The archival narrative of Granada Hills Charter High School football lists five players who reached the NFL — Jamal Brooks, Blanchard Montgomery, Greg Marderian, Jim Schmedding, and of course Hall of Famer John Elway (for whom the school’s stadium is named after) — and two stirring City Section championships.
The first was in 1970, when Granada Hills beat San Fernando High after being routed by the Tigers earlier in the regular season. The other was in 1987, when the Highlanders upset Carson High, whose teams — along with Banning High of Wilmington — dominated the highest level of City football from the mid-1970s into the 1980s.
But, much of Granada Hills’ gridiron glory feels stuck in, well, the past since the ascendancy of the Birmingham and El Camino Real charter schools as being the preeminent football programs in the West Valley League. Since 2004, the Highlanders have recorded one outright winning season, going 7-6 in 2011. They are desperate to restore the narrative without garnering the derisive side eye.
That might be plausible this season. Birmingham (the section’s 2019 Open Division champion) and Granada Hills are the only league teams going into the 2021 season with the same head coaches they had before the pandemic. By default, Granada Hills begins the season as arguably the second best team in the West Valley, and a contender in either the Open or Division I playoffs.
“It’s crazy, the amount of turnover [at Chatsworth, Cleveland, El Camino Real and Taft],” Highlanders Coach Bucky Brooks said. “People have told me the key to having a good team in the City is to be able [as a coach] to hang around, because too many teams are always restarting their programs. If you establish a program, you have a chance, just on that part of it. But the turnover….yeah, it’s crazy.”
Granted, Brooks is only in his second full season as the Highlanders head coach. But Granada Hills went 5-5 in 2019 while learning Brooks’ preferred style of play. Now the players feel they won’t have to think about what they’re doing and expect to play the game more freely.
That preferred style, by the way, is running the football via the double wing-T.
The following public service announcement is both a quick refresher for pigskin fanatics who love quirky, explosive offenses, and cliff notes for those primarily weaned on zone-blocking schemes and shotgun passing formations.
The double wing-T offense, which first emerged in the 1970s, is basically a running offense that tries to get the defense guessing who has the ball while hoping to outnumber the defense at the actual point of attack. Typically there are not a vast number plays the offense runs; but if it can execute those plays well, all from the same-looking starting formation, the defense still has a hard time stopping it even when it knows what’s coming.
If it is working, the double wing-T can control the ball and the clock by methodically gaining yardage in steady chunks rather than one big play. But it can score on one big play if the defense totally misreads who the true ballcarrier really is, and cannot recover in time.
For Highlanders lineman Myles White, the beauty of the double wing-T is in its deceptive simplicity.
“It was easy to get used to our offense because it’s repetitive,” said White, 17, a senior. “People can try to have the most complex and convoluted plays to throw [opponents] off, but sometimes you can overthink things. For a lineman to hear, ‘this is your block every single play,’ and you master that one block or that one pull, you’re gonna be successful because you’re not thinking about 50 [other] things.”
If you’re a quarterback who wants to throw downfield 40 times a game, this offense is not for you, said Michael Hernandez, the Highlanders signal-caller. Because even quarterbacks block in the double wing-T.
“Everyone has a purpose on this team,” said Hernandez, 17, a senior. “My purpose is to lead the way for the running backs. It may not seem like much, but it’s pretty fun knowing you have a big role in the offense. Although we don’t throw as much, you still get the feeling you’re a quarterback in this offense.”
Hernandez added his transition to this style of football was relatively smooth.
“At first I was a bit uncertain. But, [during my sophomore year] I realized this style could work,” he said. “Even when other teams know you primarily run the ball, they can’t always figure a way to stop it.”
It helps to have a tireless lead running back with the speed to score from anywhere on the field, thus forcing defenses to focus on him on every play. The Highlanders believe they have such a talent in sophomore Dijon Stanley, who amassed more than 1,000 yards rushing in the abbreviated four-game schedule Granada Hills played this past spring because of the pandemic.
“He opened everybody’s eyes,” Brooks said of Stanley. “He doesn’t do it alone; the team does a good job of helping him accelerate his game. But he’s a high-end, high-level athlete. He’s already receiving attention from D-I colleges. And he’s also done a great job of celebrating the team and the program. He buys in. He and a bunch of the kids are all doing the right things.”
Stanley— who played for a youth football team Brooks coached known as the San Fernando Valley Rush — said he was confident he is in a system that could best showcase his skills.
“The school I [transferred] from (Grace Brethren in Simi Valley) was also a run-heavy school,” Stanley said. “So this was nothing new; I wasn’t surprised because I knew I could do this, and I wanted to prove I could do this.”
He added the team’s confidence level as a whole is running high.
“We want to go to a championship game. I believe we can do it; we believe we can do it. Everyone is having fun, and everyone is looking good,” Stanley said
Stanley, Hernandez, White, and their teammates, believe 2021 can be the start of a genuine turnaround and not just a temporary fix. So does the coach. After playing five professional seasons in the NFL, Brooks — who has also been a regional college scout for Seattle and Carolina, written for Sports Illustrated, and currently works as an analyst for the NFL Network — has the kind of multi-level resume that could attract top-level talent to Granada Hills, and continue to develop them for the college game and beyond.
“We want to be in the conversation of being one of the best programs in the City,” Brooks said. “When we step on the field, we want to feel we have a chance to compete against anybody and everybody. For us, it’s being able to be competitive against the best teams in the City.”
He’s also bringing a different perspective to the top job.
“As a first-time head coach, a lot of times you come in thinking it’s about the ‘Xs’ and ‘Os’, and it has nothing to do with that,” Brooks said. “Being the head coach is being a connector, being a problem-solver; being able to get all the parties moving in the same — and the right — direction.
“We’ll work hard and play hard, and play tough. And at the end of 48 minutes, we’ll see what the scoreboard says. We can control that part of it.”