Ellsworth High School football coach Duane Crawford (center) talks to players during practice at the school Monday afternoon. The school has opted to play 8-person football this season for the first time. Credit: Gabor Degre

The sight of 16 players — eight on offense and eight on defense — going about their work on a traditional 100-yard-long football field makes the playing surface seem considerably larger than it does when 22 athletes are squaring off in 11-on-11 competition.

But when Connor Crawford looks at the gridiron from his offensive perspective on Ellsworth’s eight-player squad, he’s focused on a dimension that’s been reduced. The field used for Maine’s inaugural season of eight-player football will be 40 yards wide, compared to 51 1/3 yards on a traditional field.

“For me the biggest difference at quarterback really is how much narrower the field is going to be on both sides when it comes to throwing,” he said. “When it comes to ‘out’ routes and things like that, you have to work on your timing a little bit differently because you’re used to having more room on either side of the field.

Ellsworth is one of 10 varsity programs statewide transitioning this year from 11-player football to the eight-player version. And while that may not require a complete re-writing of the playbook, it is fostering changes as teams adjust to a 27 percent reduction in on-field personnel.

Credit: Gabor Degre

On offense it means two fewer linemen and one less running back or receiver. On defense, it generally means one less player at each level — line, linebacker and defensive back.

“When structuring practices we tweaked things a little once we got into it because we were able to get more kids more reps at different positions because we had two less linemen, and we were able to utilize our skill kids more,” Old Orchard Beach coach Dean Plante said.

“We made a few changes that first day, but it was pretty much business as usual from there.”

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Many of the state’s southern eight-player football schools got together for six-on-six passing clinics this summer to begin to familiarize themselves with the new version of the sport.

But fewer players and more open space won’t necessarily translate into a pass-happy approach.

Credit: Gabor Degre

“Some of the kids are excited thinking we’re going to throw the ball a lot more, although I don’t know if that’s true or not yet,” Ellsworth head coach Duane Crawford said. “Watching some games from the Midwest they do everything: They run option, they run power, they spread the ball.

“Any of those styles can work.”

Most players and coaches familiar with the eight-player approach anticipate high-scoring games with an emphasis on team speed.

“It’s definitely going to be a lot harder when it comes to containment,” said Connor Crawford, who will play end and linebacker on Ellsworth’s defense. “You like to get pressure in the backfield, but when you only have three guys on the line, if you bite too far upfield the offense will go right by you.”

He said maintaining discipline, while still being aggressive, will be key.

And once the ball carrier advances beyond the line of scrimmage, there will be fewer defenders to track him down.

Credit: Gabor Degre

“It’s about maintaining lanes on defense, being able to communicate well with your teammates on the field — letting them know if there’s a crossing pattern or that someone’s coming into their zone — and being able to make tackles,” coach Crawford said. “Speed is going to be huge. If you’ve got a lot of fast guys on your team you’ll be tough to stop.”

Some eight-player teams still may opt for an old-school approach behind what now will be a three-person interior offensive line.

“If you’re going to play power football, you’ve got to put some big guys up front that are going to move the line of scrimmage, and then you get in behind that, and then you’re going to keep churning out first downs, at least,” Ellsworth assistant coach George “Toogie” McKay said.

Another element of eight-player football is that players wearing any jersey number can be an eligible receiver. That may create some unique opportunities for players whose primary role in 11-player formations — wearing numbers in the 50s, 60s and 70s — was to block.

Credit: Gabor Degre

“If you go unbalanced, the center could be the end guy and be eligible in some sets if you really wanted,” Plante said. “You can really formation things to make it challenging for your opponent and exciting for the [offensive] linemen. That’s a nuance we’re experimenting with.”

That possibility makes versatility another key ingredient in developing players for eight-man football.

“We have kids learning two or three different positions on offense and defense,” coach Crawford said.

Coaches also have decisions to make on special teams, including whether to attempt extra points and field goals with two fewer offensive linemen to provide protection for the kicks.

“Unless you’ve got a kid who can get it back there quick and get it off quick, chances of kicking an extra point or field goal are pretty slim,” coach Crawford said.

Another special-teams issue is whether to attempt deep kickoffs, and risk allowing a fast player to beat one man and be gone, or opt for a shorter squib kick that may be easier to cover.

Ellsworth fielded only 16 players for a practice late last week, so it’s just good to be able to consider the eight-player nuances — and pursue a playoff berth in Maine’s large-school division against Mt. Ararat of Topsham, Gray-New Gloucester, Yarmouth and Maranacook of Readfield.

“A lot of the stuff we’re running isn’t a lot different from what we’ve run in the past, just some tiny changes,” Connor Crawford said.

“I think it’s going to be a ton of fun.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...