Empowering Coaches Step-By-Step

Defense in Youth Football- Designing an Effective Youth Football Defense


The makings of a great youth football defense. How does it happen?

When designing a defense in youth football you have to first figure out what plays you are going to defend. I’ve done coaches clinics all over the country and I’ve yet to come across a group yet that didn’t think that the sweep was the play they HAD to stop first in order to be successful in youth football. Most also agreed that the Dive, Reverse,Off-tackle Power and Drop Back Pass were the #2,#3,#4 and #5 threats.Many youth coaches felt the sweep was so important to stop that they often listed the Sweep as #1, #2, and #3 in order of importance. I may have to agree with that to an extent.

The second step in determining your defensive scheme is to make sure you have a mission statement for your team. Your defensive scheme has to align with your mission. Our mission statement is: To develop a love and appreciation of the game in our players so they can benefit from the life lessons the game teaches. We want to play competitive football, where the average individual and the team can have success while playing everyone in all games regardless of circumstances.

Obviously if you are like us and are going to play everyone ( not all the same amount) or have minimum play rules, you have to ask yourself; “Where can my weakest players play where they can have personal success and add team value on each and every snap?”.You have to ask yourself, what schemes and techniques out there not only help us stop the plays we have to defend but also accommodate my goal of playing even weaker players on defense?

The 4-4

When we were designing the defense we use now we started with the base 4-4 that we got from Jay Smith who before coaching with us had coached at Canyon Springs California High School. They won two USA Today National Championships during Jay’s tenure there. While this defense worked very well for our “select” teams, it didn’t work well at all for our non-select teams. We found this defense required 2 pretty good down linemen, 2 rush ends that had to be fairly athletic, 4 reasonably athletic and aggressive linebackers and 3 descent defensive backs . While our “select” teams didn’t always have the perfect mix of players for this defense they were able to make it work well. Our “select” teams were the best players chosen from a group of 100-150 players, those not chosen were put on “B” teams and played other “B” teams of similar size and abilities. As you might imagine those “A” teams were made up of a much different grouping of kids than our “B” squads.

Need for a Change

While this league had no minimum play rules, I mandated an 8 play minimum play rule for all of my teams in the league and a 16 play minimum play rule for my own personal team, to show my other coaches, that 8 plays were easy to get in. With about 25 players  per team we had to really hustle to get everyone their plays. We found we did not have the athleticism on these non-select teams to run the 4-4 effectively and get everyone in the game like we wanted to. Our weaker players were just whiffing while  playing in all that space and we didn’t have 2 stud defensive linemen to anchor the middle, all the studs were on the “A” team. We were getting beat on sweeps because our 2 best linebackers had to play the middle and with the next 2 best players playing outside linebacker, they couldn’t cut off the sweep from their positions.

Designing Something that Works

We had to design a defense that would allow these less talented kids the chance to play and compete by stopping the plays most of our opponents were trying to establish, the sweep, dive, reverse/counter, off-tackle and drop back pass (lesser extent). We also had to factor in the passing completion percentages for youth football teams in our area. For age 8-10 it was about 20%, for 11-12 it was about 25% and for 13-14 it was about 30%. So we came up with a defense that concentrated on stopping the run with a heavy emphasis on stopping the sweep, stopping the home run play (reverse), clogging the inside and allowing even our weakest kids to get on the field. While our new homegrown defense didn’t look like anything we had seen before, it used some of the concepts of our old 4-4 for stunts and blitzes but incorporated a whole new group of techniques we found average kids could execute.

Colleges Using This Defense

Over time I discovered that this defense (minus a number of youth techniques and adjustments we have in place) was used back in the 60’s when College teams had to worry about defending the run more than they do today with all the spread passing that is so popular, imagine that. The problem is that many youth teams run the popular college defenses like the 4-3, 4-4, 3-5-3 etc which are designed to stop the college offenses of today, not the run based offenses of the 60’s or the youth offenses with their 20% pass completion rates. Our defense most closely resembles a youth version of the Wide Tackle 6 that Jerry Claiborne’s teams used at  Virginia Tech and Maryland in the 60’s and  ’70’s . When the college game moved to more passing, this defense was abandoned as they did not feel they had the coverages in it to effectively stop the better passing teams. It was very successful back in those days and widely used after Claiborne made it popular at Maryland and Virginia Tech.

Just 18-19 TD’s Given up in Last 8 Seasons Total

This defense has served us well, helping us to a 78-5 record over the last 8 seasons. Our first team defense has had just 18-19 total touchdowns scored against us in that time period. The first team has had just 1 sweep play and 1 reverse play of over 10 yards run against it in that same time period. For those that have the 2006 or 2007 season DVDs, they can attest to that. More importantly this defense has allowed us to play and even start some of our weakest players on defense. Many coaches I know play their best 11 on defense and then put their weaker kids on offense. This not only hamstrungs the offense, but deprives the kids of getting the experience of playing both sides of the ball.Think about the plays you need to stop and how you are going to get everyone in the game before you choose a defensive scheme for your youth football team. While many will tell you to “coach what you know”, if you know a defense that is designed to defend High School or College offenses, that defense may not be the best choices to defend what you will see from youth offenses. And remember the College and High School teams aren’t required to play all their kids, it is an entirely different equation than those of us coaching youth football have to deal with.

Copyright 2008 Cisar Management, Republishing allowed if Links are kept intact.

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