Spreading the wealth
Central's spread offense benefits from solid QB, lots of capable pass catchers
On any given Friday night, Central High School quarterback E.J. Barrera will throw numerous footballs to Darrion Alton. The lure is easy to see. Alton is 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds with explosive speed and a scary vertical.
He has scholarship offers from the University of Northern Colorado and Colorado Mesa, though his profile rose significantly when Scout.com ranked Alton as a two-star recruit. More Division I offers could be on the way.
Last season, teams would often triple-team Alton, stacking two cornerbacks where the receiver lined up and cheating a safety to his side.
They can’t do that this year.
Alton is still the Warriors’ biggest threat. He’s caught six of Barrera’s nine touchdown passes this season on everything from a simple go-route to a jump-ball fade to a short screen turned long touchdown.
But if teams hone in on Alton too much, a crew of receivers — all who have chemistry with Barrera — can make opponents pay.
During the Warriors’ second game of the season, a 33-31 win over Grand Junction, each receiver had at least 48 yards receiving and at least three catches. Alton had nine catches for 146 yards and three scores, but junior Trey Ehlers caught six passes, the majority on short routes over the middle. Ryan Weller made five grabs for 52 yards, nearly breaking a big play over the middle, and Jeremy Buniger had three catches for 77 yards often working from the slot opposite Alton and Ehlers.
Having those other options is what makes Central’s offense tough to defend.
“Last year it was a lot of attention on me,” Alton said. “We had guys like Noah (Galyon) who stepped up when I was double-covered or triple-covered, but this year the defense has to spread the field to account for everyone. Can’t just double-cover me because we have a ton of threats out there.”
This season, through the first three weeks at least, Central’s offense has seemed to hit its stride. Barrera and Alton were dynamic last season, with Alton piling up 1,061 yards receiving, the fourth-most in the state regardless of classification. But turnovers, defensive misfires and broken plays left Central with a 5-5 record.
So Barrera and his receivers spent the summer — from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on some days — working out, perfecting routes, and building chemistry.
That chemistry is another piece in the evolution of Central’s offense under head coach Shawn Marsh.
The Warriors run a sophisticated spread scheme that not only requires much from the quarterback, but also the receivers. Routes change based on coverage and pass-catchers often have to make split-second reads and react to what they’re seeing.
There’s ample room for blown routes and errant throws, but the time spent practicing during the summer has limited those mistakes.
The leadership from Barrera helps, too. Barrera has a wrestling background, something Marsh said gives him toughness and a competitive fire. He’s also close friends with Alton off the field.
“Darrion and E.J. have a very unique connection,” Marsh said. “Darrion, in a football game, is going to be able to catch passes from many different kids. He’s that talented. But it’s really cool the connection those two have.
“They’re friends on the field, friends off the field. And they play a lot of catch together. That’s what it boils down to. It order to throw the football well, you have to play a lot of catch.”
The skills have been honed by “Coach Catch” himself.
Pete Cyphers, an assistant coach who works with quarterbacks and wide receivers, earned his nickname by stressing the importance of playing catch.
Cyphers’ philosophy stems from a successful background in football at all levels.
He was a Gold Helmet winner at Grand Junction High School in 1974. He went on to play quarterback at both Colorado State University and The University of Colorado.
Once he graduated from CU, Cyphers became a quarterbacks coach at what was then Mesa State College. In his nine years at Mesa, he coached several notable Mavericks quarterbacks, including Andy Coryell, the 2000 RMAC offensive player of the year.
For Cyphers, what makes this group work — beyond their football drive — is intelligence.
He first pointed to Barrera’s toughness, saying “you have to be tough to be a leader and he has that,” but then said the quarterback has more knowledge of Central’s offense this season and recognizes what defenses are showing him.
“This year, he’s really learned what to look at and what he’s seeing before the snap,” Cyphers said. “He makes great decisions with the football based on what he’s seeing.”
One goal of the Warriors’ coaching staff when Marsh took the Central job in 2013 was to build a program. Part of that, Marsh said, is making sure there are quality players at different positions across the various sub-varsity teams. Particularly important is the quarterback.
When he’s not catching passes, Weller serves as the varsity backup quarterback. Marsh said he “throws a very pretty ball” and uses his knowledge of the team’s receivers to his benefit. Weller is uniquely familiar with what Central receivers are doing.
For the junior varsity team, Marsh’s son, Max, is the starting quarterback. Max has a good arm, long frame and a wealth of quarterbacking knowledge. He was calling audibles at the line of scrimmage when playing Mesa County Junior Football.
Marsh estimated the Warriors had “seven or eight” current or potential quarterbacks across all levels of the program, something that will be important as Central continues building.
“We’ve got a great group of kids playing that position and really learning it,” Marsh said. “To me, that’s an important part of this program and an important part of our offense. But we’ve got the perfect guy working with them in coach Cyphers. He’s got them working on the offense, their footwork, mechanics, all of that.”