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 awhile, 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. And if you want the Hudl advantage, get started here.