For some, it's a question of philosophy. For others, it's a matter of necessity. But for all high school football coaches, the choice between playing kids both ways or using a platoon system is as important as deciding on a starting quarterback.
That area coaches are divided among themselves on the question, and often divided within their own minds, is not surprising. In an era of declining school enrollments, there is more than squad size at play in the decision.
Poly's Augie Waibel is not only a proponent of platoon football, but a purist. "We've had no two-way players -- ever -- except [All-America tackle] Greg Schaum in 1971 because he was so outstanding. And he played in two Super Bowls [with Dallas]."
With a 46-man varsity, equally divided between offense and defense, Waibel has the numbers to make the system work. "It's a tremendous advantage because we can work on all the kids being ready to play," he said. "They have just one position to prepare for. And it keeps them fresh for the fourth quarter."
A smaller school-age population and higher dropout rates have shrunk the talent pool, making it difficult for most coaches to field full platoons. And even at Poly, with 1,200 boys, other factors can influence the turnout. "There just aren't that many kids who want to work and sacrifice enough to play football," said Waibel. "We're asking a kid to take off from [a summer job] for practice two weeks before school starts. They lose that income."
At Dunbar, with just 240 boys, coach Pete Pompey is especially sensitive to the economic needs of the students. "A lot of the kids are preoccupied with working and making a few dollars," he said. And those ambitious enough to work, he believes, might otherwise be participating in sports. "Those kids are the same kids who want to do other things."
Only 19 practiced for Dunbar the week before its opening game. Since school started, the roster is up to 33. "I went out and begged and pleaded with some of them," said Pompey. But a large squad alone doesn't mean the coach will platoon his players. Pompey also coached Edmondson when it was an A Conference power in the early 1970s. "I've never used full two-platoon football," he said. "We've had numbers, but not the talent. For the most part, since I've been coaching it's been that way."
John Buchheister coaches Randallstown (675 boys), which is classified 4A with the state's largest schools. From a varsity roster of 36 players this year, "usually about seven" go both ways, he said. "I want to put the best 11 players on the field, offensively and defensively. If it's the same guys, then it's the same guys."
Coaches realize they need depth to make it through a season, but diverge on how to develop it and when to use it.
"When I first started at Randallstown," said Ken Johnson, Buchheister's predecessor now coaching at Chesapeake-BC, "my philosophy was to play as many as I could early in the year. If you play more kids with less experience, by the end of the year you have more kids with more experience, so it works to your benefit.
"But we found that our first three games were non-league against stiff competition. Two years Loyola played about 15 kids, their best kids, against us. So philosophically I've changed a little bit over the years."
Johnson has learned to adapt. "It changes year to year with your situation," he said. "When you're rebuilding, you're foolish not to play as many as possible to give them experience and see what you have. But if you have a lot of seniors and know what they can do, you might play fewer kids."
But this is, after all, a game for kids to play and have fun. What works to their benefit and enjoyment? How much is too much, and is there increased risk of injury with increased playing time?
"It's relative to the time of the game," said Pompey. "Susceptibility to injury probably comes in the fourth quarter, but I wouldn't say it's that great a difference.
City's George Petrides has another theory. "I find they're less injury-prone if they're in there all the time," he said. "Their body's warmed up."
But when a two-way player is injured, the quality of play on both units is affected. Korey Singleton, a tailback and linebacker at Oakland Mills, said, "On our team, since a lot of people go both ways, an injury can really hurt us because you have to put in [two] players with less experience."
Buchheister sees fatigue on both sides of the line, and minimizes its effect on injury. "Almost all our injuries come in practice, because you practice four times more than you're playing . . . I jTC think the kids like to play both ways up to a point -- when they've got no relief. Kids can get discouraged when they're tired and miss a tackle or a step on their man."