Building Your Defense at the Youth Level

A Chicago coach offers his tips to shut­ting down the opposition.

Building Your Defense at the Youth Level

A Chicago coach offers his tips to shut­ting down the opposition.

Choosing which defense to run is one of a coach’s most impor­tant deci­sions at the youth lev­el. Most youth offens­es are ground-based, so coach­es have to find a scheme that swal­lows up the run­ning game, but they also can’t ignore the pass and leave them­selves sus­cep­ti­ble to the deep ball.

Jeff Smith believes he’s found the per­fect solu­tion. Coaching most­ly sev­enth graders in the Warren Youth Football Program in Chicago, Smith has com­bined a 5 – 3 front with a Cover 3 scheme to form a stingy defense. 

That might not be the per­fect solu­tion for every coach. Different leagues face dif­fer­ent offens­es and present sep­a­rate chal­lenges, but much of what Smith has learned can be applied to a num­ber of schemes. Here are his tips to form­ing a stonewall unit.

Go Big, but Don’t Sacrifice Speed

Smith esti­mates that 80 per­cent of the offen­sive sets he sees fea­ture at least sev­en block­ers — five line­men and two tight ends, not to men­tion a full­back. The first thought would be to place some big bod­ies up front to match that.

But Smith doesn’t rely on size alone. Building a defense full of lum­ber­ing big guys isn’t the solu­tion, as that strat­e­gy leaves you open to perime­ter runs. You have to find the right blend of size and ath­leti­cism to stay versatile.

I could take 125, 130-lb. kids across the board, but if they can’t move, they’re not going to do a whole heck of a lot of good up front,” Smith said. I’d rather have 110-lb. kids that are aggres­sive and can move than the big kids that just take up space. It’s impor­tant to take the right kids and put them in posi­tion to succeed.”

Stay in the Zone

Playing man defense on the back end can get tricky. Crossing routes can cause defend­ers to col­lide and motion can bring confusion.

Smith rec­om­mends using a zone scheme. Each play­er knows exact­ly what his respon­si­bil­i­ty is on every play instead of hav­ing his job dic­tat­ed by what the offense does. In the Cover 3, for exam­ple, Smith has his cor­ner­backs cov­er the back thirds of the field, his safe­ty takes the mid­dle third, the out­side line­back­ers have the flats and the mid­dle line­backer patrols the cen­ter of the field.

I try to teach my cor­ners at the snap of the ball, take three steps back, just assume it’s a pass, read the play, and if it’s a run, come up and fill,” Smith said. I don’t want any­body behind you. We’re going to give up some plays, I get it. If we give up six yards on a sweep out­side or off-tack­le run because you’re backpedal­ing, so be it. It’s bet­ter than giv­ing up a 60-yard pass.”

Give Your Players Ownership

Smith lets his play­ers come up with audi­ble names for their posi­tions. Whether it’s an ani­mal, food item, car­toon name, it helps the ath­letes bet­ter remem­ber what they’re sup­posed to do.

When the kids come up with their calls, it helps them remem­ber,” Smith said. When I assign some­thing, I will remem­ber it because I named it, but the kids might not remem­ber it. So I have the kids come up with them. It helps each one of them remem­ber what their own is.”

Each play­er has a wrist­band with a set of num­bers on it that, when read in com­bi­na­tion, refer to dif­fer­ent plays. Smith num­bers his play­ers across the line (the left defen­sive end is 1, the left out­side line­backer is 2, etc.) so he can eas­i­ly call out blitzes and cov­er­age switches.

Know Your Enemy

Youth coach­es can be very smart peo­ple, but they are not pro­fes­sion­als, and they don’t have the time with their play­ers to install detailed offen­sive schemes. Smith has found that most teams only have three or four plays they can run out of each formation.

This is where Hudl comes in as an incred­i­bly impor­tant tool. Smith looks at the video and his oppo­nents’ ten­den­cy reports to get a pret­ty good idea of what they are going to run.

We can tell our start­ing defense, When they’re in this for­ma­tion, they do these three things. When they do these things, here’s what we’re going to do,’” Smith said. That’s what sets us apart from a defen­sive perspective.

Some teams will have 10 dif­fer­ent for­ma­tions and I’ll know one or two things they’re going to do out of almost every for­ma­tion. When they come up in this for­ma­tion, I know they’re going to run here or they’re going to pass here. I can blitz my back­side cor­ner because I know they’re not going that way. Every once in a while, they’ll put some­thing new in. But 90 per­cent of the time, we know what play they’re going to run.”

There is no one-size-fits-all defense, but Smith’s tips can be applied to com­bat a num­ber of dif­fer­ent offen­sive looks. Have any addi­tion­al sug­ges­tions? Feel free to leave them in the com­ments below.