Coach James uses automatic coverage checks to overcome problems on defense, stay a step ahead of the offense, and above all — give players the ability to win.

Like many coaches, Nate James was born into the game. His father, Ken is entering his 38th season as a highly successful head coach at Northwood High School outside Toledo. It’s a program James describes as scrappy and shielded from outside influence. “We had to come up with a lot of stuff on our own,” he said. 

James served as defensive coordinator under his father at Northwood and is beginning his head coaching career at Start High School this fall. A self-described “circular learner,” his football journey has been defined by the balance of working at a small, inward-looking program and looking externally to keep up with the game's rapid evolution. This desire to keep up with new ideas led him to become a proponent of automatic coverage checks. Here’s what they bring to his defense.

More Playing, Less Thinking

A main driver of his shift toward automatic coverage checks is a desire to simplify things for his players. His previous defensive play calls were “TCU style,” i.e., long, specific calls to designate each individual movement. “In the TCU style, you’d better be right,” James said. “The call doesn’t necessarily adjust to formations or personnel.” Longer play calls also put on-field defensive adjustments in the hands of the coordinator, forcing checks to come from the sideline. 

In the past few years, he’s made the switch to what he refers to as “iceberg calls,” which are two-word play calls, with all the relevant information packed into a more digestible format. The shortened calls allow the defense to adjust itself on the field and don’t burden players with extra terminology. “Let it flow, let it adjust in a simple way and let the kids play football,” said James. 

Adapting on the Fly 

James is keenly aware that a defense can’t just stamp its values on an offense. “You can’t say, we’re a field boundary team and that’s the lens we take everything through,” he said. “Offenses now will go completely unbalanced, they’ll put four into the boundary and the math doesn’t work out.”

Automatic coverage checks put defenses in a position to adapt on the fly to how offenses want to attack them. They’ve also allowed James to combat personnel disadvantages. His defenses at Northwood were undersized—with players up front weighing in around 180 to 200 pounds. James built checks to find different ways to get his lineman in odd and under fronts and to move them around to switch up their fits. “Some of these fix front problems,” he said. “They allow us to move and let our front guys play the type of football they can have success with.”

Improved Defensive Awareness

Installing these can bring some growing pains on the front end. “You want to start small,” said James. “Give them stuff they can handle and build them up from there.” He first focuses on teaching certain indicators like surfaces, to build a reflex within players for recognizing when they need to adjust coverages.  

Once players get the hang of it, James has found it gives them an enhanced awareness of how offenses work. “It forces players to be aware of personnel, shell, formation—all that stuff because we’re checking our coverage off of those things,” he said. They can settle into a rhythm on the field—quickly recognizing structures and personnel groupings—so they can adjust on the fly and provide the offense with varied looks.  

Fitting into the Game Plan

So how do these fit into a weekly game plan? For James, most of these checks are geared toward early downs. In creating their game plan, the goal is to build adjustments off their base defense that counteracts the opponent's bread-and-butter plays. A big part of that is understanding their first-down philosophy. Some teams like to call shot plays, others prefer to run to get it to second and manageable. James leverages Hudl data to get an understanding of those tendencies.

“Most good teams are series-oriented in some way. They hit you with a bubble to set up some action off of it,” James said. “We want to make sure we’re defending that first domino so that we’re not trying to catch up to them so they can manipulate the next thing. We want everybody to have to beat us left-handed and get into their bag by the second quarter.”

We're not defending ghosts. We're trying to defend what the defense is actually doing. Nate James, Head Coach, Start High School

Knowing where you’re vulnerable is key. Coaches should have an understanding of things like personnel disadvantages and problematic formations, surfaces and motions. “We make sure we have different ways to answer those,” said James. “To try and create the best case scenario for ourselves on first down so we can put ourselves in a position to dial up some pressure.” 

Installing these automatics are high priority early in the week. James wants to structure practice to get more situational as the week progresses, so Monday is full of 7 on 7 periods where they dive into their opponent's base stuff. “We’re playing their top four or five runs, top four or five formations and trying to get those memorized,” said James.

Getting Opponent Specific

Work backward from the solutions. It’s a core value of James’ philosophy around automatic coverage checks.  

It’s most evident in some of his calls sculpted to particular opponents. Here’s an example: they faced an opponent with great receivers, whose base formation was strong side trips. James’ solution was to play Cover 2 while getting a force off the edge. So he countered with their Cage call. It brings a front-side outside linebacker off the edge and rolls the strong safety down to account for the slot receiver. The free safety and weakside corner are each responsible for a deep half of the field, giving them a 2-high look with some edge pressure to disrupt quick throws to the perimeter. 

Again, matching these to opponent tendencies is key. “Let’s not make it complicated. If they’re trying to throw deep balls, go Tampa 2 or 3-high,” said James. “We’re not defending ghosts, we’re trying to defend what the offense is actually doing.”

Building Complementary Pressures

With all the emphasis on early downs, you might wonder what the plan is for conversion downs. It’s what James calls “the fun stuff.” They’ve built pressure packages off of their core plays, expecting his defenses to neutralize early downs and force the opponent into passing situations. It’s also about staying one step ahead of the offense. 

“The nice thing is that if you have offenses that are really good at identifying how you’re going to line up to particular surfaces and how you’re going to adjust to 3x1 and all that stuff, your conversion down pressures can mess with what they’re expecting,” said James.

James delegates the creation of the “fun” pressures to his assistants. It gives them an area of ownership over the scheme and encourages them to engage with how things are tied together on a snap-by-snap basis. 

Letting the Players Win

James will take the reins at a bigger program this fall, with different problems to solve. He’ll bring the same philosophy of working backward and shaping solutions based on the unique problems that his new team faces. Because at its core, automatic coverage checks are about overcoming vulnerabilities and creating advantages for players whenever possible. 

James boils it down to three simple pillars. “Make it simple, allow it to adjust and make sure there aren’t situations where I’m not allowing them to win,” he said.

Got questions for Coach James? Feel free to reach out to him at

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