, who led the county with 10 touchdown catches in 2009.
“You can get more athletes on the field in the spread offense,” Cedar Grove coach Ray Bonner said.
The Saints recently have had a 1,000-yard passer and a 2,000-yard rusher in the same season.
At Towers, quarterback Miles Gooch had success in the spread offense last season and earned a scholarship to Virginia. Two of this year’s top quarterbacks – Dan-Fadio and Jhyree Harris of Stone Mountain, also are earning attention from colleges.
“If a defense takes away your running back, you can dink it to a wide receiver, which in some cases for us is a running back,” Bonner said. “It’s effective when you can get a receiver out in space like that and let them do their thing.”
While the spread is gaining popularity across metro Atlanta, many DeKalb schools have remained with a run-based or balanced offensive attacks like Tucker, Stephenson and Southwest DeKalb.
Stephenson and Tucker, both of which advanced to the second round of the state Class AAAAA playoffs a year ago, each averaged more than 240 yards rushing per game. Also, Marist and St. Pius have had success for decades by sticking to a triple-option running attack.
Still, the spread is not a gimmick offense that is likely to go away any time soon.
“It’s here to stay,” Ferguson said. “If you have the athletes and a quarterback to pull it together, it’s tough for defenses to stop.”