The coaching staff had finished their spring meetings last April, and before the Riverside Brookfield defensive coordinator Bob Daman walked away, he flipped a copy of American Football Monthly magazine to coach Otto Zeman. He mentioned Zeman might find interest in one of the articles inside.
Turns out, it was one of the first stories detailing the new A-11 offense installed by Piedmont (Calif.) High School coach Kurt Bryan and his director of football operations, Steve Humphries. The assistant coach was right – Zeman found the article interesting. Very interesting, indeed.
Interest around the nation, in fact, continues to increase. A number of schools around the country have installed the A-11 offense into their own schemes, a few state high school associations have deemed it illegal and, after a RivalsHigh story appeared in July, features about the offense ran in the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.
A month later, after mulling it over, Zeman made the decision. He would transform the Riverside Brookfield offense into an A-11 offense – which allows for every player on the field potentially to be eligible to catch a pass. Zeman terms his team's scheme as "Return to Oz" but the components are similar to those used by Piedmont.
It's worked just as well. Three weeks ago, the Bulldogs set a state record with 597 passing yards and matched another state mark with nine passing touchdowns in their 63-19 win against Fenton. They didn't run the ball once.
"We're kind of different from what (Piedmont) is doing," Zeman said. "We've been a five-wide offense since 2000. Except for the quarterback draw, we throw exclusively. It's just to do something different. Most of the time, we just line up and go. We're trying to take advantage of leveraging people and moving kids around. The first three weeks, I didn't understand it, but right now, we're getting a handle on it. If you have really good personnel, it's unstoppable. If they don't change the rules, high school football will never be the same."
Already, some states – Louisiana, North Carolina and Montana among them – have changed their rules to ban the A-11 offense, calling it a travesty of the game. But it's still legal in Illinois; therefore, Zeman will keep running it.
"All of the officials that have done our games haven't had any problems," Zeman said. "Even if they did outlaw it, we would still put three guys to one side, four to the other and three in the middle. We might just put guys there and make teams cover us. We'll still use it. We'll adjust."
Adjusting is what the Bulldogs have done all season. After losing their first three games by a combined score of 129-49 – Zeman reiterated he didn't know what he was doing early on – Riverside Brookfield has made quite a run the past seven weeks, averaging 33.4 points per game while going undefeated.
Something apparently has clicked.
"If we had played the first few weeks like we played these last few weeks, the scores would be a little different," said quarterback Billy VandeMerkt, who threw for 516 yards and eight touchdowns in that lopsided victory against Fenton on Oct. 10. "Everything is becoming more comfortable. Over the course of the year you get more adapted to it."
VandeMerkt conceded it's awfully strange to take the snap with only three linemen in front of him. But as his confidence has grown, the Bulldogs have followed suit. Yes, Riverside Brookfield has been a spread passing team during this decade, but this year, the Bulldogs have taken it to the extreme.
"It's a lot of work you have to put into it," VandeMerkt said. "It's not totally a big difference, because we used to run an offense where we were passing a lot. But with three blockers on the line, the defenses bring a lot more pressure. The first couple games, it was tough to get used to."
But like Piedmont last year – the Highlanders lost their first two games before reeling off seven straight – Riverside Brookfield has taken the A-11 scheme, worked out some early season kinks and used it to lead the Bulldogs into the postseason.
"They had a great idea, and I took their idea and tried to adapt it to what we were doing," said Zeman, whose squad will face Glenbard South in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs this Friday. "We've had some great teams before where we were able to level the playing field. But when this works, it's unbelievable."