Empowering Coaches Step-By-Step

Youth Football Coaching- Worst to First Facing the Monster

sparks practice reno



This weeks opponent was Reed and they would be what most people considered the first seed in this thirteen team youth football age grouping. How would we prepare for these guys? This is the continuing story of my “Worst to First” youth football coaching experience in Reno, Nevada this year. This is the pilot season that was shot for the reality television show “Worst to First”  I took an eighth grade team that had won about six games in the last six years to the Semi-Finals in the largest and most competitive league in the Reno/North Nevada area.

This was going to be a tough one. Reed feeds into Reed High School, a school with a rich tradition in football. Over the years this High School has been ranked a number of times in the USA Today Top 20 and they are one of those High School teams that travels to play marquee out of state competition. Their youth teams are always chalked full of big and athletic players. Sparks High School, the team we are named for and feed into was on a 30 game winless streak.

This particular Reed team finished in second place as seventh graders and had now combined with the team from Hug High school who had finished in third last year. Supposedly Hug had just seventeen kids and that wasn’t enough to have a team, so they combined with Reed. Reed would start the season with about 40 kids on the team, but by the time they played us, they were suiting up just 24. The interesting part about those 24 is that five of those kids had been part of the Sparks team I was coaching in previous years.

In youth football parents and players gravitate towards winning programs, it’s common. Who could blame the kids who had defected from our team? Our kids had won about six games in six years. Even though by rule there were district attendance boundaries in place, it didn’t matter.

Watching Reed play on film was disappointing. They based out of the Double Slot Pistol and ran some Trips out of Pistol. They had the best and most athletic player in the league at Quarterback and their fast as lightning and elusive Running Back was averaging over 10 yards per carry. Both of those kids could take it to the house on any given play. There were no weaknesses in their Receiver corps, there was no way to you could isolate on one or underplay another. In the two games I saw, those four kids combined to score 11 touchdowns and ALL of them scored. I charted all their throws, the distribution was nearly identical and to all areas of the field.

Reed was undefeated and in those five games they had scored over 300 points and their first team defense had given up just a single score. They were big, with all five starting linemen at or above 200 lbs and quick. Heck they liked to pull their Center and he got there. Defensively they based in the 4-3, were extremely fast and with the QB and Running Back in the secondary, no one made any big plays against them. They were big, athletic, deep and I didn’t see a single player I would deem a “minimum play” player.

We would have to stop the veer option, the bubble and the veer option- bubble screen option. That was a tough one, stop the best Running Back in the league on the Dive, then stop the best QB in the league on the option, THEN stop the Bubble as the QB runs down the line OR the deep ball to the Wide Out who has faked a stalk block and gone deep. All four threats could and had scored on those options from anywhere on the field. Then they ran Speed Option, Power, Zone, Jet Sweep, Counter, Slant Wheel, Smash, Bubble Screen, Smoke Screen, Double Slants, Swing Pass and a handful of other one off pass plays.

This was a matchup nightmare for our team. Most youth football teams don’t have legit threats at all of their skill positions, so you can match up to take away their best threats, while not having to really worry too much about the others. That simply wasn’t the case here. This team was incredibly athletic and deep, something you would expect when two of the top three teams join forces and all the weaker kids drop out due to expected loss of playing time.

In fact we had two kids on OUR team who had done just that. They had played for Reed last year after defecting from our team a few years in the past. But they were second teamers the previous year and when it was announced that Reed would combine with Hug, they saw the writing on the wall and returned to our team to get playing time in their last season. Our team was happy to have them return. In fact, both were starters for me and for us, definitely in our top 20% for talent. You get the picture, their non-starters are my top kids. BOTH of those kids were two way starters for me.

While Reed had not played our team the previous year, they had blasted our kids in years past, all were mercy rule wins. The Reed kids knew our kids, heck some of them went to school with our kids and were very confident that the game would be a typical Reed blowout over Sparks.

Offensively we were really clicking with our running game, but continuing to struggle with the pass. Our investment in pass catching fundamentals was yielding very meager returns. The theft of skilled position players (and drops) over the years by other teams had just left the cupboard bare of anyone who could consistently catch the ball, even on air.

This week in practice we would try and improve how we played in space in defense. We needed help on scheme and fundamentals. The problem in getting better at tackling in space was we had zero depth in our Linebacker and Defensive Back core. In fact we were playing kids there that shouldn’t be playing there to begin with, let alone having any backups. A single injury or player out would trigger an entire avalanche of subbing, robbing Peter to pay Paul and having to move one of our unathletic Defensive Ends into the Defensive Backfield. We had no other options, there were none. The problem was any time we did any type of open field tackling drills, even in limited space, at least two of our kids would be down for a good part of practice.

Add to it that one of our starting Defensive Backs was going to be gone for the entire week of practice. The schools have a fall break and he and his dad go for an annual Elk hunt that week. In years past by this time of year, the games didn’t matter, but this was a different year. No Sparks team had EVER been 4-1 and vying for a playoff spot. Heck no Sparks team had EVER had a winning record. But the hunt was a big deal, an expensive and meticulously planned father son bonding event that couldn’t be rescheduled. I totally understand and support these types of father-son activities, but this one hurt us where we had zero margin for error.

More on how we solved for this puzzle in the next post. Winning this one was going to be a youth football coaching equivalent to winning the lottery, but I planned on making it interesting and it was.


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