It’s late Tuesday afternoon and, one-by-one, the cars start to fill up the parking lot just west of Raymond Screws Field at West Orange High School.
Out of the cars pile athletes from schools across the area — Ocoee, Celebration, Jones, Foundation Academy and, of course, the Warriors.
They’re there on this Tuesday, much as they have been on most Tuesdays this summer, to play football.
Sure, it’s early July in Central Florida and rest assured, it’s hot and it’s humid — but in this case that’s not a big deal. The compression t-shirts and shorts they are sporting as they arrive are all they’ll need to play. A few players even go shirtless.
Summer football these days means no pads and no tackling.
Instead of playing the game in its traditional form, these young men, like young men at nearly every program across the state, are participating in a 7-on-7 passing league — better known to those unfamiliar as “two-hand touch football.”
It is a trend that has become a staple for virtually any player who plays a skill position, a necessity for players and coaches desperate for an edge in an ever-competitive environment.
“It’s huge — and the coaches who says it’s not don’t realize it,” Bill Alderman, the offensive coordinator for the Ocoee Knights, said. “These guys have to develop and you only get so many days in practice.”
There are several passing leagues throughout Central Florida and even more individual tournaments. What started small, as a way for skill position players to hone their skills during what was once the offseason, has become a virtual requirement for players with aspirations of playing collegiately, much the same as it is in other sports.
“I think that 7-on-7 football is pretty much like AAU basketball is now,” Collin Drafts, the offensive coordinator for the West Orange Warriors, said. “It’s a means for the kids to keep playing year-round on top of working out all the time and to get noticed in the recruiting game, as well.”
The boost it can provide for a player looking to be seen by scouts for colleges is one of the reasons for the boon in participation.
A wide receiver at a program that prefers to run the ball during the regular season may not be targeted often in actual games, but that certainly won’t be the case when passing league season rolls around, meaning that same unheralded prospect will get a rare opportunity to showcase his ability.
As more and more program’s adopt pass-happy variations of a spread offense, the situations presented in the summer passing leagues become more and more applicable to Friday nights in the fall — although not entirely.
“We’re a spread team and if you’re that type of team it can help you,” Drafts said. “The problem is … you’re going to see man-to-man almost every play [in a passing league game] … so it’s not a realistic look.
“But it is still a good thing for the kids to come out here and compete.”
While the prevalence of the leagues has created recruiting opportunities for some athletes who would otherwise go unnoticed and given programs increased opportunities to hone their precision attacks, it is not without drawbacks.
Increasingly, head coaches are questioning if the risk of injury presented so close to the regular season is worth it — and whether the added days to the competition calendar for these young athletes has become too much.
“These 7-on-7 [leagues], it’s good for us, but I backed off of them this year because I don’t need any stupid injuries going into August,” Foundation Academy head coach Brad Lord said. “I don’t want to see football move that way [toward where AAU basketball is].
“You have to do so much [to be competitive] but I also believe the body needs rest.“
Lord believes he may have overscheduled his athletes last summer and, accordingly, has dialed down the Lions’ participation in passing leagues this summer to keep them fresh.
However the individual programs decide to attack the summer passing leagues, though, they don’t figure to diminish in prominence any time soon.
“Passing is becoming more predominant in the area,” Alderman said. “You’ve just got to get good at it.”