On a chilly night in Coal City, Independence running back Tyler Linkswiler hits the turf after a six-yard run from the Nicholas County 25 to the 19. He jumps up and hands the ball to an official that spots it. Approximately 17 seconds later the ball is snapped again.
On Independence’s next drive Judah Price races down the sideline, pushed out of bounds at the Nicholas 28 following a 25 yard gain. It takes just 23 seconds after Price is forced out of bounds for the ball to be snapped again with at least three of those spent by his teammates trying to gather themselves and hustle down the field.
Rewind about five weeks and it’s the same story. In Week 4 against Shady Spring, Trey Bowers completed a 13-yard pass to Cyrus Goodson. Thirteen seconds later the ball was snapped again on a toss to Price. On the next Indy drive Price rolls 23 yards down the field on a toss. Video Productions, which is streaming the game, shows the replay of Price’s run but before the broadcast can cut back to the game the ball has already been snapped – 19 seconds after the play was whistled dead – and Bowers is plunging for the end zone on a QB run.
Comparatively on Shady’s following drive, it takes 30 seconds for the offensive play to be relayed from QB Brady Green and 37 seconds after the last play was blown dead for the ball to be snapped. The next play takes 24 seconds to be relayed with a whistle to snap time of 34 seconds. In that same amount of time the Patriots would’ve likely ran two plays.
The uptempo style doesn’t have a catchy name but it’s been a critical advantage during Indy’s three-year playoff streak.
During a clinic in the late ’80s, Independence head coach John H. Lilly received some advice from former Heisman Trophy winner and Florida/South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier.
“If you can’t be better, be different,” Lilly said. “I learned that a long time ago. One of the first clinics I ever went to was in 1988 and I saw Steve Spurrier and he was still coaching at Duke. The first thing that came out of his mouth was ‘If you can’t be better, be different.’ We’re trying to be different and hopefully we are.”
Indeed Lilly’s tempo offense is different than what any other area team does and beyond what many across the state do. Leaning into the philosophy Spurrier impressed upon him, he’s applied it at each stop. During his time at Beckley he was coaching against schools such as Cabell Midland and Martinsburg which feature nearly twice the enrollment of Beckley.
At Independence the contrast isn’t quite as stark, but still glaring. For example the school boasted an enrollment of 550 students during the 2020-21 school year and met Fairmont Senior, a school that sits on the line of 800 students, in the Class AA state championship game last year.
“We’re a football program that has been good, but in order for us to get better and play against and beat outstanding teams, we can’t do more,” Lilly said. “We’ve got a little over 500 students so when we roll in against 800 students we have to be able to do something nobody else has done. Our tempo of playing fast is something we hope that’s good for us and I hope once our opponents play us they’re telling their kids ‘Now they move fast so we’ve got to get lined up fast.’ It’s also easy to say you’re going to play fast but you’ve got to have people that buy in to what we’re saying because there’s a conditioning factor that has to take place when you’re playing both ways.”
Heading into his third season at Independence, head coach Lilly decided to utilize the tempo system with the talented group of players emerging. That 2020 team featured eventual all-staters Logan Phalin, Judah Price, Trey Bowers, Cyrus Goodson, Logan Isom, Brady Grimmett and eventual Kennedy Award winner Atticus Goodson.
“I know some people,” Lilly laughs, hesitant to say too much. “I’m a Glazier clinician and I know people that are associated with people who do this. We’re not unique to it and I didn’t invent it. We just try to get better at it. When you watch Tennessee, you’re looking at our offense. That’s the people we got it from before they went to Tennessee. I can’t give away all my stuff, but I brought in some coaches that I convinced that I wanted to do this and we convinced the kids we wanted to do this. They bought in and we’ve got all kinds of speeds and tempos.
“Everybody says they do it, but how many people are really committed to doing it? It’s easier to say until you get out there. You have to perfect it to 12 seconds and then think about your defense because some of those guys play both ways and then you think about your special teams. When you’re at a small school and doing this your kids have to buy into it because they have to condition. We just didn’t change what we did offensively, we changed what we did in the weight room and everything. It’s a tough sell because all the old guys still want to do powerlifting to build the team and we’re outside running sprints. We’re conditioning all year round. It was a total philosophical change for us because we’re old guys learning new tricks.”
Isaiah Duncan was the QB during that 2020 season, earning the trust of Lilly by efficiently executing the uptempo style. But one of his biggest contributions was how he helped teach it to the rest of the Patriots as a senior leader.
“Your quarterbacks, they’ve got to know,” Lilly said. “You have to be on good terms with your quarterbacks. I thought Isaiah brought a certain skillset to the team and was a tough kid. Phailn was a coach on the field and probably knew it better than I did and Trey came into and gave us a run threat. J.D. (Monroe) is our backup QB and has been in it for three years. Silas (Nelson) is learning it and our middle school quarterback Brock Green is our ball boy so he’s on the sidelines watching and learning it. We’re not dating it – we’re married to it.”
Phalin, who set the program’s single-season passing yards (broken this season by Bowers) and passing touchdown records in 2021, echoed Lilly’s sentiments on the QB being the engineer. He credited Duncan for helping integrate the offense and teaching the younger players, helping pave the way.
“Isaiah did a really good job leading the team and teaching them,” Phalin, Duncan’s successor and a 2021 all-stater and 2022 graduate, said. “Around that time all the players on this year’s team were sophomores. They were young but very talented so Isaiah had to round them up and show them where to go. I think around halfway through the season they kind of got it and my senior year they had it perfected.”
“It was around my junior year (2020) when we really started hitting on it,” Phalin continued. “Coach Lilly – we got that turf field and coach though it’d be a good advantage if we went very, very fast where the other teams couldn’t hardly breath. He started putting it in and we tried to get it under eight or nine seconds and improve every time and we did that.”
The addition of tempo helped the Patriots reach the playoffs in 2020, their first postseason berth since 2016.
In 2021 they led the state in scoring with an average of 50.7 points per game, reaching the Class AA title game.
As efficient as the offense is now, it wasn’t always that way. It requires promptness, memorization, quickness and of course conditioning. As soon as one play is whistled dead the next begins.
“Really the difficult part was the signal calls and the calls on the field that I’d give out to the players or Trey (Bowers) gives out now,” Phalin said. “Remembering those while you’re going so fast is a challenge. Your mind’s kind of everywhere and you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. It’s like you’ve got to think about what you’re doing and be at a certain place. It’s all kind of jumbled up at the same time and you’ve just got to be there.”
But the style presents an advantage, especially at the high school level where there aren’t many teams that utilize or can even emulate it the way the Patriots have. For Phalin, the advantages were easily noticeable. On a team that needs no help generating big plays with the lot of talent on the roster, the tempo supercharged the Indy machine to the point it often looks like they’re playing a different sport.
“It makes it fun and makes the game fun,” Phalin said. “The defense is tired and the DBs are tired. When I played, Cyrus and Trey would run go routes on the off plays just to make the DBs tired for the next play and they’d be out of breath when we actually threw the ball and our guys would be wide open. I think I caught, maybe twice this happened, but I caught 12 people on the field. That was really because of our tempo, not me, the tempo. We were going so fast the defense doesn’t know what they’re doing. We would run a bunch of formations too where you might see two receivers on the right one play and three on the left the next play and you’ve got to adjust to that in 12 seconds.”
For defenses the tempo causes the aforementioned issues and tests conditioning. It also forces coaches to make a decision as to who they want on the field and what defenses they want to be in with the potential to be locked into a single look for an entire drive.
Princeton head coach Chris Pedigo hasn’t played against Indy’s tempo but he’s familiar with it. Hurricane and Parkersburg South, two of the teams he has played against this season, run similar tempo styles with talent similar to Indy’s. Lilly admitted he has conversations with Hurricane head coach Donnie Mays pretty frequently as the two bounce ideas off each other.
“It is challenge and it’s hard to replicate it,” Pedigo said. “Hurricane did the same thing South did and we struggled with Hurricane. We did better with South’s but our guys were tired. You’ve got to have depth to help stop it because that tempo will hurt you later in the game … When you’re good and efficient, that’s when it’s really scary. A team like Indy – we played Hurricane and tried to emulate that. Maybe not the tempo but some of the spread sets to try and lock (personnel) in to some defenses. It’s hard because it’s almost like you get back to those double-tight, wishbone sets and it locks you into a defense. With what (South head coach) Nate (Tanner) does with the tempo it locks you into some things. We try to move some guys around but sometimes our strengths might be opposite and we might not move some guys around because of tempo.”
Nicholas County head coach Gene Morris has coached against this iteration of the Indy offense since it was integrated, with his team yielding 52.3 points per game to the Patriots in their previous three meetings.
“You just have to have multiple coverages and easy checks,” Morris said. “The harder you make it, the more chance you have of making some mistakes. You really have to make your defense pretty simple snd make sure that your checks are something that can be communicated. That’s really the key to it. You can’t huddle defensively and you can’t get many calls in. You have to lineup and go at it pretty quick. It’s more practice prep and whittling the defense down to making it simple.
“You can’t emulate it. Once you get your defensive starters you just can’t simulate that front. Plus you can’t practice ones on ones a lot with the rules of how much contact you can have during the week and you don’t want to beat your kids up too much. You really just have to make sure you can get the checks in and then you leave it up to them making some calls on the field to try and help you get in those checks in those situations. It’s also all reactionary to them. You have to be ready if they come out in trips or an unbalanced line. You have to get your call, get aligned, read your keys and then execute and those are your four keys to look at on defense.”
Bluefield coach Fred Simon has seen almost every form of offense possible over his 40 years of coaching. He’s won five state championships and hangs his hat on the defensive side of the ball but admits the problem the Patriots pose. His Beavers are poised to face Indy for the third time in 12 months this Friday. While tempo wasn’t utilized as much during their matchup in the Class AA semifinals last season, it was when they met earlier this season during 44-16 Indy win.
“You’ve got to be in shape for one thing and you’ve got to tackle well,” Simon said. “They go hard and they’re a physical team with good backs that go hard. It’s not an easy situation with the backs they’ve got and they’re smart to do what they do. You can know exactly what they’re doing but you’ve still got to execute which isn’t easy with them. You’ve got to be physical and be tackle. Whatever they’re doing, you have to figure it out quick and lineup and play football. Some teams can do all kinds of stuff and line up and be fine with it, but this group, when they line up they execute and they do a good job with it.”
The Patriots now embark on their third postseason run with their dynamic offense in tow, hoping the third times’ the charm.
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