It was not long ago that Matt Milano's offseason conditioning would have been spent in the weight room.

Now, the Rams' starting quarterback - and football players across the country - are busy on nearly a year-round basis, taking part in 7-on-7 tournaments.

"We have one almost every weekend," Milano said. "It works well for getting the timing down with your receivers and running your offense against good competition."

While athletes in other sports have long had avenues to hone their skills, football was a little late to the game until the recent proliferation of 7-on-7, passing contests played without any offensive or defensive linemen, which best resemble the kind of pickup games that were once played in backyards and vacant fields.

"It's fun to watch kids playing football, that's the positive part," said Greenwich coach Rich Albonizio, who admitted he has some reservations about the format. "Kids are playing AAU basketball, lacrosse and baseball. This is good for football to promote our sport."

With the passing game and spread offenses becoming more integral than ever before, 7-on-7 has proved a vital training tool.

"It definitely helps out a lot," said senior-to-be Casey Cochran, the Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year and quarterback who helped lead Masuk to a state title last season. "You get to work with your receivers and play against other teams and their defenses."

Still, because of the absence of linemen, some coaches said they have mixed feelings about players developing bad habits.

"It is fake football," Albonizio said. "A running game, tackling, blitzing, that's real football."

Teams now seem to be playing 7-on-7 almost as soon as their seasons end and continue deep into the summer, breaking only for spring football.

Rob Trifone, the coach at Darien who helps oversee the football program at Norwalk's SoNo Field House, said seven or eight teams played 7-on-7 on Sundays for 21 weeks, starting in the winter. Schools that have the financial means will also travel out of state to take part in tournaments.

Masuk coach John Murphy said his team plays twice a week throughout the winter and continues during the summer.

"The way the game has evolved, everyone is throwing the ball now and that is a vital part of your success," Murphy said. "The reps you get all summer are invaluable."

State guidelines have no rules governing how often teams can play. Coaches can be involved as long as they do not have more than six players who were on their eligibility list the previous year, and still have eligibility remaining. Incoming freshmen and seniors from the previous season are exempt.

There is no limit to how many players can be involved depending on roster size; five coaches on a staff can coach five teams of six different players from their school, as long as they are separate teams and do not all practice together. Coaches work under the honor system and police each other when it comes to the various rules.

"My philosophy is the more we do, the better we get," Stamford coach Bryan Hocter said. "The kids understand what to do offensively and defensively."

While much of the focus is on developing passing attacks, little is mentioned about how 7-on-7 football helps teams improve on defending the air game.

"Being able to stop the spread offense is equally important," said Brookfield coach Rich Angarano, who brings back QB Boeing Brown, one of the state's top passers, for 2011. "That's something you also have to get better at."

One of the bigger events in the area, the Fairfield County Grip It & Rip It Passing Tournament, was hosted by New Canaan High School on July 19.

Twenty-one teams from the state and Westchester County participated, with Masuk defeating Cheshire for the title.

Games were played on 40-yard fields, with a 25-minute running clock.

"We play every Monday night in a league with seven other teams," Angarano said. "This is an excellent camp."

Angarano said his only concern with 7-on-7 football is that it can lead players to developing bad habits.

"From my perspective, I don't like that the quarterbacks are not getting a rush," he said. "There's no feeling for what you get in a real game, which is pressure."

Cochran agreed, but said the transition once high school practices begin is seamless.

"Having a pass rush is a different element that you never see at these," Cochran said. "But after playing for four years it's not too hard to adjust."

The benefits can be seen once the real games begin. In last December's CIAC Class L final, in which Masuk defeated New Canaan, 50-20, Cochran was 22 of 32 for 309 yards and three touchdowns, while Milano completed 30 of 48 passes for 362 yards and three scores.

Until someone devises an offseason program that can benefit entire teams without a risk for injury, 7-on-7 football is only going to continue to grow in popularity.

"It might not be real football, but it's still football and the kids are having a good time," Albonizio said. "What else would they be doing?"

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