A light mist falls at Veterans Field in Oakland during a Class B North football game between Messalonskee and Cony. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

AUGUSTA — Cony football coach B.L. Lippert was giving his thoughts on his team’s offensive struggles in losses to Scarborough and Windham, and the role inexperience played in those defeats, when he turned the topic to a broader theme.

“It’s just a function of playing more, and there are probably a lot of teams in that same boat,” Lippert said. “That’s one thing this year I have noticed. The football I.Q. kind of around the state, in games I’ve watched, is just kind of missing a little bit, (due to) I think a year away from the sport, (missing) a year of development.

“Things that have come so naturally forever, we’ve been a year removed from it. There are some kids that don’t have that same football I.Q. because it’s been out of their thought process for almost 24 months.”

He’s not alone, as several other area coaches agreed that the canceled 2020 season has resulted in a diminished field awareness or processing of game situations. Football is a complicated game with detailed rules on formations and assignments, and players benefit from constant repetition of those details at game speed. Take away a year of playing, and coaches say they’ve seen the rust.

The Skowhegan football team takes the field prior to playing Lawrence on Sept. 10 in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“We see it on the field with our kids, sometimes, and we also see it on the film,” Gardiner coach Pat Munzing said. “There’s a lot more ebb and flow within games. You see teams go on a four- or five- or six-play drive, and then all of a sudden stall out because somebody missed an assignment, or somebody went offsides, or someone was misaligned, where otherwise they had the right play set, they had the right scheme.

“It’s usually one of those things. It’s a misalignment, it’s a handoff, it’s snap count, it’s a high snap. … It makes it pretty unpredictable.”

For some players, it’s rust. For others, it’s inexperience. Lippert said more players have been getting their introduction to football at the high school level, having missed a 2020 season that would have gotten them ready.

“We’re coaching things we’ve never had to coach before,” he said. “I’ve never had to teach a kid how to put knee pads into his game pants. … Not everyone grew up playing football and knows all the things that go into it.”

“Basic terminology that you would learn just by even playing a video game, what a slant is, what a fade is, we’ve had to explain all of that,” Nokomis coach Jake Rogers said. “I feel like I’ve been teaching basic football 101, like an intro course you would take in college. Basic stuff, where’s the A gap? Where’s the B gap? What the Y is. Just teaching the game all over again.”

For the players who had played, however, there was still an acclimation process that came with getting back to game competition.

“The biggest thing with not having last year that I’ve seen is the speed,” Rogers said. “The speed of the game. Every film I’ve watched, kids are so unsure of themselves, just not having that full contact, not knowing exactly how fast to go, how hard to hit, where to hit. I’m seeing more of that.”

Messalonskee coach Walter Polky said he’s seen most of the effects from the missed season on the offensive line. Skill players, he said, got to work on their game in 7-on-7 and flag football, but offensive linemen didn’t get to truly work on their technique and skills in real time until this season began.

The Skowhegan and Lawrence football teams play under a picturesque sky during a Sept. 10 game in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“In my situation and my opinion, it’s been the offensive line,” he said. “Knowing the calls, seeing the defense, stuff like that. Those are the kids that really, really got affected by COVID. They missed a whole year. At least with the skill kids, you can go over coverages and routes and things like that. … But definitely up front, that’s what I’ve noticed.”

Polky said the more straightforward schemes have had an easier time, but teams that play out of the spread, which utilizes more complex blocking, have had a more challenging re-acclimation process.

“One thing I’ve noticed on tape is just kids not coming off the ball,” he said. “Just coming off the ball confidently, knowing that you’re making the right block. Technique’s everything, especially on the offensive line. All those five guys have got to work as a unit.”

The skill players, though, have had to apply what they worked on away from contact football for a year to the field now in game action. For some, it’s been tough.

“I think things are happening super fast,” Munzing said. “They haven’t had that game speed. I think that’s one of the hardest things to replicate in practice, and that’s what’s so good about just playing games and gaining that experience with kids. Learning how to play at varsity speed. It’s an entirely different thing.”

Munzing said he normally focuses on the play calls and the game situation, and leans on his experienced seniors and juniors to make sure everything is being carried out correctly before the snap. This season, though, with his seniors and juniors having one less year of varsity action behind them, he’s had to do more of that himself.

“I (normally) give them the defensive signal, they’re ready to go and I’m already thinking ‘OK, if the ball goes here and they do this, this is what I’m going to do,'” he said. “But we’ve kind of had to be like ‘OK, hang on. Before I get there, I’ve got to watch and make sure they line up the right way.’ … It’s why I’m losing my voice every day after a game.”

Munzing said that game acumen has started to return.

“I think it’s improved throughout the course of the year,” he said. “Early on, it was really obvious. I think it still exists and it’s still there. It’ll be interesting to see where things fall once the playoffs hit, and that level of stress really increases. ‘OK, this is it. Where do we need to be?'”

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