For coaches at the high school, college and pro levels, where jobs are tied to winning, championships set the bar for greatness. But youth coaches have a much higher calling.
Your duty is to develop these young players and – even more importantly – leave a lasting impression with them that encourages their love of the sport.
For a youth coach, the focus is on winning tomorrow, not today. Some coaches get caught up in running fancy offenses that they only partially understand. Some try to mimic what their high school team is running.
So what's the right offense to run at the youth level? The best gift you can give these players and future coaches is to run an offense that teaches “football plays.” That means teaching the plays that are in every offense, so no matter where your young athletes go next, they have a foundational understanding of whatever concept they have to learn.
The high school where I coach runs a flexbone triple-option offense. As much as we'd love the players who grow up in our community to learn and run those types of plays, truth is, they'll be better prepared for us by gaining an overall understanding of how and why plays work. Also, the time we high school coaches spend on teaching the offense just can’t be duplicated at the youth level.
Whether you run out of shotgun or under center, here are some must-haves in your youth football playbook on offense. Once the players understand the concept behind these plays, they'll gain a foundation on which they can build their football knowledge.
1. Lead play: This is a great play for offensive linemen to learn how to drive block and get defensive players out of holes. Your lead blocker will search out a linebacker, while the ball-carrier follows through the hole, reads that block, makes a cut and gets upfield. Make sure your receivers are involved with blocking this play as well. Have them find work and never stand around. Quarterbacks must carry out fakes to help keep defenders home.
2. Dive play: Similar to the lead play, this teaches basic blocking skills for linemen, who will base block and drive defenders off the line of scrimmage. Your quarterback must get the snap cleanly and have good footwork to make a quick handoff to the back. Again, even though this is a quick-hitting play, QBs and receivers must do their post-snap jobs.
3. Counter or trap play: This teaches linemen how to down block and pull. It'll take a little more time, but you will create a positive vibe for blockers and instill the pride that they can do it. The quarterback and backs learn some different footwork in order to make the plays work. The counter is a great play to get a wing back involved in carrying the ball.
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4. Toss or outside play: Getting to the edge is important. Your linemen will use an outside zone or reach-step to try and hook the defender in their playside gap. The goal is to get your fastest players on the outside for a big play. Your quarterback will either make a pitch or a long handoff, and if the ball carrier has a gap, they can plant their foot in the ground and cut upfield to get good yards. It's very important for receivers to hold their blocks, as this play takes a little longer to develop. QBs need to carry out a bootleg fake away from the play.
5. Play-action pass: With so much emphasis on running the ball at the youth level, coaches still can open up their offenses and throw a little. Remember, we're trying to develop these players. We want quarterbacks to practice these things now to gain confidence and experience. An easy play to set up is a fake off any of the run plays above. The offensive line fires out, stays low and makes it look like a run, but make sure they know they can't go downfield on a pass. Your QB needs to make a good fake and hit the receiver for a huge play. Also, this an opportunity to teach your receivers a double move. Even if you only call this once or twice a game, these are important skills for players to learn.
6. Designed pass play: Depending on the age and ability of your quarterbacks, you should have a couple of designed pass plays in your playbook. The line works on a pass set for a simple man-on-man pass protection. Backs get some blocking work, and receivers learn routes and get more involved in the offense. Some good basic routes are the hitch, slant, out and go.
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By incorporating these simple plays in your youth football playbook, you provide your players a chance to contribute and learn the game. They'll be able to watch a college or pro game and recognize that they're doing the same things. This fills them with confidence to continue their football careers and grow to love the game like we have.
Terry Donovan is a Master Trainer for USA Football’s Heads Up Football program, and the offensive line coach for Kasson-Mantorville High School in Kasson, Minnesota. He is also a youth coach and director of youth development in the Kasson-Mantorville Youth Football Association.
This is an updated version of a blog that originally published June 14, 2016.
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