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When Henry Trevathan implemented the 4-4-3 defense for his Fike High varsity team in 1965, he was on the cutting edge of high school football. In his third season at Fike in 1966, Trevathan turned to an unbalanced-line offensive formation, which, along with the 4-4 defense, helped the Cyclones win three straight North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4-A championships, starting in 1967.
Both schemes were unusual at the time. The 4-4 had been introduced by Ara Parseghian in his first season at Notre Dame in 1964 but few, if any, other college programs, much less high school teams were going with it. The unbalanced line, a fundamental part of one of football’s oldest offensive formations — the single wing — was not as common by the mid-1960s, even at the prep level. For Trevathan, however, the two shared a valuable trait.
“Now, the 4-4’s not that popular today,” he said. “It’s not as sound, but it was different then and being different is an asset.”
Indeed, the 4-4-3 has given way more to the 3-4-4 with four secondary players and the outside linebackers utilized as both pass-rushers and drop-back defenders. However, it’s still seen on Friday nights in North Carolina.
The unbalanced line approach, however, has continued to evolve in modern offenses.
“The wing-T does a lot of that,” said Fike head coach Tom Nelson, who suggested the popularity of that three-back formation came from Hobbton’s Al Britt, who directed the Wildcats to the NCHSAA 1-A title in 1993.
Southern Nash’s double-wing attack also employs an unbalanced line at times.
“I think it’s just a variation of a three-back offense. We can run different formations out of it,” said Firebirds head coach Brian Foster, who began using the double wing in 2005. “One thing I like about three-back stuff is that it teaches you to be unselfish. If you don’t block, you don’t play.”
Trevathan’s unbalanced-line offense at Fike featured two tackles on the same side and two guards, with one moving quickly behind the other linemen as the lead blocker in whatever direction the play was going. Every other position was manned by a single player with a center, a tight end, a fullback (the primary ball carrier), a tailback or halfback, a wing back, a split end and, of course, the quarterback. With players crossing directions in the backfield, opposing defenses could get burned if they gambled and lost. Conversely, reading and reacting cost valuable seconds when the likes of 6-foot-3, 197-pound Carlester Crumpler or Zeke Church or Billy Clark or Willie Williams or Steve Windham or Phil Lamm were able to gain a step or two of momentum.
For Southern Nash, the same type of deception is in play in the double wing, which features a fullback flanked by wingbacks. Ball fakes and the everyone-must-block mindset are the staples.
“We try to put a lot of pressure on other team’s defensive ends, who are usually the other team’s best players,” Foster said.
The added bonus to having an unorthodox set-up like the double wing or Fike’s unbalanced line is the lack of familiarity opposing defenses have. For the Cyclones, that was true of their 4-4-3 defense.
“So you’ve been playing teams all year and all of a sudden you’ve got one week to get ready for the 4-4,” Trevathan reasoned, “you’re a little bit handicapped.”
The legendary Fike coach was famous for running play after play in practice until it was perfected. The formations dictated precision and Trevathan demanded it from his players.
Foster, who also employs a 4-4 base defense, instituted the same offense for his junior varsity team and it’s also used at Southern Nash Middle and the area’s youth football program. By the time a Southern Nash player is a junior, he’s likely had a minimum of two years experience in the intricacies of the double wing.
“You have to get the kids to buy into it,” Foster said. “It’s hard to be consistent with what you do. One thing I’ve learned as a coach is that you’ve got to do it and do it and do it. You’ve got to hang your hat on something. You’ve got to believe in something.”
The switch has worked well for Southern Nash, which went 19-56 in Foster’s first seven seasons. Since 2005, the first year of the double wing at Southern, the Firebirds have compiled a 128-55 record with winning seasons in 13 of those 15 seasons, including 11 straight. Southern Nash, 12-0 and seeded No. 1 in the 3-A East, is still seeking its first state title but the Firebirds have been contenders annually.
Like Trevathan, who turned to the unbalanced line because his players were smaller and fewer than his opponents, Foster needed to get an edge on Southern Nash’s opponents.
“We had to do that just to be competitive,” the veteran Firebirds mentor said. “We didn’t really have the personnel to do what we wanted to do up front.”
But Foster warned that any similarities to his program and Trevathan’s at Fike come with a caveat.
“I don’t really want to compare us to Fike because they did something we’re still trying to do,” he said.