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Gridiron Men: Local athletes play on both sides of the line of scrimmage

Sometimes coaches don't like to do it, but more often than not, it has to be done. To put the best 11 players on the football field, many high school coaches are faced with playing some guys on both offense and defense.

It's rare in college, and it almost never happens in the pros. That's what makes these iron men so special in the prep ranks.

All three local teams have multiple players that "go both ways" as the coaches say it. And the philosophies behind playing guys on both offense and defense are as diverse within those three teams as anywhere in the country.

"It doesn't hurt the kids. I've only got them four years," said Briarwood coach Jimmy Barnett who plays 10 kids both ways. "...If you've got an ice cream cone, you've got to eat it while you got it."

While Briarwood, in recent years, has typically suited up around 30 players from freshmen to seniors, Thomson has a much larger roster. The Bulldogs have around 55 varsity players plus a junior varsity team.

Even so, Thomson Coach Luther Welsh considers playing guys both ways as a necessary evil in most games. He has a handful on both sides this season. If he had the choice - and a huge roster - he wouldn't do it at all.

"I don't like doing that," Coach Welsh said after his wingback Nathaniel Jones nearly got worn out while also playing defensive back against Jefferson County's passing attack. "We, in years past, may have had one that we would spot him on offense once in a while, but it's nothing like it was the other night."

Warren County Coach Lee Hutto served as Thomson's defensive line coach several years ago and learned much of his philosophy under Coach Welsh, though it would be difficult to detect that just looking at his roster.

Coach Welsh was forced to play many guys both ways in the old days; it was essential then, he said.

"When I started coaching, you played them both ways. They came up that way, and they were used to that," said the 50-year coaching veteran. "They were in better shape because there wasn't too much air conditioning, and there weren't too many cars. They did a lot of walking and riding bicycles and going where they were going on their two feet."

Coach Hutto named five current Warren County players off the top of his head that serve like those guys in the old days. Quadrez Reese, Ivory Story, Devon Walls, Reginald Johnson and Maquell Williams comprise that list. There are others, he said.

"With us having such a small school, we don't have much of a choice," Coach Hutto said. "...We have to put our best 11 out there that give us a chance to win, and a lot of times that means some of those kids, they don't get much of a break on Friday night."

An added learning curve for two positions complicates things, as does essentially losing two players in one when injuries occur. Many coaches point to conditioning that preserves their multi-talented players during games.

"At first I didn't want to go, but now I do because I've got the hang of it," Thomson's Jones said. "Once you get used to it, it's alright. But as far as that goes, if you're in shape it ain't nothing to do, though."

David Russell has played both quarterback and linebacker for Briarwood since he was allowed on the football field. He said the conditioning is usually not a problem until the Bucs face a team that can afford to have all one-way players.

"We played Riverside Military last year, and everybody played one way. And you could tell, especially in the fourth quarter," Russell said. "...At the end of the game they still had it all."

Russell said one thing that helps is possession of the ball. He likes keeping it much more than trying to get it back.

"On offense you go at your own pace," he said. "Defense, you've got to be ready for everything."

Other than Russell, Briarwood boasts Joseph Batrous, Andrew Johnson, Kyle Ewest, Jacob Gay, Jonathan Gay, Chris Gerlach, Matthew Graziano, Chase Wilson and John Spivey as iron men.

Aside from Jones, Thomson has Rodney Roberts, Vincent Scott and Carlton Martin occasionally playing both sides. Even quarterback Anthony "Pooh" Erwin has played a few snaps this year at safety.

Coach Barnett's philosophy on the issue says colleges look for players who have a deeper understanding of both offense and defense.

"Personally, I want to look at a kid that can play the game. If you play defense, you'll know what the offense is going to do. If you play offense, you know what to expect from the defense," Coach Barnett said.

Jones agrees with that assessment and hopes it will help him get some looks from scouts.

"I know how a defensive player plays, and then I know how an offensive player plays the same thing. So it makes my job easier on both sides of the ball," he said.

Web posted on Thursday, October 12, 2006

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