MURRAY— A perfect night for football Thursday night allowed several teams to participate in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes 7-on-7 tournament at Murray State University.
With 16 teams in attendance, the games spilled over from Stewart Stadium to the intramural fields, but before the games got started the student-athletes received a message from guest speaker Steve Duncan, the former Murray High Tiger head coach.
He spoke of responsibility and told the kids the importance of having a belief system. Afterward, Duncan spent some time mingling among the crowd and seeing some old acquaintances.
“It’s fun to see these guys, and some of the coaches,” Duncan said. “Some of these coaches I coached. Two of the coaches over at Murray, one of them was my quarterback and one of them was my center, and their coaches now, so it’s good to see. But the most important thing is making sure that through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, we can be a service to these young men.”
About 20 minutes after hearing from Duncan, the teams began their head-to-head matches. The Tigers drew Marshall County in game one and the Calloway County Lakers faced Graves County and their new head coach Nick Kemp.
Matches continued through the evening with every team playing five 20-minute games with a running clock and no timeouts. The offenses started at the 40-yard line and got three plays to gain 15 yards, then four plays to score. Once a team crosses the 25-yard line they still only got four plays to score.
Quarterbacks had four seconds to get a pass off before a sack was ruled and to down a player after a catch, the defender needed to touch them with one hand.
Tigers head coach Keith Hodge felt like his guys were feeling the effects of playing in bad to back tournaments based on their performance Thursday evening.
“I think we were a little bit drained physically and mentally,” Hodge said. “We played extremely well the day before but I felt like we came out a little lethargic and not into it like I thought we needed to be but overall I thought we executed well and did some really good things.”
The communication level on the defensive side was the main thing that took a hit for the Tigers in their second day of action in a row.
“We went down to Clarksville and played a 7-on-7 and played five games and communication was great,” Hodge said. “It’s one of those things that we want to thrive on, we want to get good at, we want to use and I felt like it dropped off a little bit (at MSU), and again it might just be a second-day, too many games type situation, but the best football teams come out to play every single day.”
As for the Lakers, head coach Chris Champion was excited and optimistic about the way his guys performed, especially based on what they looked like at this time last season.
“Huge improvement from where we were last year at his point,” Champion said. “ I talked to our kids and at this time last year we had gone to the McCracken County 7-on-7 and this FCA one and we were 0-10 and looked really lost with a new system and learning everything.”
It was a solid day for the entire Lakers team with multiple guys getting reps and opportunities to make a play.
“We had two wins, two ties, and a loss and had a bunch of improvement,” Champion said. “We played a bunch of younger guys and played two quarterbacks today and our second string guys saw some positive things with the rotation we were putting in and our backup quarterback threw some really nice balls. Overall, we use these 7-on-7’s to evaluate our skill and where we are and we felt that we competed well.”
The Tigers and Lakers were on the main field at Stewart Stadium at the same time, a place they will be on August 30, but they were playing against different opponents on opposite sides of the field in game two of the day. Murray played their week four opponent, Union County, while Calloway had Rossview and both teams saw some good and bad things from their group.
“We’ve just got to be able to go day to day and not be up and down,” Hodge said. “ I want to see more of a consistent football team across the board and not be so up and down all of the time.”
“You have to take these things with a grain of salt,” Champion said. “It’s not real football, but for us, what we’re looking for are the different skills that we need to work on. Kids that aren’t running correct routes, kids that aren’t taking proper coverage sets, and mostly we’re just looking for overall understanding.”
Early in the day, the Tigers had to make a big adjustment but not a permanent one with quarterback Hunter Utley getting hurt.
“Utley went down early, and he’ll be good to go next week, but I thought Rowdy Sokolowski came in at quarterback and did a good job and made some really good throws and did some good things as the quarterback,” Hodge said. “Overall I think offensively we did some good things. We didn’t have a lot of turnover on downs and things like that and we put the ball in the end zone like we’re supposed to do.”
Meanwhile, Champion was pleased with his team’s offense and the way the starters performed together.
“John Foster and Luke Schwepker is going to be a thing you hear a bunch, but Aaron Fennel, we’re cutting him loose a lot more on offense this year and he made some great snags for us,” Champion said. “Connor Potts is a big body that caught several nice balls today and John threw the ball really well.”
Despite appearances, these 7-on-7 drills are great for defenses and that tends to be the focus of these coaches headed in. Specifically, the communication between teammates as routes are run by the offense.
“I think it’s more of a defensive thing. I think it’s communication, getting lined up right, seeing what the offense is trying to do, getting good position on the ball and the wide receivers,” Hodge said. “So to me because you don’t have an offensive line out there, I think it’s more of a defensive advantage than it is offensive.”
“Communication on defense was a lot better. Last year there was so much more we had to learn and in the last week and a half we put in all of last year’s defensive coverages, and our kids looked at us and were like, ‘Did we just put in all of last years coverages in five days?’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, yeah we did.’” Champion said. “We looked good, we communicated wetland we still made some mistakes here and there, but that’s what these 7-on-7’s are for, is to fix those, and hopefully we can get a lot more defensive stops this year.”
The Lakers relied on a few key members defensively to get coverages and alignments just right.
“Defensively, Fennel and Keaton Elliot and Schwepker and several of those guys did a great job in coverage and Issac Smith is our senior leader over there and he got us lined up and made some really good plays and helped get some of the younger kids lined up.”
As the regular season inches closer, both coaches know that these types of tournaments serve a purpose but at the end of the day won’t go down in the record books as anything.
“Really the biggest thing in these is conditioning, just getting our guys out and letting them compete, but ultimately you’ve got to take these with a grain of salt because we don’t have pads on and nobody is getting hit,” Champion said. “I definitely like some of the progress that we’ve made this season but in the end, none of it matters until you put pads on and start tackling people.”
Hodge said that the key thing for his team to take away is preparedness and being able to bring the fire and fight every single day.
“We’ve got to be ready for any challenge we have, no matter who is one the field, no matter what, ready to play every day,” Hodge said.