This post is going to talk about how to develop a pass threat in youth football when you don’t have the players to do so. 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 (8-9 year olds) 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 9 in that series. We went 12-0 in a 32 team age bracket with a very small and unathletic team.
So you are stuck with a team that is unathletic and small and you don’t really have any type of pass threat, but you want to develop one or at least pretend to. I totally get you, been there done that and did it this season to the nth degree. This year the team I coached had a starting QB who our QB coach rated a 1 at our QB camp on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the lowest. Our QB would be in essence in the bottom 10% of the QBs in our league in that age group. On the other end of the equation our pass catchers weren’t any better. When we did our Hawaiian Rules Football game evaluation, on most sequences the teams were 0-4 on catching even the shortest passes and even short laterals. Without question this was the most “passing challenged” teams I’ve ever coached. The FIRST time we ran 18 pass in practice on air, we went 1-16, yes ONE FOR SIXTEEN. Sound familiar?
So what do you do? When you are coaching a very weak team you can’t just run the ball every down and let teams totally ignore the pass and pack 9 players in the box. But at the same time you HAVE to maximize your ROPTI, return on practice time investment. If you choose to invest a lot of time in something that is going to give you little to no immediate return, the opportunity cost of that lost time is HUGE. For a small and weak team, that would be suicide. You would lose early and often and lose any chance at your team getting its feet underneath them.
For us that meant we were going to invest the bulk of our early practice time on running game fundamentals in both individual and team. With the first game just 3 weeks after the first day of practice, like most of you we had limited time to get the team ready for that first game. On offense that meant our offensive linemen were perfecting our first 2 steps, proper fits, head placement, pad level and then power, wedge, trap, counter and sweep. The backs were doing the same, perfecting ball security, then seating the ball, acceleration into the point of attack, blocking and power, wedge, trap, counter and sweep.
For those of you coaching youth football, you know that time is very precious. When you have to get the defense and special teams ready as well as coach everyone up and get everyone into games, you simply run out of time. So what about the passing game? Is it totally ignored if you see your baseline starting point is near zero? Well it can be if all you are looking at doing is surviving or if you have a totally dominant team that is much bigger and much more athletic than everyone you play.
That wasn’t the case for us. This year our play our age bracket had 32 teams in it. If we didn’t have a pass threat, then when we played teams who were much better than us, we would get blown out. The approach we took was both development and deception. In individual drills we chose NOT to invest time in our passing and receiving fundamentals beyond the initial evaluation games and drills. We gradually started investing time as we could AFFORD to as the season progressed. After game 1 we invested maybe 10 minutes during Indys (offensive individual day drills) and 10 minutes in team. By midseason it was 30 minutes in indys and 10 minutes in team. By the end of the season it was about 35 minutes in Indys and 15 minutes in team.
What to do in the meantime? Well when we went 1-16 on those first team reps on air, it was obvious we weren’t going to as effective as the year before in the passing game. Our baseline starting point was the worst I’ve had in over 20 years of coaching. I’m not one of those guys who is against passing at the youth level, I’m a big fan of it when it makes sense. In contrast the 3-4 grade team I coached in 2012 threw for 16 touchdown passes and averaged 41 points per game and that in a league where you can’t throw once you are up by 21 points. We were up by 21 in every game but 1 that year. This year our goal was to LOOK like we had a legitimate passing threat. But how do you do that when you don’t have the threat?
Remember you don’t have to be great at passing in youth football to make teams defend the pass. What you have to do is appear like you COULD make someone pay for ignoring a pass threat. That could mean all you have to do is LOOK like you COULD complete 20% of your long balls.
What we did was have our QB warm up with another QB and coach prior to the game. He of course started with short throws then went to longer stationary throws. This was done on the main field in full view of the opposition. We didn’t have our receivers run patterns or “catch” the ball because if we did, it would have been very obvious we didn’t have anyone who could catch the ball. When we did our team pregame warmups we did them behind a building away from the other team and our team didn’t come out to the game field until the coin flip.
Another smoke and mirrors strategy that works well has to do with your playcalling. Say it’s second and 1 and you are on the hash to your sidelines. In that scenario, why not throw a deep pass to the boundary? For us that is the 18 pass. The QB was instructed to throw the ball as far as he could and out of bounds. We max protected and the receiver was told to run his pattern right to the sidelines. So a play is wasted, but now you still have 2 downs to get 1 yard. We actually practiced this “throw away” play and game planned for it. Now the defense has to think, well they aren’t very good at the pass, but they MIGHT throw it, so I better not cheat a whole bunch. We used this approach quite a bit those first 6 games.
As the season progressed our Quarterback did develop, thanks to our use of the Darin Slack Quarterbacking DVDs and clinic. By seasons end he was probably a 7 or 8, our second teamer was only a 2. The DVDs are excellent for step by step developing perfect passing fundamentals at the youth level. Unfortunately our Receivers didn’t develop at the same pace, by season end our 2 best Receivers were a 6 and 4. In contrast in 2012 we had 3 Quarterbacks that were probably a 5,5 and 7, while our 2 best receivers were a 9 and 6. We also had a few blowout games in there where we made sure to take just a 20 point lead instead of 21 to stay under the mercy rule restriction and threw the ball a bunch once the game was under control.
Unfortunately this year our Receivers DIDN’T develop as well as our Quarterback. At seasons end we had just 6 touchdown passes. But that didn’t stop us from throwing, we made teams defend the pass because we showed a threat to make a big play. Most of the pass plays were deep throws off of play action and we dropped at least 6-7 sure touchdowns. But that’s ok too, that forced defenses to respect the pass and our constraint plays. But on the positive side of the equation, against some of the better teams we were able to complete a few key passes at the right time early in the game to make them sit back.
The net is every youth football coaching equation is different. No matter how great a coach you are, some years you are going to be able to throw better than others. That is especially true at the younger age levels. In order to compete for league titles you will need to develop the appearance of a reasonable pass threat. When you coach that small and athletically challenged team you are going to incrementally develop those skills and may need to resort to some smoke and mirrors to give the appearance that the passing threat exists. Hopefully this post will help you if find yourself in that unenviable spot.
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