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The fame of coach Kurt Bryan and offensive coordinator Steve Humphries at tiny Piedmont High near Oakland, Calif., continues to grow. Their A-11 offense was featured on NPR two weeks ago, and when NPR is running stories about strategic innovations in high school football, you’ve got yourself a phenomenon.
“When I saw the A-11 offense, I said, ‘Hey, that’s an altered version of mine,’” says Joshua Penn, head coach of the California Quake. Penn installed his team’s offense, which he calls the spread, in 2006, began using it heavily in 2007 and coached the Quake to an undefeated season with it this spring. They lost in the first round of the playoffs.
The IWFL playoffs, that is. To the Dallas Diamonds. The California Quake, who play in the Los Angeles suburb of Downey, are a women’s pro football team.
Bryan has said in numerous interviews and in marketing materials for his workshops and videos promoting the A-11 that he came up with it to counter the size and speed disadvantage his team faced when playing the larger schools in its conference. Penn, 32, a senior accountant by day for the department of Housing and Urban Development, had a similar motivation.
“Being in Southern California, we have lots of athletes at our disposal,” he says. But while the Quake’s roster featured plenty of speed, it lacked size. So Penn designed an offense built around twin quarterbacks who were threats as both passers and runners.
“I taught my running backs how to throw,” he says, “and I said, you know what, those teams that are bigger than us, they’re also slower than us.”
The A-11 also uses two quarterbacks, but Penn says he bagged the idea after the first year because the angled long-snaps were too difficult for the center to master.
There are other differences between the A-11 and the spread, which Penn named after the Texas Longhorns offense, which he points out is really a read-option, but everybody calls it a spread.
The A-11′s signature gimmick, the thing that’s gotten it banned in some states, is that on any given play, all 11 players could be eligible receivers. The defense doesn’t know who’ll be eligible until just before the snap, and even then it must read the formation. Penn’s spread has five dedicated offensive line positions.
And while the A-11 uses the whole field, it organizes players in “pods” of three around the ball and near each sideline, along with the two quarterbacks. Penn leverages his team’s speed another way, by spacing his players out, putting three yards between each of them as they line up.
“People see the splits and they say, ‘Look at all this space, I’m just going to blitz like crazy,’” he says. “By the time they get through that split, our person is around the corner.”
Penn says his spread is a run-based offense, unlike the A-11, though he’s trying to add more passing. He says he doesn’t begrudge Bryan, the Piedmont High coach, the fame he’s achieved by promoting the A-11. He just wishes people would take a look at his team and, more important, his team’s sport.
“It’s a version of my spread,” Penn says. “I’m not saying anybody took it. I’m just frustrated that it’s getting all the attention, and women’s football can’t get any attention. They hit just as hard, and I think there’s a passion that’s not there with the men, because they’ve always been told no.”
Penn says his dream is to coach men’s college football at the highest level and he applies for jobs every year. But until he gets one, he’ll be coaching women — something he says is harder to do than coaching men.
“Most of the women who come out have never played,” he says. “Watching football is one thing. Understanding football is another thing. Playing football, that’s a whole ’nother world.”