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8-player prep football coming to Utah this fall; gears turning at one Northern Utah school

By Patrick Carr - | Apr 15, 2022
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St. Joseph Catholic High's turf soccer field is shown Thursday, April 14, 2022.
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A diagram of what an eight-player football play could look like.

More than 80 years ago, a part of Utah embraced six-player prep football.

High schools including Cedar, Dixie, Hurricane and Milford took up the reduced-player version of American football in 1939, according to prep football historian George Felt.

Those schools, plus others at one point or another, played six-player games for 10 seasons before the UHSAA “banished” it — yes, banished — after 1948, according to Felt.

More than 70 years later, reduced-player football is coming back.

In March, the Utah High School Activities Association Board of Trustees approved the addition of eight-player football this coming fall, extending the opportunity to more than two dozen schools in the state in classifications 2A and 1A.

The UHSAA surveyed schools in January to see who’d be interested and, according to UHSAA assistant director Brenan Jackson, has six schools committed to playing eight-player football this fall.

Monticello, Monument Valley, Whitehorse (Montezuma Creek), Water Canyon (Hilldale), Rich High (Randolph) and the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind (Salt Lake City) are the six committed, Jackson told the Standard-Examiner.

Those schools also have the option of playing an 11-player game if circumstances allow, and some schools are expected to play both eight-player and 11-player games this fall. As long as teams play at least one eight-player game, they’d be eligible for the postseason, Jackson said.

Not all the logistical details have been worked out yet; however, eight teams are needed for a postseason and a few additional schools are said to be seriously considering eight-player football this fall.

One such school is St. Joseph Catholic High in Ogden. Its principal, Clay Jones, confirmed the school is seriously considering starting an eight-player football program for the fall season.

The gears are turning to get eight-player football off the ground in Ogden and in Utah.

ST. JOSEPH’S CONSIDERATIONS

Last spring, St. Joseph started building a pavilion near its grass soccer field that would have bathrooms and concession stands. Eventually, the school also built an artificial turf soccer field just north of the grass field.

The school has the field space for football, should it happen. Whether SJCHS ultimately gets into football is unknown.

Jones said the school surveyed its community gauging interest in starting a football program this year, which would also probably mean moving the baseball team’s season from the fall to the spring.

Surveys have come back supportive of the idea, including “quite a bit” of interest from the student body at both the high school and elementary school, Jones said.

He and the school’s athletic director, Alex Salvo, also recently met with Lyndon Johnson, head football coach at Ben Lomond High School, to go over the ins and outs of running a football program.

Cost is probably the biggest hurdle in St. Joseph’s way, with the school likely needing to come up with, at bare minimum, a five-figure dollar amount to start.

“I’m very conscious of what we’re going to do because of the financial burden it could put on the school by going through with it, that’s really — you know, my opinion on the whole thing is if it’s going to help us with enrollment, I’m 100% behind it,” Jones told the Standard-Examiner.

Jones thinks the school’s done a good job marketing itself, its programs and accomplishments during the seven-year period that he’s been principal.

Enrollment has been stagnant, though, he said. The school has an enrollment of about 170 students spread between grades 9-12 and it’s hard to tell if adding eight-player football would bring in more students.

Economic inflation is happening at levels not seen in decades and is squeezing families’ budgets, so are parents really going to flock en masse to a private school and pay tuition just so their kids can play football?

Another hurdle for the school in getting football going in time for the fall is finding the “right person” to be head coach, meaning someone who’s willing to spend the time building the program, Jones said.

By now, most prep football teams have finished most of their offseason workouts and are running through spring football practices.

Generally speaking, April is considered “late in the game” to make a coaching change, let alone start a new football program.

“I’m a football guy, a longtime football coach and I love the idea, but it’s happening kind of fast,” Jones said. “I guess my biggest hangup right now is we’re trying to figure out whether this is really a good move or not.”

EIGHT-PLAYER FOOTBALL EXPLAINED

Jackson said 1A and 2A non-football schools are eligible to play eight-player football, as are 1A schools who’ve been in the bottom three of the RPI standings the last three years.

There are a couple dozen non-football schools in 1A and 2A who potentially could be interested in joining the six schools already committed, though they’d first probably have to move their fall baseball seasons to the spring.

A likely scenario will be schools gauging interest, find there’s enough, but want more time to start a program and aim for 2023 — St. Joseph could always do this — to start playing under the next UHSAA realignment.

Eight-player football can be an option for schools for multiple reasons, ranging from declining enrollment, declining participation, geographic convenience, competitiveness or any combination of those.

Eight-player football turned from discussion to an action item this March because the UHSAA felt it had enough schools to make it work, Jackson said.

Rich High School principal Rick Larsen said he’s excited about the prospect of eight-player football. Just eight years ago, Rich was celebrating a 1A state championship victory. Since then, the Rebels have mostly struggled with a combined record of 6-43 since 2017.

“My community is torn. We’ve been 11-man so long that they’re like, ‘Wait a minute, this is a diluted version of football,'” Larsen said “I don’t think it is, once you watch it.”

The main schematic differences between 11-player and eight-player football happen at the line of scrimmage.

Offenses in eight-player football typically play with three offensive linemen, a quarterback and a mix of backs and receivers. Defenses typically play with 2-3 players at each position group, but can switch it up if they need.

Schools will have the option of playing their games either on an 11-player field or an eight-player field. An eight-player football field is 80 yards long between goal lines instead of 100, and 40 yards wide instead of 53 1/3 yards wide.

Jackson said any state championship game would be held at a college venue on an 11-player field.

But less players in a football game still normally played on an 11-player field means more empty space and more scoring. For example, an eight-player semifinal in Iowa finished 108-94.

Sixteen of Idaho’s 46 eight-player football teams averaged 41 points per game or more on offense last season, according to MaxPreps. Conversely, just five 11-player teams averaged 40 points per game or better across the state’s four 11-player classes.

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