All day, the Carroll Chargers fifth- and sixth-grade team had watched in awe. Now it was time to forget the fear and face the quarterback who, despite his age, could easily heave a ball 60 yards down field.
Early on in the game, fifth grader Willis Overmohle, a speedy backfield player for the Carroll Chargers, had a chance to show off what he could do against the quarterback. During a play, the quarterback had given away everything.
Although the quarterback had several options to throw to, he had eyed his prized receiver the entire way. Overmohle was able to read the quarterback’s eyes the whole time. As soon as the quarterback released the ball, Overmohle made a break on the ball and easily grabbed an interception.
“Up in Cedar Falls, we played a few games and I was able to get a lot of picks, which is fun because each interception is worth two points,” Overmohle said about being able to intercept players. “We played this one team that had a quarterback who could throw the ball really far, but I was able to get a few picks (interceptions) off of him, so that was really fun.”
Overmohle said what made the interceptions more special was how good he felt after each one. Not only was he scoring points for his team, but he was also able to help his teammates who were getting beat by faster receivers.
Overmohle wasn’t playing regular football, hence the two points awarded for each interception. Instead, he is part of a new team, and new type of football that is building football skills for Carroll area youth.
Ben Alford has been trying to bring different types of football to Carroll ever since he arrived in the area — with good reason.
Alford, a former college starting quarterback, knows the game of football well, and he wants to share his love of the game with youth in the area. This year, he was able to introduce a new type of football to anyone interested, seven-on-seven football.
“I want to give Carroll an avenue, and a way for players to develop their skills in football,” Alford said. “Everything starts with the youth, and that’s why I wanted to bring 7-on-7 football to Carroll.”
A FASTER GAME
The rules are slightly different. For example, teams only have three downs to try to gain a first down.
“The games are 25 minutes long with a running clock the whole time,” Alford explained about how the game during tournaments work. “So we can play up to four games in two and a half hours. It is a new game; it is a fast-paced game. One mistake can make the entire difference in the game.
“You have three downs to gain 15 yards; you basically have about 12 downs to move down the field. Any penalty is a loss of down, so that enhances the importance of doing the right thing on every play. Interceptions are worth two points, and the ball.”
The 7-on-7 league is played without pads. No tackling takes place in the league; it is just two-hand touch. There is just one lineman, the center, and a quarterback. The rest of the players on offense are receivers. The quarterback isn’t allowed to run with the ball, so they have to throw the ball. The quarterback also has to release the ball in four seconds.
Because of the faster pace of the game, fundamentals are something that take over as the upmost importance in the league. That is one of the reasons why Alford wanted to bring 7-on-7 football to Carroll.
FOCUS ON THE FUNDAMENTALS
As the rules state, this is mostly a passing league. Because of that, the receivers and defense are learning the tricks of the trade, how to deceive each other using hands, eyes and feet, not just their speed.
“In tackle football, sometimes the focus is on playing physically, not mentally,” Alford said. “For me, learning how to use your hands, how to create meaningful contact, how to break down and make a play in space, and other valuable lessons are what this league is all about.”
Austin Heinrichs, a sixth grader who plays for the Chargers, has always enjoyed tackle football, but when he came to this league, he started to learn other things about football. One of those things has actually changed his opinion of his favorite part of football.
“You learn a lot about football, like I’ve been able to learn how to read the quarterback’s eyes and how to defend receivers a lot better,” Heinrichs said. “I like tackle football, but this type of football I feel like I’ve really been able to learn a lot more about different positions of football, especially on defense.”
Before joining the league, Heinrichs said he was more of a fan of offense, but he enjoys playing defense a little more in 7-on-7 football.
The ability to slow down the game and have defensive backs focus on how to cover wide receivers is one of the most important aspects of building a good football player, Alford says.
In practice, the teams are all broken down by position. The wide receivers learn their route trees and are able to learn the tricks that could help them avoid some of the blunders that other players might make. They learn how to use the hands to not indicate when they might slow down for a turn in a flag route, or how to use shuffling feet to deceive a defensive back into thinking the receiver is running a shorter route than they actually are.
Defensive backs are taught to read the eyes of the quarterback (which is why Overmohle was able to get so many interceptions during a recent tournament in Cedar Falls). They are also taught the proper positioning to defend most of the common routes that are run in high school play.
“We’re building a foundation,” Alford said. “The kids that are playing 7-on-7 are able to develop their skills and they are football kids, they are the kids that are going to want their main sport to be football. We aren’t working on the big things, we are focusing on the little things, the fundamentals, that will help the kids once they get into high school.”
Alford said by working on the little things, once they get into the fall, they should already be ahead of the other players.
While this is a traveling team focused on players who want their primary focus to be football, it isn’t a team that discourages players from playing other sports. Practices are held mainly on Wednesdays so high school players (Alford didn’t start this spring with a high school team, but the interest was there, so a high school team has been formed) won’t have to miss sporting events. The practice is mainly in the evening so they can go to school-sponsored sport practices before heading to football.
As for where he got the idea, Alford just dug into his past to help him decide to create the 7-on-7 league in Carroll.
“We had 7-on-7 football in Florida, where I grew up, all the time,” Alford said. “There are some camps here in Iowa that offer 7-on-7, but for the most part it isn’t offered too much. So we are going to tournaments, and as far as development goes, this type of football helps everyone, receivers, quarterbacks, linemen — it benefits everyone.”
This is the first year the Carroll Chargers have played 7-on-7 football. There were plans to be one of the first teams in Iowa to join the 7-on-7 league in 2020 (when an Iowa league was created), but the COVID-19 pandemic canceled those plans. With things opening up this spring, Alford was able to gain interest — and with it, success.
The fifth and sixth grade team won a tournament over the weekend of May 1 and 2. In seven games, the Chargers were not only undefeated, but they didn’t give up a single point to opponents. They scored more than 200 points in the tournament. The third and fourth grade team also has been able to win recent tournaments they have played in.
The success of not just the fifth and sixth graders has led to Alford thinking about expanding the Chargers even more next year.
“We’ve had a lot of calls from people wanting to join us already this year,” Alford said. “There has been so much interest that I’m thinking about starting a league next year with just area towns. We’d have tournaments and everything, but with just people and kids that are from the region.”
This year, the Chargers will be able to show off what Iowa 7-on-7 football is all about when they host their own tournament at the Carroll Athletic Field on May 30. The tournament will feature divisions from 3rd-4th grade, 5th-6th grade, 7th-8th grade and high school athletes.
As for the benefits of 7-on-7 football, Overmohle, the fifth grader who has been lighting up the 7-on-7 season this year, said he doesn’t think of the league as strictly competition, which has helped him make enjoy the style of play.
“I don’t think of it as a competition, I think of it as a fun game that we get to play, and that your parents can come and watch you play,” Overmohle said.