Clock Management in Youth Football
Many youth football coaches fail to understand the importance of managing the clock in youth football. When you have average or weak teams, you have to use every little advantage you can squeeze out. That was the case with my 7th-8th grade team this year, we were by far the smallest Midget team in our 90 team league, by a considerable amount. We were in fact the smallest Midget team I have seen in my 20 years of youth football. In an unlimited weight league, we had just one lineman over 138 pounds. Several of my starting linemen were under 120 pounds and I had just 1 back over 120 pounds. We often played teams with plenty of 200 plus pound linemen. We ended up 9-1 and at least 2 of the games we won, clock management played a huge role.
When you are undersized or out-athleted, clock management often plays a key role in your youth football teams success or failure. When you run a no-huddle system like us, it allows you to dictate the pace of the game. While we had confidence we could move the ball on anyone with great execution, it is much harder to hide lack of size or athleticism on defense. While our defense surprisingly played very well this season, ranking in the top 15% of our league, we wanted to do everything we could to keep them off the field. Since we only had 21 players on this squad, we started several of our better players both ways and even on special teams. In order to give those kids a chance to play 4 quarters and to keep the other teams offense off the field, in many of the early games we were in max slowdown on offense from the opening gun. I would not call the play in until there were 10 ticks left on the 25 second clock, we would often snap the ball with just 1-2 seconds left on the clock. We also had several very good on-side kick plays, that gave us additional possessions and kept the other teams offense off the field. While we only punted one time all season, we also had 2 very good fake punt plays, which we used twice, both for first downs deep in our own territory. Again, this allowed us to keep the other teams offense off the field.
In Nebraska the wind can blow pretty strong on some days and during 2 games we faced at least 25-30 mph winds. During those games we made sure we had the wind in the 4th quarter and we went max slowdown when we were going into the wind. In one pivotal game, we used up the entire 12 minute quarter with a max slowdown drive, onside kick and max slowdown drive. The kids did a great job of staying in bounds, getting up slowly and being patient waiting for the play call at the line of scrimmage. When we had the wind we changed the pace to max speed. The other team not only got frustrated, they panicked a bit as well. During both windy games we went max slowdown into the wind and max speed when we had the wind. Both games were real tight and without question the tempo we dictated was a huge factor in the final outcome. In several other games we were hit very hard by the flu bug, in one game we were missing 4 kids, 3 were starters. We had no choice but go max slowdown since we were down to bare bones talent and numbers wise. Sometimes that is the only thing you can do, try and hang in there for as long as you can by milking as much time off the clock as you can to keep all your 2-way players on the field.
So many youth coaches do not know how to milk the clock. Once a play has been run the referees will usually take about 20 seconds to spot the ball, once they whistle the play in, you have 25 seconds to get a play off. Most referees will start their hand counting when there are 5 seconds left. So if a timeout is not called, the ball doesn’t go out of bounds or goes incomplete, most running plays should take from 40-45 seconds off the clock. The referee is under no compulsion to speed up the spot just because time is running out, in fact they are discouraged from doing so.
Tempo had to be practiced like anything else. Practicing max speed tempo not only helps you prepare for the final 2 minutes of the half or the game, it also helps you keep a team on the run. During some games it may seem like your team is “clicking” on all cylinders or has some momentum. When I see that I often kick up the pace to max speed, you can often put the other team on its heals and get them to panic early if you kick up the pace. When we go max speed, the kids are hustling to the line and I’m calling the play before the 25 second clock is even whistled in. We try and snap the ball within 5 seconds of when the ball is whistled in.
When you are coaching a squad in youth football that isn’t the biggest or the best, be prepared to be a great clock manager. It will often be the difference in close games. The last thing you want to do is get out coached in this area and giving your parents ammo to nip at your heels with.