A long-time Wing-T program, Kittanning switches to the spread
Signs of first-year Kittanning coach Frank Fabian's appreciation for open space abound.
Example A: Kittanning football's reorganized locker room, a formerly labyrinth-like setting that, thanks to assistant Brad Bowers' suggestion and Fabian's approval, now has all of its stalls along walls and nothing in the middle.
Example B: the practice field on Troy Hill that Kittanning used for offseason practices because the stadium field underwent chemical treatment and the fieldhouse lot was a bit too cramped.
Example C: Fabian's decision to switch from a multi-back, Wing-T-based offense, a staple of Kittanning for the past three decades, to a shotgun spread system.
While the former two changes were practical, the last one was philosophical. Fabian sees a wide-open scheme as a source of opportunity, so, with support from his assistants and players, he's ready to move his quarterback out from under center and scatter receivers toward both sidelines.
“We're just trying to get the ball to our playmakers in space,” Fabian said. “In the Wing-T, I suppose there are more similarities than people would guess. But to me, the difference is probably the spacing. … With the Wing-T, sometimes with the one split end, you can shrink the field a little bit.”
Fabian, a 1997 Ford City graduate, grew up playing in run-heavy offenses. His senior year, he learned the Wing-T, and he found that system again when he played at Gannon University.
His enthusiasm for the spread emerged around 2005, when, as an assistant at Redbank Valley, he and coach Ed Wasilowski began to discuss how to better use quarterback Jake Smith in the run game.
They attended a clinic at West Virginia, where then-head coach Rich Rodriguez explained the intricacies of his increasingly popular spread system.
“What we found out is it makes it easier on our linemen,” Fabian said. “The tighter you are (in a formation), the more (defensive fronts) you're going to see.”
Redbank Valley, which made the District 9 Class AA finals with its multi-back system in 2004, still thrived once it adopted the spread. The Bulldogs made the District 9 semifinals in 2005, 2006 and 2007. In 2006, running back Alex Bladel set a single-season rushing record with 1,373 yards. The following year, Smith established single-season records for passing yards (2,012), touchdowns (29) and completion percentage (57.4).
Smith became the first in a series of quarterbacks to flourish with Fabian's help. As an assistant at Kittanning in 2009 and the coach at Redbank Valley in 2010 and 2011, Fabian worked with three different quarterbacks, each of whom threw for at least 1,100 yards.
Still, second-guessing from program outsiders seems likely. The Wing-T's roots at Kittanning run deep — Harry Beckwith installed it in 1975, and the Wildcats' run to the WPIAL Class AA final that year gave him no reason to reconsider.
Beckwith brought the Wing-T with him when he later coached at Ford City and at Armstrong Central. He adjusted his priorities and tweaked his playbook based on personnel — Beckwith noted that Doug Emminger ranked among the WPIAL's top passers in the early '80s. And new offensive innovations, particularly those in the passing game, tempted him. But he never abandoned the Wing-T foundation.
“When I'd get right down to it,” Beckwith said, “I could do the same things in the Wing-T, so why change it?”
Sam Panchik, Fabian's predecessor, identified angle blocking as a reason he stuck with the Wing-T when he replaced Beckwith.
“You don't have to have big people up front,” Panchik said. “And also, if you have three good backs in the backfield, you have so much diversity. If you have a running quarterback, even better.
“Plus, other people hate to defend it.”
Ford City coach John Bartolovic and West Shamokin coach Josh Gilliland echoed the sentiments of Panchik and Beckwith. Both use forms of the Wing-T that include modern wrinkles.
Fabian respects the Wing-T fans. He recognizes that spread schemes can function in other systems. To some extent, he acknowledged, it's all a matter of semantics.
“I don't know if any system is 100 percent Wing-T or 100 percent spread,” Fabian said. “There's elements of every kind of offense everywhere. But (the spread) is what I know. That's what I've coached for six years now. And I just don't feel like I could do a good enough job coaching a system that I was unfamiliar with.”
Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-543-1321.