Brandon Willard, who took over for longtime Amphi coach Vern Friedli last year, said, "We don't have the big kids that can just pound away" anymore.


Amphitheater High School's football program has always been about running the ball.

Today, however, the Panthers will throw it. A lot.

Second-year coach Brandon Willard will host the first-ever Amphi Air Raid and Big Man Battle today on campus. Running the ball - the style of play popularized by Vern Friedli for 36 years before he retired in February 2012 - will not be an option.

The passing tournament begins at noon, runs into the night and features 20 teams, including Canyon del Oro, Ironwood Ridge, Mountain View and Sierra Vista Buena.

"I love playing in 7-on-7 competitions," Willard said. "I think it's good for our kids learning how to compete and things like that."

Willard decided to host the tournament to give local schools another option besides traveling out of town. The UA recently had one, and Pima College will host its passing tournament next weekend.

Amphi's version will also have individual competitions to determine the fastest runner in a 40-yard dash, the quarterback who can throw the farthest and the kicker who can make the longest field goal.

"Everybody's philosophy is a little different. Some people don't believe in the passing tournaments at all, but I think it's good for a lot of purposes for us," Willard said. "To add a little bit of different things, because not every team is successful in 7-on-7, it gives kids an opportunity to compete in different avenues we've brought, putting those extra competitions for them to get individual awards."

This is Willard's first complete offseason since he was hired on April 24 of last year to replace Friedli. The tournament is only one of many touches he wants to put on the program.

Willard said his team, which went 1-9 last season, has already improved. Players have been working in the weight room since the week after the season ended; Willard has also replaced his entire coaching staff.

"The kids have bought into the philosophy of what we're doing," Willard said. "We've got a lot better coaching, they're a lot better athletes than what they were last year, and we're seeing huge strides."

The Panthers went 1-15 in passing tournaments last season and are 8-6 this season. Willard believes the air game will be essential this season because times have changed at Amphi.

"We don't have the big kids that can just pound away," Willard said. "We've got a lot of smaller kids, so we have to take advantage of what their strengths are."

When the fall rolls around, Willard is hoping his team will be at its best and be one of the most fun to watch. He said they will have more of an emphasis on passing but also won't forget about running the ball.

"The style of offense we're running is exciting," Willard said. "Nobody wants to see a 7-3 football game; they want to see the scoreboard lit up, and that's something that is going to happen."