Gray-New Gloucester High School running back Jeremiah Pye runs through a handoff drill during a recent practice at the high school in Gray. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories on eight-man football’s introduction to Maine. Part four will examine the long-term viability of the game.

When the Maine Principals’ Association examined ways to adapt to lower numbers and competitive issues in high school football, it had several options to consider beyond the traditional 11-man brand.

“We looked at six, eight, nine, and eight seemed to be the easiest transition from 11,” MPA executive director Mike Burnham said.

The MPA’s football committee made the transition easier for already cash-strapped athletic departments by maintaining the fields 120-yard (including end zones) length, rather than the 80-yard field some states use for eight-man football. The width of the field will shrink by 13 1/3 yards to 40 yards wide.

Introducing a new brand of football to most of the state (from 2006-15, a handful of northern Maine schools played in the eight-man Aroostook Football League, which was not sanctioned by the MPA) brings many questions and perpetuates some myths that follow eight-man football around the country.

Coaches and players believe the game will still ultimately come down to blocking and tackling, just like in 11-man football. But with fewer players in a more confined space, some aspects of the game may prove more or less important than they are in the 11-man game.

“It’s definitely faster-paced,” said Old Orchard Beach’s Jacob Methot, a senior and returning captain who plays middle linebacker. “It takes more technique for this. In 11-man, if you’re big, you push people around. In this, you need to be able to do all of the techniques, tackle in the open field, be able to get around people, run (pass) routes. It’s more about skill now.”

With less linemen and more emphasis on speed, some worry eight-man football will limit opportunities for student-athletes who already have less athletic options.

“Not only do I worry about it squeezing those kids out, but there aren’t a lot of opportunities athletically for bigger kids in a lot of high schools,” John Bapst coach and athletic director Dan O’Connell said. “Sometimes, football is all they have.”

O’Connell, who is the Maine Football Coaches Association’s liaison to the MPA’s football committee, added eight-man is still preferable to the alternative many schools could choose.

“I understand it will take two (linemen) off the field, but I’d rather take two of them off than have all five of them not be able to play the sport,” O’Connell said.

Old Orchard Beach coach Dean Plante thinks the impact on linemen will be minimal, particularly in the small school division (enrollment below 350) where coaches would often have trouble finding five starting-caliber linemen for 11-man.

“Three-fifty and above, I can see where maybe the big guy can get left out,” Plante said.

But one of the biggest safety fears for 11-man football coaches with low numbers is having to line up a 160-pound freshman directly across from a 260-pound senior. Eight-man football reduces those fears, and makes the constant battle of attrition coaches fight over the course of a football season less of a concern.

“Now you’re actually going to have depth and you’re going to have kids that aren’t playing injured, aren’t playing dinged up, because they don’t have to go both ways,” he said.

Gray-New Gloucester High School football coach Brian Jahna, right, conducts practice at the high school in Gray. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Players may not have to go both ways, but linemen will be asked to do more than block. The rules of eight-man football require five men to be on the line of scrimmage, and the players lined up at each end will be an eligible receiver, regardless of position or jersey number.

Would-be linemen who have dreamed of scoring a touchdown might find eight-man more alluring.

“Maybe those kids, the bigger kids that in the past have been interior linemen, now have more of an opportunity to be involved in the offense. Coaches can get creative that way,” Burnham said.

In a state where high school football players already face an uphill battle attracting the attention of college recruiters, playing eight-man could be considered another strike against a potential recruit.

But with over 1,000 high schools playing state-sanctioned reduced-man football nationwide, a number which continues to grow, recruiters are going to look for talent wherever they can find it, coaches and MPA officials said.

“I don’t see that it’s going to hurt the opportunities for those kids because a good football player is a good football player,” Burnham said.

Kickers may feel differently about opportunities in eight-man.

All elements of the kicking game are still allowed in eight-man, although coaches often opt to go for two points after a touchdown rather than an extra point kick because they either lack a dependable kicker or have blocking difficulties. But coaches point out that they faced the same issues in 11-man football.

If a school playing eight-man football feels it has solved the issues that led it to leave 11-man football, it can still return to the more traditional game. Switching to eight-man won’t preclude schools from returning to 11-man football in the next classification cycle. Some schools, particularly in the 350-and-up division, may see eight-man as a way to start rebuilding their programs.

“If you want to become a program that’s got solid rosters and can compete in 11-man football, but you’re not there right now, this is an opportunity to do that,” Gray-New Gloucester coach Brian Jahna said.

They will also still have the opportunity to add to their trophy case.

Starting in year one, the MPA will hold a playoff and state championship for eight-man football. The top four teams in the 350-and-up will play for their division title, as will the top four teams in the under-350 division. The winners of the two divisions will meet in a state championship game, which will be played the week before the 11-man state championship games, at a site yet to be determined.

Gray-New Gloucester High School football coach Brian Jahna works with lineman Sebastian Leighton during a drill at the high school in Gray. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Fans and players may notice a faster-paced game, but quarters will still be 12 minutes in length, and overtime will still start with each team getting four chances to score from the opponent’s 10-yard-line.

The bottom line, Burnham said, is eight-man football will still look, sound and feel like the traditional 11-man version.

“I think there are a lot of myths out there that it isn’t real football,” he said. “I think once it’s established, people are going to realize it is real football.”