Did you watch the NBA draft lottery the other night? If you didn’t, here’s the one word you need to know: Zion. Zion, Zion, Zion, Zion. ESPN was obsessed with Zion. They lavished him with praise during his on-set interview, then lavished him some more while he sat in the audience, a camera right in his face. Honestly, it was a little bit embarrassing and awkward; ESPN was building him into something he can never possibly live up to, and we were watching it happen right before our eyes.
But then again, have you seen Zion’s game? It’s hard to watch him play and not think he’s the next big thing in professional basketball.
Anyway, my goal here is to not to do the same with Jason Mohns. The head coach at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., is not Zion Williamson for a bunch of different reasons, starting with the fact that Zion has a much higher vertical. But it’s hard to listen to him speak, as I did at the Tony Franklin OC Magic clinic on Saturday, and not come away thinking he’s the next high school coach to make the jump to major college football.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Texas offensive line coach Herb Hand, speaking after Mohns on Saturday, paused his own talk to heap praise on Mohns, sitting in the front row. “I’m so fired up for you, dude,” he said. “One day I hope I work for you. You’ve got it figured out, dude. If you’re going to overhaul your whole system, go do what he does. No wonder he scores 50 points a game.” Franklin praised Mohns with words I can’t print, because this is a family website.
Before we delve any further, it’s time to stop and explain who Mohns is. A 2004 Arizona State graduate, Mohns got into coaching leading a fifth grade girls’ basketball team. Quickly proving too competitive for fifth grade girls’ basketball, Mohns moved to football, serving as wide receivers coach at Scottsdale’s Salt River High School. He joined the Saguaro staff as the freshman team’s coach in 2007. He was promoted to the varsity in 2010, to offensive coordinator in 2011 and to head coach in 2012 — where he has yet to lose a game.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but only slightly. In seven seasons leading the Sabercats, Mohns is 86-10 with six state championships. His 2018 team went 13-1 and won consecutive games by scores of 42-7, 69-0, 49-0, 49-0, 69-6 and, in the state semifinals, 61-6.
(A quick note about high school football in Arizona: As an open enrollment state, the coaches there don’t have to wink-wink about how the best players just happen to find them year after year. Since enrollment isn’t dictated by geography, students can choose which high school they’d like to attend, turning recruiting into an above-board aspect of Arizona high school football. “When a seventh grader visits, it’s like college football,” Mohns said.)
So, what is it about him that makes this guy so special?
Well, he doesn’t do anything that most everyone else doesn’t do, running a 1-back spread offense… he’s just mastered the art of streamlining his offensive philosophy for his players while at the same time making it look as complex as possible for the defense.
“I always want to present the threat of an extra gap, and I always want to present the threat of four verticals,” Mohns said. “I always want you to think about having to play two high safeties. I want the defensive coordinator thinking, ‘As soon as I bring another guy down, this guy’s going four verticals.’”
Mohns’ philosophy is based on taking the ball to the spots on the field the defense is not defending. If he likes the numbers in the box, he’ll run the ball every single snap. If the secondary concedes a hitch or a quick out, he’s happy to dink and dunk his way down the field. In 2018, Saguaro gained 52.5 percent of its 6,136 total yards on the ground, while at the same time hitting 67 percent of its throws for 2,913 yards. (That 67 percent figure is the only time Saguaro has been under 70 percent completions since 2013.)
“I will run the same thing until they can stop it. It’s not about showcasing all the stuff I can do,” he said. “To me, that’s making it about you.”
But where Mohns’ offense jumps to the next level is how it’s taught — each bread and butter play has a series of complimentary plays, and the basis for those compliments is laid from Day 1, like foreshadowing in a good novel. One aspect of Mohns’ presentation that most impressed coaches was his plan for spring practices. Mohns has his team on the field for two hours, Monday through Thursday, for three consecutive weeks. Each day is devoted to a series of core concepts, and then as the weeks progress the schedule is repeated with a new concept or wrinkle added.
“Get really good at what you want to be good at, and teach it really well,” Mohns said. “You can do 1,000 things but you don’t know how to teach them, when you play somebody really good you’re going to be stuffed.”
When game-planning, Mohns examines how his opponent lines up against each of his personnel groupings and alignments, with a special eye toward the defensive coordinator’s tendencies. For instance, Mohns noticed on film that one opposing defensive coordinator always checked out of a blitz call when a player went in motion — so he sent a player in motion each time he expected a blitz. “Defensive coordinators out there, don’t do this,” he said. “The toughest defenses to game plan against are the ones that don’t let the offense dictate what they’re going to run.”
Mohns took us through his play sheet on game day, which is split into two pages. The first consists of all the run and pass plays he carried into the game for the specific opponent, practiced throughout the week, in addition to shot plays, tricks and the 2-point conversion chart everyone uses. The second page carries his favorite runs and passes, a third down script broken up by yardage, a red zone script, his opening script, the 2-point plays he likes and a “Dude” script — plays designed to funnel the ball to a specific player.
The two-and-a-half hour presentation closed by taking the group through the first two series of Saguaro’s 2018 Class 4A state championship game, against Tucson’s Salpointe Catholic. “They were a really good team,” Mohns said. “We were fortunate to win this game.” When I heard him say that, I looked up Saguaro’s schedule. They won 42-16.
Arizona will move to an open playoff system, where the top eight teams from Class 4A, 5A and 6A will all compete in one bracket (Saguaro is 4A) for the honor of calling themselves the undisputed state champion. Mohns said Saguaro will be fortunate to see its title streak continue into 2019, but I’ll take it a step further: Saguaro will be fortunate if Mohns is still coaching there in 2020.