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What blocking works best in youth football?

Posted by John Reed on

Youth football blocking is a scandal. It really stinks.

Why? Because of neglect and incompetence by the coaches. The mistakes being made include:

  • Not working out blocking assignments for each play against each defense
  • Not trying to put the best players in blocking positions
  • Not using blocking schemes and techniques that work in youth football
  • Not making sure each player knows his blocking assignment on each play
  • Not grading blocking performance in games or practice

Truth to tell, the vast majority of youth football teams are essentially uncoached. They just point their few good athletes at a couple of points of attack, like the blast or sweep, and turn them loose. Those same teams, no matter how successful they are, cannot run a simple play that requires competently-executed blocking, like an off-tackle or trap play.

Making sure they know their blocking assignment

This is key. Furthermore, if you don’t get this, none of the rest of it matters. Most coaches spend a little time on blocking technique. That is not the problem. The problem is the kids do not know whom to block. Knowing whom to block is infinitely more important than knowing how to block. Blocking the right guy is infinitely more important than blocking the right way—of course all blocks should use legal and safe technique.

I have visited the practices of a number of my readers. I just watch in front of the players unless asked. But in the coaches’ meeting with me afterward I have conversations like this?

JTR: What’s your most important play?

Them: Sweep

JTR: Diagram it please.

Them: They diagram it without a defense or blocking assignments.

JTR: Please add the defense and the assignments for each player.

Them: They start but end up arguing about the locations of the defenders and who blocks whom. It’s obvious they never thought about it before, let alone taught their players. We finally get a diagram with the defense and all assignments.

JTR: Do your players all know these assignments?

Them: “No,” they admit sheepishly looking at their shoes.

JTR: Well, then there’s no mystery as to why they did not block the play effectively, is there?

Then I rub out one of the defenders and move him to a more difficult location. “So now who blocks this guy?”

Them: They argue for a few minutes and finally decide on the changed assignment. I may find the block too difficult for the guy they assign it to, or maybe suggest they block that guy out rather than in and turn the sweep inside him. But most importantly, I point out, “It took you guys five minutes of arguing to decide how to block this guy. How do you expect a ten-year old boy to figure it out in seconds as the teams line up for the snap.

Enough of the Socratic method. You have to scout your opponent and get the details of their defensive alignments. They probably have more than one. Then you have to diagram each of your plays against those defenses. Every man on every play.

In my experience, I threw some of my plays out each week because they were not very plausible against the defense of that opponent.

After we worked out the blocking of every remaining play against each of the opponent’s defenses, we put the rules for each player on a wrist coach. Each position had a different wrist coach. I do not have enough time here to explain that. It is in great detail in my book 

Coaching Freshman and Junior Varsity High School Football

You say you don’t coach high school, just youth? Get the book anyway. It is the last football book I wrote and therefore has the best, most comprehensive blocking advice.

But we’re not done yet.

Now we have to get the players to memorize these blocks or at least find the rule fast on their wrist coach in the game. To do this, you align a scout team in the upcoming opponent’s defense A. Then you walk-through each of your plays in a fit-and-freeze drill against that scout defense. Each of your players walks to the player he is supposed to block and puts the appropriate shoulder on him. His head is between the path of the ball carrier and the defender. The defense does not move. The offense moves until they contact the blockee then they freeze and wait for the coaches to check them. 

Typically, on a given play, you’ll find an unblocked defender. “Who’s got this guy?” The players all look at their wrist coaches. One may say, “Oh, sorry coach. It’s me.” On rare occasions, although weekly, it’s nobody. The coaches screwed up making the wrist coaches on that play. You fix it on the spot and print new wrist coaches for the position in question.

After you walk through all your plays against opponent defense A, you do it again for Defense B. In my experience, most youth teams only had two defenses. 

There is no snapping, handing off, or tackling or any of that nonsense. We don’t have time. Maybe if you get through the walk-throughs and there is still time left in the segment you can go full speed. That helps with the timing and teaches the players who are blocking linebackers that they have to lead the guy.

Techniques and blocking schemes

Here are some observations of what blocking schemes and techniques works and what doesn’’t work in youth football blocking.

One-on-one drive block

Forget about it. This is the most common youth football block. It is the block kids try to do when they are not taught what to do. It generally does not work. The reason is only a handful of your top athletes can successfully execute it. In college and pro football, the offensive linemen are top athletes. In youth football, the line tends to be a dumping ground for fat, slow kids.

Double-team block

This works in youth football. You must coach your double team to keep their shoulders and hips together and move the blockee away from the hole. Good one-on-one blocks should result in a stalemate. Double-team blocks should result in the defender being moved backward. Relatively weak players can execute this block.

Trap block

This works in youth football. Make sure your blocker puts his helmet on the ball-carrier side of the defender. Blocker has to be halfway-decent athlete to do this block.

Crack-back block

This works great. Make sure you teach to avoid clipping. Even the weakest players can succeed spectacularly with this block. If the defender has his back to the blocker, have him scream “Hey!” at the blockee to get him to face the blocker. Really. I got that from a former NFL guy. A reader told me they won the championship on a play where they yelled “Hey” at the key defender.

Peel-back block

This works great. Make sure you teach to avoid clipping. Even the weakest players can succeed spectacularly with this block.

Kick-out block

Since it’s done by one of your better athletes, generally the fullback, this usually works. The main problem is getting the better players interested in doing their job when they are not carrying the ball. You need to chew them out or take away their ball carrying until they clean up their act blockingwise.

Pass block

See one-on-one drive block above. Will work when the blocker is one of your running backs, once you convince him he needs to work hard at his blocking. Good linemen can do it. But the typical youth lineman, who is a fat, slow, weak athlete, cannot. This is one of the main reasons drop-back passing does not work very well in youth football.

Wall blocking

This is sort of my invention, or at least I am the only one who calls it this. It works great. Technically, it is one-on-one drive blocking for covered linemen and area blocking for adjacent, uncovered linemen. “Covered” means there is a defender right in front of you. “Uncovered” means there is no defender right in front of you, although there may be one “over” you, which means a linebacker several yards in front of you.

In books and videos for higher levels of football, uncovered linemen generally go downfield and block a linebacker. I have found that only works in youth football on quick-hitting, straight-ahead plays. On plays that take a little longer to develop, like misdirections and traps, I have found that I must keep my uncovered linemen in place to take care of defenders slipping off the one-on-one drive block of their next-door neighbor offensive lineman or to take care of blitzing linebackers.

In effect, this is a sort of double-team blocking, but only on an as-needed basis. The uncovered lineman just chops his feet in place watching the defenders being blocked on either side of him, If one of them slips off the block in his direction, he takes him.

The failure of a one-on-one drive block is not a problem if there is another blocker waiting to take care of a loose defender. The fact that I use zero line splits (distance between linemen) helps wall blocking succeed, although it is not necessary.

Most of the time, my wall blocks are just my offensive linemen staying in their original positions on the line of scrimmage. But sometimes, on misdirection-trap plays, I will swing the wall to a diagonal angle anchored at the center or tight end. The defenders take a wrong-way step in response to the misdirection in the offensive backfield. Then, when they reverse direction, they find a wall waiting for them.

Stalk block

This is essentially a one-on-one drive block in the open field. The blockee is generally one of the better athletes on his team. The blocker had better be a good athlete, too. Gotta move your feet and stay with the guy. Like basketball. Use hands, not shoulder.


Hand versus shoulder blocks

The guys who invented shoulder pads and blocking sleds confused a lot of coaches and players. They made them think a block always means slamming your shoulder into a defender. Same is true for the guy who got started the notion that really hard hitting is crucial to every interaction between members of opposite teams in football.

There is also the fact that use of hands by offensive linemen was illegal for many years. In fact, I have often said that if you want to see what football was like thirty years ago, go to a youth-football practice. One of the things that was true thirty years ago is that offensive linemen were not allowed to use their hands. When I played in the sixties, we were taught to grab our own shirt and block as if your elbows were pinball flippers. You still run into an occasional youth coach who teaches that. Puleeeze!

Am I working up to saying always use your hands? No. Just get the darned job done. Learn to use both. But realize that defenders do not like getting slammed by shoulders. If they see you coming and have room, they will just step out of your way.

So when do you use a shoulder block?

  • When they cannot see you coming
  • They cannot get out of the way
  • When the defender is coming so hard he cannot change direction

Examples include

  • offensive line versus defensive line blocks at the line of scrimmage
  • trap blocks
  • crack-back blocks
  • peel-back blocks
  • kick-out blocks (if defender is coming hard or trying to stand his ground)

Use hands when the defender can see you coming and can get out of the way. Examples include:

  • stalk blocks
  • pass blocks
  • wall block
  • blocks against linebackers and defensive backs who are not blitzing

Brush blocks

I have never seen anyone else talk much about these, but I think they are the only way to go for certain situations. In a brush block, the blocker just runs by the defender and brushes up against him as he goes. I discovered this while coaching high-school running backs. 

In the power off-tackle play, we wanted the fullback to block in on a linebacker. He did so, but the ensuing wrestling match between the fullback and linebacker kept getting in the way of the tailback who was running full speed. We didn't really need a normal block. Because the ball carrier was at top speed, we only needed a momentary delay of the linebacker. Any attempt to make a drive block had a tendency to cause the fullback to shoot his legs back to brace himself and he would trip or step on our ball carrier. So on the power off-tackle to the right, I taught our fullback to just brush the inside linebacker with his left shoulder then go after the free safety. It worked much better.

In order for a brush block to work, the ball carrier generally has to be at full speed and the timing between the ball carrier and the blocker must be tight.

Running interference

This is a phrase you used to hear when I was a kid. You rarely hear it anymore. Too bad. It is a super way to block down field. It means what it sounds like. The ball carrier runs, usually down the sideline, with a blocker running in between him and the tackler.

I saw this often as a kid when we played unorganized sandlot tackle football. Sometimes, a ball carrier could run all the way down the field, even though there was a tackler in front of him, because he had a teammate running interference to his inside front. The tackler could not commit to get around the blocker and just had to run in that same relationship all the way to the end zone. You see it happen occasionally on TV. It would happen more if it were coached and practiced. Running interference is not a block per se. There need not ever be contact. It’’s just that the blocker is in the way.

Opening holes is harder than running through them. You’’d better put some quality athletes in blocking positions or your stud running backs and quarterbacks are in for a long day. You’’d better come up with a feasible blocking scheme (e.g., do not rely on one-on-one drive blocks by poor athletes) and make sure your players know the right blocking techniques. 

Here is an email exchange I had with a reader:

Hi coach,
We're having trouble getting backs to sustain their blocks.  Any drill tips?

Response to Troy from Reed:
1. start the block later so it does not have to be sustained. That is, time it up better. Maybe take a more circuitous route to the block. That may result in the defender not seeing it coming which makes the block much easier. Maybe have another guy trade blocking assignments with the back for that purpose.
2. It is not a drill that you need. It is a butt chewing and maybe a benching. In 2004, my H.S. freshmen wide receivers decided blocking was beneath them. I told them they were mainly blockers, not ball carriers or pass catchers. I pointed out how many plays there were in a game and how few called for them to get the ball. “You are blockers on 90% of our plays. Yet you act like you have no interest in blocking. Start blocking effectively or I will replace you.” They did not. I did. I replaced my entire WR corps with backup fullbacks. The backup fullbacks blocked their asses off because they preferred starting at WR to sitting on the bench. One of my WRs decided to block when I gave him another chance and he won his position back. It was funny to watch the game films. He would doggedly whack some cornerback over and over until the whistle. The cornerbacks were surprised at first. Then they got pissed because no one had ever done that to them before. But my WRs kept it up because they were more afraid of me than of the CBs. Opposing coaches asked what my magic trick was for getting my WRs to block so hard and keep it up until the whistle. “Chew their butts if they don’t. Replace their butts if they still don’t.” A high school coach I worked for said the bench is the coach’s best friend. Use it.
Your suggestion that a drill is needed indicates you have misdiagnosed the problem. It is not that they don’t know how. The problem is they do not want to do it.
What you emphasize, you achieve. What you tolerate, you encourage. What you demand, you get.
Bear down on them until they either do it right or quit the team. About 98% of the time, they will do it right.
Tell the kids that if I get another report that they are still not doing their main jobs—as blockers, I will personally come to wherever you are and give them all the biggest noogies they ever had.
Coach ’em up,
Jack Reed

It worked.  Thanks again!  It was definitely more #2 than #1.

The best discussion of blocking in my books is in the most recent book I wrote on football: Coaching Freshman & Junior Varsity High School Football. It tells how we gave each offensive player a wrist coach customized to his position that had his blocking rules for each play on it. In spite of the book title, the blocking part of the book would apply to other levels of football. Click on the book cover to get more information or to order it.

 I also discuss blocking in detail in my book Single-Wing Offense For Youth Football as well as all my books on football except the ones focused on defense and clock management.

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