As the football sailed through the air, Jonathan Dowling leaped up and snagged the ball with one hand.
That’s the type of athletic play Southeast High football fans saw from Dowling on a regular basis on Friday nights last fall.
But this was the middle of July.
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Although the official start of fall football practice is Monday in Manatee County, players have been working themselves into shape all summer.
Dowling’s great catch was made during a 7-on-7 competition last week at Southeast High, just one of the ways football players can hone their skills in the offseason.
“I like that we get to go out and compete against other teams instead of going against each other,” said Dowling, Southeast’s standout defensive back. “And the main thing is you get to build a lot of character with your teammates and not just work out with them and then leave. You get to keep the football base going throughout the year.”
Seminoles coach Paul Maechtle remembers a time when he and Manatee High coach Joe Kinnan voted against allowing football players to practice during summer at a Florida Coaches Association meeting.
“Years ago, we weren’t in favor of that situation,” Maechtle said. “We couldn’t do it, except for lifting weights. Running was all you could do, and that was fine with us.”
Eventually, Maechtle and others had to change their ways.
“Many schools were violating it anyway,” Maechtle said. “And then we were thrown into having to do it, because if you are not, and somebody else is, they are getting ahead.”
And any small advantage in football could mean the difference between wins and losses.
The 7-on-7 drills mainly focus on the passing game, because the teams compete without offensive and defensive lines. Linebackers and defensive backs can’t rush the quarterback, and terback, and the coaches determine how fast the quarterback must release the football before the play is considered over.
The drills allow quarterbacks and wide receivers to work on their timing and affords receivers the chance to sharpen their route-running skills.
“This is an opportunity for us to look at our offense and make sure everything is how we want it,” Southeast quarterback Dyron Speight said.
“Going into the season, we’ll have a (good idea) of basically what we want to do.
Last season, Southeast boasted the stingiest defense in the area, surrendering only 9.5 points a game.
With the seven returning starters on defense, 7-on-7 drills are a chance for Southeast to build on what it started in 2008.
“This is a chance to work on our technique,” said Noles rising sophomore cornerback Brian Poole, a first-team All-Area selection last season. “It helps us to work on our coverages and get our hand signals down.”
Other schools around Manatee County have jumped at the opportunity to sharpen their skills.
Eight teams recently participated in a 7-on-7 tournament at the Police Athletic League of Manatee County. The event was sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Bradenton Christian, Cardinal Mooney, Out-of-Door Academy, Palmetto and Southeast fielded teams, along with three schools from outside the area.
The tournament not only gave smaller schools the chance to compete against larger schools, but it also gave the lower classifications a chance to get acclimated to the heat, because most of them play in mid-afternoon when the sun is at its peak.
“We play at 4:30 p.m., so this helps us get used to the heat,” ODA running back/defensive back A.J. Strong said.
“And it also gives us a chance to get some good work in over the summer.”