The origin of the Lake Stevens High School football team’s high-powered spread offense stems from a 2008 coaches trip to Los Angeles.
Tom Tri was coming off his third season as head coach of the Vikings, who at the time featured a run-heavy I-formation offense. Having coached in the program since 1998, Tri was plenty familiar with Lake Stevens’ long history of ground-and-pound football out of two- and three-back sets.
“I love the I-formation,” Tri said after practice last Thursday, reflecting on that offseason a decade ago that led to the Vikings’ juggernaut spread offense of recent years. “Some of our run-play concepts are still based off a lot of the things that we did out of the ‘I.’”
But in his early years as head coach, Tri came to the realization that perhaps the I-formation wasn’t the best match for the type of athletes who tend to come through Lake Stevens.
“There were times when (opponents) just had bigger dudes than us,” he said. “And if you’re going to run the ‘I,’ you’re going to have to pound the ball and have some size up front.”
So instead of banking on having bigger players than the opposition each year, Tri decided to try something new. With spread offenses becoming increasingly common, Tri and the Vikings coaching staff flew to Los Angeles for a spread-offense seminar led by college offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.
The basic concept of a spread offense is to use four- or five-receiver sets to spread out the defense, and then maximize the talent of playmakers by distributing the ball to them in open space.
“We have a tendency here at Lake to have a ton of athletes, and so we were just trying to utilize (that talent),” Tri said. “On our down years when we don’t have a lot of big kids, we can still spread the ball out and get the ball to our fast kids in space.”
With no previous spread-offense experience, Tri said the learning process wasn’t easy. He remembers waiting with his coaches in the Los Angeles airport for their flight home and feeling like a “first-year coach all over again” while trying to learn the new terminology.
“Literally, it was like a foreign language,” Tri said. “It was a brand-new offense with brand-new formations. … We had to learn everything from scratch. So it was definitely a risk we were taking.”
The risk certainly paid off.
After implementing the spread offense in 2008, the Vikings increased their scoring by nearly 10 points per game from the previous season. Running more or less the same system ever since, Lake Stevens’ offense has developed into an annual juggernaut.
The Vikings have averaged more than 36 points per game each of the past seven seasons, including upward of 42 points and 450 yards per contest each of the past four years.
The high-octane attack has translated into massive success on the scoreboard, with Lake Stevens having won five consecutive Wesco 4A titles and 31 straight conference games. The Vikings have reached the Class 4A state playoffs six of the past seven seasons, including semifinal trips in 2011 and 2015.
“We took a leap of faith that (the spread) was going to better match the style of kids we had, year in, year out,” Tri said. “And so far, that’s really kind of what’s happened.
“By putting four receivers out (wide),” he added, “it forces the defense to go out and defend us sideline to sideline, and from the line of scrimmage all the way to the end zone. So vertically and horizontally, they have to defend every inch of the field, and that’s really opened up … our ability to score.”
Coinciding with the Vikings’ high-scoring attacks over the past decade has been an exceptional string of talented quarterbacks.
Over the past 10 seasons, four Lake Stevens quarterbacks have been named The Herald’s Offensive Player of the Year in football: Nick Baker (2008), Jake Nelson (2011), Jacob Eason (2015) and Conor Bardue (2016).
The most notable quarterback was Eason, the 2015 Gatorade national high school football player of the year who started one season at the University of Georgia before transferring to the University of Washington this past winter.
“That’s been the one consistent,” Tri said of his team’s quarterback play. “It’s a lot easier to run the spread offense when you’ve got a quarterback who can spread the ball to his receivers. And that’s been kind of our heart-and-soul foundation of what we’re doing.
“If we can throw vertically, the defense backs up. Throw horizontally, (and) the defense widens out. (Then) we can run the ball and do all three things very well. And that all starts with a quarterback that can throw the ball down the field.”
Set to replace graduated two-year starter Bardue is senior quarterback Tre Long, who started the Vikings’ two playoff games last year after Bardue suffered a season-ending injury.
Long filled in brilliantly, throwing for a combined 694 yards, six touchdown passes and only one interception in the two playoff games.
His performance was even more impressive considering he’d been sidelined for three weeks with mononucleosis and didn’t get cleared to practice until mere days before the playoff opener. Furthermore, Long hadn’t played quarterback all season, having moved to receiver to combat a lack of depth at the position.
“He literally had two days of quarterback the entire season, and he went out and knew everything that he was supposed to do,” Tri said. “That was pretty dang impressive.”
Over the years, Tri has adjusted the spread offense to fit the strength of his quarterbacks. With dual-threat quarterbacks Baker and Nelson, Lake Stevens ran a lot of read-zone plays. With pocket passers Eason and Bardue, the Vikings incorporated more run-pass option concepts.
This season, given Long’s ability both as a strong-armed pocket passer and a dynamic athlete who can run, Tri said the offense will feature a mix of the read-zone and run-pass option.
“We’re doing a little bit of both now,” he said. “(Tre) is kind of a hybrid of a Jake Nelson and a Conor Bardue. He can throw the ball in the pocket, but he can also get out on the edge and run a little bit. So we’re excited with some new wrinkles we’ll be able to bring with this year’s offense.”
“(Tre) is doing a great job,” senior receiver Ian Hanson added. “He’s ready to attack the season, make a name for himself and put us on the map.”
Even with a bevy of talented quarterbacks over the years and the tendency for spread offenses to be more pass-oriented, Lake Stevens has been fairly balanced between the pass and run. Much of that stems from Tri morphing some of the program’s traditional I-formation run concepts into his spread offense.
Tri is excited about a run game this season featuring a potential “three-headed monster” at running back and a big, talented offensive line led by 6-foot-5, 285-pound junior Devin Kylany.
“We still want to run the ball between the tackles,” Tri said. “That’s a huge goal of ours. We want to be as balanced as we can be.”
And for opposing defenses, that’s a big part of why Lake Stevens’ high-powered attack has been so difficult to slow down. With great quarterback play, talented athletes at receiver, a strong run game and so much space on the field to cover, where do defenses begin?
“There’s just so many athletes out here,” senior running back Tom Lewis said. “So when (defenses) start worrying about how good (our receivers are), they start to widen their safeties and the linebackers will spread out. And then we have this big line to run behind.”
“There’s so much that defenses have to take into account,” Hanson added. “We throw so much at defenses that (they) have to counter against and prepare for.
“That’s why we’ve been so successful,” he said. “… (Our offense) is very difficult for defenses to play against.”