Empowering Coaches Step-By-Step

Coaching Youth Football- Special Teams Install Before Game One

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This is the continuing story of my “Worst to First” youth football coaching experience in Reno, Nevada this year. I took an 8th grade team that had won about 6 games in the last 6 years to the Semi-Finals in the largest and most competitive league in the Reno/North Nevada area. This was filmed for an upcoming reality television show “Worst to First.”

Parent revolts can be real, other times they are nothing, just people with too much time on their hands creating drama for the sake of meeting the desired needs of conflict generation of those involved. For those of us coaching youth football, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.  What flavor was this revolt?

I didn’t have a feel for it as the “mayor” was the one who had the pulse of the parents. I was neck deep in developing our team, our coaches and our players, I had no time to be distracted or spend time with parents. Pre-practice was spent developing relationships with players and coaching up the coaches on the tasks of the day. After practice was spent reviewing with coaches the progress we were making, getting input from coaches and again getting some atta-boys in with some of the players.

How did this one shake out? I changed nothing, but for that day by sheer coincidence we had a very easy practice scheduled. This was going to be almost all a special teams practice. With the exception of our warm-ups everything that day was going to be special teams evaluations, team scheme implementation and then team game conditioning. Since we were now just 4 practices away from that all important first game, we were running out of time. We weren’t going to coach all 23 players to play special teams, like we do on offense and defense. The 11 man squads would be those getting the majority of the reps with maybe 3-4 reserves getting a handful of reps.

Like many leagues, this league has a minimum play rule “mpr”. The requirement is 8 snaps per player and all snaps count. Some youth football coaches make a big mistake and will put a bunch of their mprs on the special teams. The problem is on most special teams plays, you play in a lot of space. Space is the enemy of less athletic players and teams lose games when they don’t put their best players on Special Teams.

On the punt team, it was just our first team offense with our starting Wing at punter. He was athletic and clearly won our punting competition. He could consistently kick 40 yards, but wasn’t very accurate. We installed a fake punt play.

For punt return we were very basic for that first game. We had our first team defense out there. Their main goal was to stop the fake punt, take advantage of any poor snaps, NOT rough the punter (our rule was tackle the punter, not block the kick), block the gunners and just cleanly field the punt with our best hands player. Unfortunately, our best hands player was only cleanly catching about 2/3 of the punts that hit his hands. More on how we worked around that in future posts.

For kick off we worked on on-side kicks. Our best kicker could only get the ball to the 25 on a deep kick, sometimes he would get it to the 20. At that age group a cleanly fielded deep kick to the other teams best player in space COULD go for a touchdown. A best case scenario was a return to the 35-40. On the other hand in over 20 years of coaching youth ball I’ve never had an onside kick returned for a touchdown, we had a 15-25% chance of getting a recovery and if we didn’t recover, the other team had the ball on their own 45.  The 5-10 yard delta was definitely worth the risk. Kicking onside also allowed me to sit half of my starting athletic players, so they could get a drink and catch their breath. The athletes we did have in only had to run 15 yards instead of 30-40 yards.  Those kids were starting both ways as we were just short athletes.  Those athletic kids would definitely all have had to be in if we kicked deep and decided we wanted to play in space.  We were going to on-side kick every time until we got up by 3 touchdowns. I had more confidence in our offense scoring than our defense making stops, so we wanted the ball as often as we could.

The PAT team struggled as our designated kicker, who was a star soccer player struggled to make kicks on air with no rush. Some rudimentary kicking fundamental coaching points only seemed to make the matters worse. This is an area we needed a lot of work. Like many youth football leagues a PAT kick was worth 2 points, so getting our PAT kicks down was important. Another problem with this kicker was his parents couldn’t get him to practice early even though he was a back and started with the later group. So we had no time to work with him on his kicks in pre-practice.

For kick return we worked most of that 30 minute segment on safe ball recovery. That meant onside kicks, second level kicks, squibbers, knuckle balls and in-between player kicks. We reviewed the rules of ball engagement for first level, second level and third level players. Then we did lots and lots of reps on air. The last 5 minutes of each of these segments were with an opposing “team” in place. Some of that time was spent against static scout teamers, other times it was just fits and yes we even did a couple of live reps each at the end. Again, at this juncture only 3-4 of the key backups are getting special teams reps. We were just running out of time.

To keep the backups interest level up, instead of having them stand around a coach took those kids to the side to spent about a third of the time doing tackling drills and the rest on fun conditioning games like Hawaiian Rules Football, Pass Catch Relay, Deer Hunter, Firemans Carry, Dummy Flips and Dummy Relays. Practice was ended on a fun note as we did 10 minutes of rabbit chases. A fun and competitive sprinting and conditioning game where a “rabbit” is placed 3-6 yards ahead of a position group. Any player who could then catch- touch the rabbit before he got to a cone 20 yards away, won the game and would be able to sit out until we called “all in” and started over.

So we had a designed easy day of practice scheduled for that Friday. I let the kids and coaches know, we wouldn’t be changing anything about how we practiced. Special teams install day typically is like the practice we just had. They needed to come to practice on Monday rested, focused and ready. The next week would be like any other opening game week, you focus on the positives, build the confidence of the team up, rep the heck out of what you have in mind for the game plan and work on subbing.

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