How to Win the Turnover Battle in Youth Football
This post is going to deal with winning the turnover battle in youth football. As promised I’m going to try and help coaches who inherit athletically challenged and small youth football teams by sharing my story from coaching my 3-4 grade team in 2013. Hopefully you can use some of the ideas to apply to coaching your youth football team, should you end up in the same situation. This will be told over several posts. This is Post 8. We went 12-0 in a 32 team age bracket with a very small and unathletic team.
We knew in order for this team to be competitive we were going to have to win the turnover battle and win it big. We weren’t going to try to win it 2-1, we were going to try and win it 4-0, that was the goal. Drastic times call for drastic measures.The changes we made included changed in technique, practice priorities, drills and overall attitude about protecting the ball and taking the ball away. The first day of practice we discussed the importance of protecting and taking the ball away.
We made the ball live at all times, that means that if any player drops the ball at any time in practice (not counting pass drops), that player pays a penalty. For us that meant a 20 yard sprint to a cone and back. When players are lackadaisical about fumbles in practice, they get conditioned to not value the football. Every offensive practice period included ball protection drills. The offensive individual drills portion of our practices vary from 45-70 minutes, depending on the time of the year. Regardless, 10-20 minutes of that individual position time is spent on ball protection drills. In the other drills during that indy segment, about half of them included a ball protection progression added to the drill at the end. We also made sure to teach ball switching and safe transfers. All of our Running Back drills are included in our “Building Better Running Backs” e-book and drill cheat cards: Running Back ebook and Drill Cheat Cards
So even in the 15th week of practice, in the week of our Super Bowl game and game 12, we are doing 10-20 minutes of ball protection drills during Indys. When we were doing our fit and freeze offensive team reps, we made sure our coaches were aggressively slapping at the ball on every single rep. When we did our short 10 minute “compete” team scrimmages or 13/14 vs 11 scrimmages, our defenders were all ball hawking.
The great thing about doing ball protection drills is our kids who are trying to strip the ball are learning great ball striping skills. We first taught our kids to gang tackle with the second and third player in is going for the ball. The second whistle drill is great for teaching that, so is the 3 on 1 dummy tackle drill. Striping is great, but it is only part of the solution. Don’t neglect teaching your kids how to recover by using our 3 man Fumble Contest drill.
What may have been the most successful in helping our players learn how to strip was during team defensive recognition. This is where the defensive team aligns to the verbal command of the offense they are facing. With cones set at the Center, Guard and Tackle positions, the rest of the positions are imaginary. You state “Double Tight, Wing Right”, so the kids know they have to align to a Double Tight End set, Wing to their right set. A coach is at QB and you have 2 coaches at Running Back. The plays are written down on 3×5 cards. The defense aligns properly to the formation that is verbalized, the defensive players mimic their base technique and spot up to where they are supposed to be. For us, that means our Defensive Tackles get to the imaginary heels of the Offensive Linemen and then make a move towards the ball. The coaches at Running Back halt when a defender fits on a good tackle. Then the rest of the defenders swarm the coach and go for the ball. The whistle isn’t blown until the ball is wrestled or punched out of the coaches hands and the ball has been recovered.
Another very important part of the solution was special teams. We onside kick every time until we are up by 3 touchdowns. The data is overwhelming as to why this makes sense in youth football. When you go to the Pop Warner or AYF National Championships, 95% of the teams onside kick every time. We knew that to compete against the better teams, we had to recover our onside kicks and protect the ball when we received. Early on we really struggled, we didn’t get a single onside kick back in the first 4 games. In game 5 on a game on field turf, we finally got one. Then we changed our kicker and changed how we practiced recovering onside kicks by going live for 10 minutes every Thursday. In our last 4 games we recovered 6 onside kicks. On the receiving end we only gave the ball up 1 time over the entire season.
.From a playcalling standpoint we helped ourselves quite a bit by not being in a lot of third and longs. But when faced with third and long with teams sitting on the pass, we would run the ball. We would often times use the “Paul” call which sent receivers out, on a called run play. The “Paul” is a great call on plays like Burst 26G, Spinner 32 Wedge, 18 Sweep Omaha or even 16 Power. While this team only threw for 6 touchdown passes, compared to 16 last season, we only threw 2 interceptions. We threw on obvious running downs and ran on obvious passing downs. More on developing a passing threat out of nothing on the next post.
We told our kids going into every game that our first half goal was no turnovers and to get at least 2. We would review how we did at halftime and talk about our goals for the second half, again no turnovers and take away 2. The results? Our defense and special teams got about 42 turnovers in 12 games. Our first team offense gave up 2 interceptions and 5 fumbles for the season, that includes one lost onside kick. So we were about +35 in turnovers for the year. In that championship game we got 3 turnovers and lost 1. By focusing our kids and practice time on protecting and hawking the ball, it paid huge dividends.
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