Cart 0

Comments on various youth football plays

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright 1999, 2006 John T. Reed

I have seen a lot of plays attempted in youth football. And I have noticed that certain ones are successful a disproportionate percent of the time, while others rarely work. Most of these plays have been successful at one time or another at one level or another, but at the youth level, I have found some plays are more effective than others.

Successful plays (highlighted in green): Blast/iso, Pitch Sweep, Fill Sweep, Halfback Pack, Slant Pass, Counter/Misdirection, Fake Reverse, Sprint Out Flat Pass, Wedge, Fake Punt, Goose and Go.

Effective if coached properly (highlighted in yellow): Off-tackle, Shotgun, Speed Option, Broken Play, Play Action Pass.

Unsuccessful plays (highlighted in red): Dive, Reverse, Drop-back pass, QB sneak, non-counter B-gap plays, Draw, Screen Pass.

See my Football terminology dictionary for the definitions of these plays

Play Comment

Favorite play of youth football coaches because it is so simple (for the QB and RB), but not very effective. With regard to blocking the linebacker, it is somewhat complex because the defensive line and linebackers alignment varies and the offensive linemen must be taught whom to block against each variation. My impression is that most youth coaches do not include any blocking scheme in their dive play diagrams.

Will work somewhat if there are weak defenders at the point of attack and decent blockers. Effectiveness can be enhanced by going on a quick count like first sound or no count (as soon as the QB touches the center with the offensive linemen set but not yet down in their three-point stance.) Generally will not gain many yards because linebacker is typically unblocked or too athletic for the guard who tries to block him. Less effective in short yardage because defense is often in 6-5. Worthless against a low-charging gap-air-mirror defense. The sneak, especially on a quick count, is a better play for accomplishing the dive purpose.

99% of football coaches run dive right as their first play of the game. I am in the other 1%. Running dive right as your first play is coaching malpractice. If you have a nose, put your him in that gap for the first play of the game when you are on defense.

Blast or isolation play

A blast or isolation play is a dive with one or two lead blockers. This is usually a highly effective youth-football play. It puts one or two blockers on the linebackers and has throw weight. Also worthless against a gap-air-mirror defense. But even this play is worthless if your center and guards are being knocked backward on the snap.

Pitch sweep

Highly effective if your team has the fastest guy on that side of the field and you can break contain. But it is very difficult to run the sweep effectively if the opposing defense has a faster guy than your sweeper on the play side of the field. If you do not have the fastest guy, you will have to coach the heck out of the play to make it work. That is, you will need multiple, fairly-late-in-the-play blocks. See my article on sweeps. Often effectively combined with a motion man who cracks on the contain man. For reasons unknown to me, I am suddenly seeing a lot of open pivots to make the pitch. It looks awful and often results in inaccurate pitches. Far as I know, it should be a reverse-pivot pitch.

Fill sweep

This play, with a pulling guard and a fullback faking through the hole left by the guard, has a greater chance of success for a slower team, but still requires much well-coordinated blocking and a good fake.


This play can work, but it must be thoroughly coached. The playside tight end and tackle need to learn how to make line calls (“You block him; I'll block this other guy,” said in code) to adjust their blocking assignments after they see how the defenders in their vicinity are lined up. Unlike the blast or sweep, you cannot just point talented athletes at the hole and count on them to succeed. There are too many bad guys at the point of attack. Also the play takes a couple of seconds to develop, which gives the linebackers and dbs time to get there. Often succeeds in the form of a bounce out when the hole is clogged. I recently saw a team that always faked to the lead blocker when they ran this play. What the heck is that about? You fake to get defenders to go away from the point of attack; not to it!

Halfback pass

Great play from youth to NFL. Typical coaching mistake is to not give the passer enough reps. Also requires delayed release by the receiver. Receivers hate to delay for some reason. Lean on them. Passer must put some air under the ball so the receiver can run under it. Good run fake draws up defensive backs so the receiver is wide open.

Slant or look-in pass

Excellent youth pass route. Receivers, tight or wide, run toward middle of field at 45-degree angle. In the case of a tight end, the pass can be thrown off a one-step drop by a quarterback under center.

This play is both easy to run, if not properly defended, and also easily defended if you make the effort, which you must. This play alone beat us once in my first year as a coach. But we played that same team a second time that season and easily shut the play totally down.

The defense is to plug the receivers at the line and let them release only outside. Also, having a middle linebacker generally screws up the play because the receiver wants to catch it in the vicinity of the MLB.

Counter or misdirection play

Excellent at both youth and high school levels. The play works because the linebacker at ground zero must refrain from moving in response to the initial flow of the play, which is away from him. This takes experience, training, and discipline. Youth linebackers are, by definition, short on experience. Furthermore, most youth coaches are not competent at coaching defense against the counter, which compounds the defense’s problem.

Counters generally involve initial backfield movement to one side, followed by a cut or inside-reverse handoff to a back going back to the other side. The ball carrier runs between a double-team block on the inside of the hole and a trap block on the outside of the hole. Linebackers are not blocked because they fly out in response to initial flow. Common mistake is to use an inadequate athlete to do the trap block. It requires a top athlete.

I saw a reverse-pivot, offset-I play work surprisingly well—about 3 to 6 yards per play. The QB opens toward the fullback, fakes to him as he dives through the A gap on his side, then continues around to the tailback diving on the other side A gap and gives him the ball. QB should boot out afterward, sometimes with the ball for a run or pass if the defense does not honor his fake.


My team was beaten by this play in my first season. But it is easily defended and devastating to the offense when it is correctly defended. The play starts looking like a sweep. Very simply, the backside (away from the direction the sweep is going) contain man must either stay home looking for the reverse or trail the sweep through the offensive backfield. Then, when the flanker or split end gets the ball and runs back into the offensive backfield, the trail man tackles him. The trail man is usually unblocked. It works better when you assign one blocker in case the opposing team has a good trail man.

This play would work against me once or twice a year because it seemed the defensive ends had to get burned by it at least once to believe me. But we generally wanted opponents to run it because they usually lost about seven yards on the play. I do not run this play, probably because I know how to defend it. I really should watch my opponents to see if their trail man behaves properly when we sweep. If not, we should run the reverse.

Fake reverse

This play is the best kept secret in football. Underrated and overlooked. It has little risk and goes for huge gains. One youth coach told me it went for a touchdown every time they ran it one season. We lost a game because of it once. Its only disadvantage is that you cannot run it more than once or twice a game.

Sprint-out flat pass

This is a great play at all levels. The passer does not have to lead the receiver because they are both running toward the sideline. It is a great clock-stopping play. The pass is typically caught only a yard or two beyond the line of scrimmage, but it often goes for 50 to 80 yards because the receiver is behind most defenders. This is a very short pass. It is relatively easy to protect the passer. It is easy to throw and catch.

Receivers must be disciplined to run parallel to the line of scrimmage before they catch the ball. They have a powerful urge to go deeper, which changes the play completely and greatly reduces its success.

Drop-back pass

I have never seen any youth team have consistent success with this type of pass except for some midget (7th, 8th, 9th grade teams) that had a systemic age advantage over most opponents. Coaches who call many drop-back passes in youth football are watching too much TV and not enough youth football video, which would reveal that it simply does not work often enough at that level.

If you insist, I prefer the hook, curl, slant, or crossing route for the drop-back pass. Most kids do not have the arm to drop back and throw a deep pass. The receiver will have to come back to get it unless he did a delayed release.

Use only one-or three-step drop passes, never five- or seven-step drops. We did not even use seven-step drops at the high school varsity level. If I were to coach youth again, I would probably do some three-step drop passes where I formationed the defense to increase the chances the play would work and where I had the line in zero-line-split configuration. If necessary, I would keep the running backs in to block the edges.

If you had a team where tons of kids tried out and you cut down to the best athletes, you might be able to pass block. With a normal team, the O linemen are kids who will be in the band in high school. They cannot pick up a blitzing linebacker.

Shotgun pass

The shotgun formation will give your passer time to get his pass off. Youth pass blocking often will not give a quarterback under center enough time to both drop back and set up to pass. Shotgun youth passers generally drop back a few more steps after they get the ball. The trick in this play is the snap. It takes a great many practice reps to get this right. Screwing up the snap or getting sacked is a disaster. You still have the problems of receivers getting open, the quarterback seeing the receivers and defenders, throwing accurately, and catching the ball.

One 23-year old youth coach bragged to me that his team used the shotgun at times and said if you have good coaching you can do it. Bill Walsh, on the other hand, told me he never used the shotgun because of too many problems with the snap. Either we can conclude that Bill Walsh is not a competent coach or that all he needed was that 23-year-old genius on his coaching staff.

I coached one year in a flag football league. One opponent there used the shotgun snap. The snaps were often way over the head of the QB. They actually put a backup QB behind the real QB to catch the high snaps.

Speed option

In the speed option, the quarterback runs toward the contain man and either keeps the ball or pitches to a pitchback depending upon whether the contain man comes toward the quarterback. It takes many repetitions to master this, but it can be done. An option team should probably let its quarterbacks play defense in games, but insist that they practice their option pitch during defensive practice time. This is extremely hard to defend, especially if no one else in your league runs it. The defense really needs to get into an Oklahoma 5-4-2 and play assignment football. Assignment defense is the opposite of the way defense usually operates. In assignment defense, the defenders have a man they attack regardless of who has the ball. Normally, defenders defend territory and go to the ball. They have to break that habit just for one opponent. It's hard to do if their coaches scout and virtually impossible to do if they do not scout.

Malcolm Robinson sent me an email about success he has had with the outside veer option.

Quarterback sneak

Whether this play succeeds is entirely a function of the nose tackle and offensive center and guards. It is worthless against disciplined gap-air-mirror-defense linemen, but succeeds against a minimum-play nose or defensive guard who stands up. As with the dive, it will be stopped after a short gain by the linebackers. Many youth coaches try to get clever with this play and run it out of a no-back, spread formation. That doesn’t work either because the defenders who go out wide to cover the receivers are not the ones who stop the sneak.

We had a lot of success with this at the freshman high school level when we used it as a silent audible that we called “Goose and go.” In that play, the QB would sometimes see too much open space in the defense right in front of him so he would do something with his hand to signal the center that he wanted the ball right now for a Goose and go. There was no cadence. Only the center and the QB knew the play was coming. We got a number of touchdowns and first downs from it.

3- and 4-hole plays

I have never seen a youth offense successfully attack these holes except with counters. Straight-ahead plays do not work because they take too long to develop and the linebackers react properly. A blast through these holes should work, but I have rarely seen it tried.


Not really a youth play because it depends on an effective drop-back passing attack. Youth defenders do not drop back like higher level defenders when they see pass. Sometimes works in spite of itself in youth football because it acts like a sort of broken play.

Screen pass

This play is much more difficult to execute than most people think. The pass is very hard to throw accurately. It is an antidote to an overly aggressive pass rush, which is not useful in a league with little passing. I have never seen a youth team use this play successfully on a consistent basis. One of our sister teams once tried it extensively. They had a losing season.

It must be practiced against air only because it relies on the element of surprise and your scout team will get too good at reading it.


Sort of a super quarterback sneak with the entire offensive line and backs pushing against one target defensive lineman. This play works well, although it takes some practice. The secret is beyond me, but I know the kids figure it out if you give them repeated chances to try different approaches.

Broken play

The broken play, when the ball is in the hands of an excellent athlete, is one of the best plays in youth football. It probably works for the same reason a counter works. The defenders start going the “right” way, but the play ends up going another way. The success of broken plays shows the potential if you could execute broad fakes masterfully.

Play-action pass

I have never seen a play-action pass have any success at the youth level except for the halfback pass.

Even at the high-school level, play-action passes seemed to be just passes with the play action being largely a waste of time. One exception was a Miramonte High School varsity play where the quarterback faked a dive left then spun around and threw an immediate slant pass to the right tight end. I thought it was a little dangerous because the quarterback was not able to get a good look at the defense before he threw, but it was never intercepted, and even if it had been, it would be in front of our entire team and probably would not have been returned.

Another exception was the waggle pass. There is a diagram of one on page 6 of Tubby Raymond’s Delaware Wing T book. In that waggle pass, the fullback fakes a dive right, the other backs fake a sweep left with a handoff from the quarterback who then rolls out to the right. Both guards pull the same direction as the quarterback to protect him. Timing the fullback and pulling guards is tricky. The fullback goes out in the flat and the right tight end runs a corner route. they are frequently very open. Click here to read an email from a coach who explains how he achieved much success with the waggle pass.

One problem with play action and other fakes at the youth level is that the defenders are so inexperienced and poorly coached that they do not react the way they are supposed to to the fake.

Fake punt

Fabulously successful play, but few youth coaches have the guts to run it.


Many youth coaches appear to use motion for no apparent reason. One good reason is to crack on the contain man for a sweep. I am really not aware of any other good reason in youth football to use motion. The double wing uses it on every play, but they could just as easily line up in a wing-T, which is what the double wing is at the time of the snap. I see no benefit from the motion and some disadvantages—like motion penalties. I think most youth coaches use motion because they think it makes them look football savvy. Not to me.

All plays

All plays work if the defense is in an unsound alignment or if there is a total wuss at the point of attack of a quick-hitting play. For example, the dive will work if there is no linebacker over that hole and the O linemen at the point of attack can handle their men. So if you have the capability of identifying such weaknesses during a game (easier said than done), it would be nice to be able to run those plays at those weak spots.

All plays also work if your team has a substantial recruiting advantage over your opponents. For example, you draw your team from a large city and your opponents draw from small towns. Or your town is soccer crazy and you play against a town that is football crazy. Or if you have a 7th & 8th grade team where your 9th graders play for the high school and your opponents are predominantly 9th graders because their local schools have no 9th-grade football. That happened to me one year. My opponents would have slaughtered us if they had used basketball plays.

The typical youth football coach seems to think that any play he sees on TV, or that his team used in high school or college, will work on a youth team. Not true. There are only a handful of plays that work at the youth level. This is because the coaching is very poor in youth football and the athletic ability of many starters is well below that of the athletic ability of the starters on a high-school or college team. That is not to say that an excellent coach who was willing to devote extra time could not master another play not on my list above, but I have rarely seen it happen.

Good luck,
John T. Reed

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →