What do you do when you are saddled with low numbers in youth football?
There may be an odd set of circumstances that lead you to have a team with very low numbers. If this is you this season, what changes do you make in order for your team to be more competitive?
Some youth football coaches panic when they end up with a team of say 14-16 players. Coaches often times resign themselves to having “throw away” seasons, especially when they are playing in leagues where they face teams with 25-45 players every week. If you ever find yourself in this unattractive position, don’t panic, there are a number of things you can do to improve your teams chances. Your changes must include modifications on scheme, strategy and practice plans.
The simplest changes will be in scheme. Your best players will have to go both ways for nearly the entire game; you have to find places where you can give them a breather without a significant negative impact on your team. Your offense and defense MUST be weak player friendly. When you look at both your offense and defense, you have to ask yourself, where can my weakest player play, while adding legitimate team value on every play? Don’t say safety on defense, well coached teams will take advantage of you every time you play your weakest player there, you will in essence be playing 10 versus 11 football. We would NEVER dream of running the 4-4 Viper Defense we use with our Select teams with a squad size of 15 players, there just isn’t a position in that scheme for a weaker player. You have to think about your offense in the same way.
If you like to run the option or a spread passing scheme where the Quarterback play is extremely important, you may want to rethink that. What happens on a squad of 15 when the star Quarterback goes down or is sick? Is his backup equally as sharp or does that mean your offense can just count on giving up 5 turnovers that week?
Your blocking scheme will have to be simple, because your offensive linemen will have to be interchangeable. You will have injuries and boo boos, just like any other season, which means your scheme better be simple enough that the kids can sub in and out very easily for each other without regard for if they usually play Right Tackle or Left Tackle. That’s one of the reasons I love our blocking schemes.
When you have smaller squads, even if you are very well conditioned, you must strategize to conserve the energy of your players. If you are a team that likes to use a lot of long fast motion like jet or orbit/rocket motion, you may want to rethink that. Motioning your better players 20 yards at full speed can exhaust even the most well conditioned player, especially if he has to play defense as well, which he will if you only have 15 players. The same is true of lots of long pass patterns or even pulling. If you are pulling 2 players nearly every play that means all 4 of your offensive linemen are pulling nearly half the time. Those same kids are most likely also playing Defensive Tackle, making those bigger kids are at risk of running out of gas pretty early.
On special teams you may consider limiting the effort required of your kids by using a variety of strategies. If you like to kickoff deep, your very best players are going to be running 30-40 yards or even more in space, trying to tackle the other teams very best athlete. If you don’t have your best players on the field on kickoffs and kick deep, expect plenty of returns for scores. On the other hand, you can onside kick every time and give some of your better two way players a breather. You will have a chance at getting the ball back and you keep the ball out of the hands of other teams best player while limiting your kids running to 10-15 yards instead of 40 plus yards. Think about using a similar strategy on punts, kick out of bounds instead of kicking it deep and save your best players from having to run deep to tackle the other teams best player in space.
Clock management is key when coaching youth football with low numbers. You may want to explore using every second of the clock to keep the number of plays down very low and allow your kids more time to rest. Consider throwing the football less, keeping the ball inbounds and using up every second of the clock up between snaps. We have even gone to not having our center snap the ball until there are 5 seconds left on the ready to play clock.
Cross training and conditioning are going to be key factors and could be the difference between surviving and having a nightmare season. Conditioning becomes crucial when coaching a team with low numbers. But when you’re struggling with having enough time to cross train players, you should try to combine the two activities. Run your plays out 20 yards on offense is a simple starting point. On defense do lots of “second whistle” drills. When running scout offense or defensive recognition drills with coaches as your running backs, once the play has ended with a tackle fit by one of your defenders on a running back coach, use a second whistle. Every defensive player must run up and touch the “tackled” coach within 3 seconds of him being tackled; a second whistle is blown at the 3 second mark. If any of the 11 defenders has not touched the coach, everyone does a short run to a cone set 20 yards away.
Low numbers are not always a negative, but you can’t sit back and do the very same things you did when you had 25-30 kids on your team and expect the same results. In 2006 one of my teams only had 17 players. We were forced to coach every player up even more than we normally do. All of our players got more intensive coaching and all of our players learned multiple positions on both sides of the ball. We only lost 1 game that year and it was one of the most rewarding seasons in the 20 plus years I’ve been coaching youth football.
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