Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Effective Practice Planning & Execution

One of the biggest challenges for coaches is keeping practices moving along and having everyone engaged in the process. What I’ve seen an awful lot in the past are too many players standing around, doing the same drill for too long, then moving into an endless amount of team time. This is squarely on the coaches – you can’t blame the players for this.

But really, the planning starts at the coordinator level and flows downhill from there. I may have mentioned this before, but in the offseason, the coordinator should plan his Install Calendar. As soon as he knows when practices start and how many he’ll have, the mapping out of goals should begin.

The Head Coach should provide a time block for each practice for each of the coordinators. The ST Coordinator can operate a little bit in a vacuum, except for notifying other coaches of when they’ll be needed and for what, or perhaps notifying the OL coach that the OL will be free for whatever the coach wants during the ST period.

The DC and OC should definitely talk to each other to coordinate group time, whether it be 7-on-7, OL vs DL, inside run game, blitz pickup, etc. The coordinators should notify the position coaches about the team/group scripts for the day and any goals they definitely need accomplished that practice.

Now comes the tough part – the position coaches planning their parts of the practice. Most coaches I know have a set of “everyday” drills they want to do, which emphasizes the fundamental skills their players use almost every play. I know for us on the OL, developing that type of routine has been crucial in our progress. But here‘s the thing: it has to be done quickly and efficiently. As the season goes on, one of the first things coordinators try to eliminate is individual time. You see that happen again and again. Coordinators by nature (and I may have been a little guilty on this as well) want to see the Big Picture, and to them, the best way to do that is to see the entire offense or defense together doing things. But there is a cost to that view – the details that make everything else work. That great blocking scheme isn’t going to materialize without the players being able to practice their footwork, being able to practice delivering that block and without practicing every other detail that goes into a particular play.

So as a position coach, you need to (gently) resist the coordinator’s time grab. Once you succeed in preserving your time, it’s got to be used efficiently! If the coordinator looks over and sees you or your players standing around, they’re gonna think that is time they can reclaim.
What I do (and thanks to Mike Sherman for this thinking) is break my individual time down into five minute blocks. It is the rare drill that lasts longer than 5 minutes. Maybe if we’re installing a complex new play, like a screen or a reverse or another type of gadget play, then it’ll go 10, but 95% of the time it is 5 minutes max. I may even try to get two drills done in 5 minutes.

What it takes is a little bit of time initially. I’m very lucky in that I have some OL who have been with me for 10 years. They know my buzzwords and phrases and when I call out a drill, they know how to get aligned and start it up. They also help coach up the newer players and get them squared away. But early in the season, it is OK to take extra time explaining the drill, getting extra reps on it and really getting that drill set up for the rest of the season when you won’t have that extra time.

You also need to have multiple people doing the drill at once. The only way I can get through my everyday drills in the 5 minutes is to have five people going at once. When you practice anything on air, have all your OL do them at once.

Your corrections need to be concise as well – no lengthy explanations. Two of my most common coaching points are “Gain ground!” and “Keep a base!” My players know what I’m looking for and those phrases serve as a reminder. Sometimes you run into a new situation – maybe the defense you’re going against that week does something weird and you’ve got to talk through it. That’s OK – better to get it right, but just try to do that once. The rest of the time, the corrections are short, quick and to the point.

If you have problems seeing everything along a horizontal plane (for example, along a row of players) then consider “stacking” the drill – maybe instead of having five people go at once across a row, think about having three rows in three columns go instead. It’s easier to see three columns go than 5, AND you get 4 more people involved.

The other benefit of breaking practices down to 5 minute periods is player boredom and enthusiasm. Doing the same thing over and over again can result in lessening levels of attention to detail. Players (and sometimes coaches) can get lax when seeing the same thing repeatedly. So moving onto something new after only 5 minutes is a great way to keep things fresh.

At least initially, the coach should employ a countdown timer, whether he is doing it himself or a manager or injured player is doing it. By now (I’ve been using these time periods since 1996) I’ve got a pretty good idea in my head how much I can get done in five minutes, but in the beginning I found myself saying “Holy crap – five minutes already?” an awful lot. It just really puts a premium on your own organization and then carries over to the pace of your practice.

So cast a critical eye over your practice sessions. See if your players are moving around excitedly or shuffling around going through the motions. The “Five Minute Period” may make a difference.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Modifying Your Run Game

Last week I talked about some fixes if you find your pass protection isn’t working out the way you thought, and offering some solutions to get it back on track. This week I’ll do the same for the run game.

Let’s say that your OL isn’t getting a push, or worse yet, getting driven backwards. The traditional lead/iso, dive or inside zone plays aren’t working for you. Outside of firing your OL, what do you do?

Get outside!
I think the first thing you have to do is to establish an outside run game. This takes emphasis away from the OL and puts it more on the backs. How you do it is up to you, as there are numerous ways: pitch, fly sweep, or the rocket pitch. Even the outside zone could be considered part of this, although it does take a little more of a physical presence from the OL than the others.

Once you establish your perimeter game, then it is much easier to counter that with the occasional inside run when you see defenses overplaying the outside threat.

Create misdirection
One of the great things about this is that it doesn’t change assignments of the OL. If you have two backs (and the QB) crossing in some form or fashion and there is doubt about who has the ball, it makes the defenses hesitate, and that may create enough of a physical advantage for your OL to win the battle.

You could formulate plays out of the “Diamond” formation (think Stanford/San Francisco with a RB on each side of the QB, along with 1 RB in back). The key to those runs is having one of the backs block backside pursuit so that the OL can send an extra blocker or two towards the playside. You also can have one of the RB’s block playside as well.

Have an effective pass game
Just because your OL may not be able to move people very well doesn’t mean they can’t be effective shields for your QB! Especially if you’ve developed a quick passing game (see my post from last week). If you can establish that you throw the ball efficiently, then instead of “play” action you can have “pass” action plays – delays off of a throwing motion, draws, mini-reverses off of sprint action, etc.

Utilize gap/down schemes
This could come about a variety of ways: if you’re a spread team, then you’re talking about counter trey, or one-back power schemes. If you’re an I-back team, then instead of the lead/iso mindset, maybe the power would be your “go to” play. Or you could become a Wing-T or Double Wing team. The main thing is that if your OL can’t move a defender one on one, then create angles for them.

Other thoughts
I had some feedback after my last post regarding fixing the root of the problem. I wholeheartedly agree that fixing the cause (OL technique or power) should be the number one priority. However, in the men’s semi-pro, the women’s and in the youth game, we don’t have off-season programs like you would see in high school. Although it is something I’ve long desired (the Dallas Diamonds under Coach Todd Hughes had a phenomenal workout plan), it has never really worked out. Maybe some of that is my fault, since I’ve been coaching in both the spring and fall for the past three years. I’m not coaching this fall, so maybe we can get something together. Anyway, sometimes at these levels you’re never quite sure what you have and what will work until it is a bit late in the game to think that your pass pro technique or run blocking prowess will all of a sudden get better.

The better you are at being realistic about what your team can and can’t do well, the earlier you can make adjustments that will put your players in the best position to succeed. I see it all the time – coaches want to be a spread team, throwing the ball around and they draw up plays that are well-designed…..if they could pass block, or if the QB had the arm strength to make the throws that are being drawn up.

I may have mentioned this story before, so forgive me, but my first offensive coordinator job was for a men’s team in 1999. I’d just come from the high school ranks and installed the offense we ran there. After the first game, it became apparent we couldn’t pass block to save our lives. Gave up 8 sacks that first game. The second week we played a lousy team and won. But then my QB just up and left. Didn’t see him again until 2005. We had a bye week, and one of my receivers came up to me and said, “Hey coach – how about we run the wishbone?” My response was to the effect of “as long as I’m here we’re not running any effing Wishbone…”

Well, once I thought about it a little bit, I came to the realization that my OL just wasn’t up to the task. Whether it was my coaching or their ability at that point didn’t matter – something had to change if we wanted to be anything other than lousy.

We installed the wishbone in four practices and ran it the rest of the year. We ended up being the second highest scoring offense in the league. Unfortunately for us, our defense was second from the bottom, so we ended up 7-5.

The point is how things don’t work out the way you might think, even after seeing your team in practice for weeks. I hope that what I offered up this week and last week may get you through the season until you can re-start your efforts to improve your OL. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Modifying Your Passing Game

As I’ve mentioned before, pass protection at the youth, women’s and sometimes even the men’s semi-pro level can be atrocious. Lots of reasons for that, but the purpose of this article isn’t to fix the OL per se, but to give a coaching staff who realizes they can’t keep their QB upright and mobile in a drop back setting some ideas on how to get an effective passing game nonetheless.

Be a great screen team. Oddly enough, if your offensive line is otherwise a great pass blocking unit, sometimes screens don’t work well because they are easy to sniff out if the DE who has been shut down all day suddenly has a free run at the QB. Anyone in that case has to ask themselves, “why I am beating the blocker all of a sudden?” But on the other hand, if an OL pass protects relatively poorly, screens may work well. Especially for those of us who play under NCAA rules, screens are great. The Chicago Force is probably the best screen team I’ve ever seen, period, at any level. They ran a myriad of them last year and did them all well. Check for film on them.

Use a quick perimeter passing game. By “screens” above I meant mostly the half back / running back type of delayed screens. Another thing you can do to help your OL is to develop a quick perimeter game, which would include the various WR screens. These do not require the OL to hold blocks for long (and you may elect to free release your tackles to get involved in the blocking, just make sure your guards and center forms a shield up front) and they are normally easier passes for your QB to complete, giving him/her more confidence overall in the passing game.

Move the pocket. Utilize sprint out concepts to move the launch point of the QB and force the pass rush to adjust. By keeping the defense guessing where the QB will be, it helps to simplify the types of blitzes you will see, thereby helping with your protection. Also, by getting the QB out of the pocket there is always the chance that perimeter defenders will fill, leaving receivers open or if they stay back, giving the QB a chance to pick up yards on his/her own.

These last two are not my favorites by any means, but bear a look:

Teach your OL to cut. I generally am very reluctant to have my OL cut a whole lot. Usually it is only when there is a definite physical mismatch that we can’t otherwise counter with scheme or technique that I suggest giving it a try. The reason I don’t like it is that very often it isn’t effective – but maybe I just don’t coach it well enough. Usually what happens is my OL ends up blocking the 30-yard line while the defender jumps over them. But we have used it on occasion against an extremely quick and aggressive DT who in the confines of the trenches had little room to maneuver. I haven’t had much success with it on the outside against a DE though.

Modify your protection. There’s a couple of parts to this, and I don’t think you can safely do one without the other:
Cut down your splits. Down to 6” if you need to. I know an awful lot of teams who use the “water buffalo” cup type of protection. They get these big ol’ bodies all facing one way and just dare anything to try and come between them. Against a defense that continually blitzes inside, this can be a good counter. The problem then becomes on the outside – the reduction of the splits also means less distance for the outside rushers to get to your QB. So the second part of this solution, keeping the RB(s) in comes into play. An excellent example of this would be the Central Cal War Angels. They have a stout front five, and then two extremely big and strong RB’s. When they want to work their deeper routes, all seven stay in and they’re pretty darn tough to get by!

If you’d like an overview on the different types of pass protections, please see my January 8 post and my January 15 post.

Special note to offensive coordinators and head coaches: I understand that many of you want pretty, sophisticated passing games. You love drawing up route combinations that will bedazzle opposing defenses. I do too. But for the sake of your QB’s health, please remember that none of that will look very pretty with your QB sidelined due to injury. As Coach Mike Barry once said, “For every inch of passing routes some QB coach draws on a whiteboard, there is one second of protection that has to take place.”

Your job remains to get the defense playing with doubt, no matter what tools you do or don’t have at your disposal. Play the hand you’re dealt and remember that it truly does start up front.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Professional Standards in Coaching

I suppose I could be considered an “old school” type of coach. I started coaching football in 1991, as the Varsity Assistant OL Coach for San Clemente High. I made the drive down to San Clemente daily from my house in Santa Ana – 32 miles one way in Orange County traffic. During the offseason, I came down three nights a week to open up the weight room. I got no stipend, no compensation for my time or gas. All I knew is that I wanted to coach. The hours weren’t really all that bad. The OC did all of the game planning, he handed us a scouting report and adjustments for that week on Monday, so there wasn’t much in the way of weekend work.

The next season, the OC got hired at Westminster La Quinta as the head coach. He brought me up with him as the varsity OL/DL coach, as well as the strength coach. This was great – it was only about 6 blocks from my house! The first order of business for me was cleaning up the decrepit weight room – it was a real mess. So the HC and I got the place cleaned up and equipped with new gear. It was a real hit with the players. I ended up being in there during the offseason 5 nights a week. We put together a powerlifting team that did quite well. During the season, as before, the HC/OC did all the grunt work, so my weekend work was minimal and the commute was nothing. My pay for that? $2,000 for the year. Again, I just wanted to coach. The money was a bonus and paid a few extra bills and some extra Christmas presents.

In 1994, while attending a coaching clinic, I met George Berg, the head coach at Fountain Valley High. They were one of the “Big Dogs” of central Orange County, along with Huntington Beach Edison and Santa Ana Mater Dei. The prospect of going from a Division 9 school that had two consecutive 2-8 seasons to a D-1 school that had just gone 12-1 was daunting. I made the jump, and it may as well have been across the Grand Canyon, even though there was only about 1.5 miles between La Quinta and Fountain Valley.

It was at FVHS that I really learned how to be a football coach. I already mentioned George Berg. Hank Cochrane was the OC, Willy Puga was the QB coach and Jim O’Connell was the incumbent OL coach, who would leave that summer to take over at Aliso Viejo, a brand new school. It was a great staff!

So now, during the season, instead of an average of 19 hours a week I spent on football, it went up to 48 hours a week! I was at the school from about 3:30 until 7:00 each weekday. On Fridays it was 3:30 until about 11:00. Saturday morning we were in at 7:00am and left around 6:00pm. On Sundays we were in at 9:00am and left around 6:00pm. I had definite responsibilities that were expected of me. I have no idea what would have happened had I not done them, but with those coaches I really didn’t want to find out. Not doing those tasks wasn’t an option, period. Doing them half-assed was even worse, because then I had to do them over. I learned quickly what was expected. I finally felt like a real coach.

I was privileged to coach at FVHS for five years. Although I made more in pure dollars there, because of working summer camps and the weight room during the spring, I still only made about $1.85 an hour. However, the knowledge I gained there and the insight as to what it took to be a successful coach competing against some of the best programs in the country was priceless. I can never repay those coaches for taking me under their wing and coaching me up.

All of the above was to paint a picture of my background and where I’m coming from for this next part. Since leaving Fountain Valley, I’ve not been able to coach at the high school level due to my work schedule. I’ve always said that I’d coach high school ball again in a minute if a team would practice at night! So since then, I’ve coached mostly at the men’s semi-pro level and at the women’s level. Obviously, there’s no pay at those levels. Then again, I’m not spending 48 hours a week on it either.

Here’s the thing – last week, we lost two coaches. Experienced ones, ones that coached (or coach) at the varsity level. The reasons they left, to me, were asinine. One left because the head coach asked him to be on time to practice. The other left because he didn’t want to do a walk-through when we found ourselves with some extra time on our hands. Both these guys are friends – one I worked for before and hope to work with again – but they were dead wrong in my book.

If you’re going to demand things from your players – and this goes for the men’s or women’s side – such as punctuality, discipline and sacrifice, then you need to set the example. The players need to see ALL the coaches there on time, not just the head coach. I normally try to show up 30 minutes before the start of practice, so I can say hi to my players, answer questions and even have a short position meeting if it is necessary. Trust me, the players lose respect for coaches who wander in late. And it’s funny, because one of those coaches, who didn’t want to show up on time, used to berate male players who were late to his practice if they weren’t running to get there on time. If they were walking while late, he lit into them.

I really think it is a men’s game syndrome, this showing up when you want. My first head coaching experience was with a San Diego all star team. We were going to play a team of LA all stars. We had three practices to get everything done. So I put together the practice plans, assigned responsibilities to the coaches and showed up for our first practice 30 minutes before the start time. At the start time, I had 6 players there out of 40. Two of my other 6 coaches were there. It was extremely frustrating.

The following year, I took over as the HC for the National City Bears. My thing was that we were going to start practice a half hour later than the previous season, because almost everyone came late to every practice. So I thought we’d shorten practice by 30 minutes by pushing it back, and make up the time through efficiency on the field. Didn’t work. Only one other coach would show up early. The others would show up right at the start of practice, or 20-30 minutes late. The players continued to show up late. I don’t know what would have happened if the entire staff was on time – maybe the players would have gotten the hint. But that lack of commitment really soured me on the men’s side of things.

Fortunately with the Surge, we’ve established a culture of punctuality. It has also manifested itself onto our results – 32-3 over the last three seasons. The coaches have all (the ones that are left) bought in. The moral of the story? If you want to perform at a national championship level, there are sacrifices  you may need to make in terms of your time. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a volunteer – heck, the players are *paying* to play! Don’t be a hypocrite – practice what you preach. It’s not about whether you’re getting paid or not, it’s about whether or not you’re among the best in the country at the end of the season.

Coaching football is demanding if you do it right, without trying to take shortcuts. Those demands are worth it in the long run, and the title of “coach” will be well deserved and is an honor in itself. Live up to that honor.