How to Survive with a Young or Inexperienced Defense

June 14, 2017

It happens to most every team.  Especially at the smaller schools. You just don’t have many returning defensive players.  Your squad has a couple of seniors who have never played much and some freshmen that have a bright future, but aren’t ready to be an every down player.  You are short on speed in the secondary or short on size in the defensive line.  How are you going to survive the year and give your team a chance in this day and age of spread offense, RPO magic and high scoring games?  Mostly by controlling what you can control.  Here are some tips that might help you stay close early and improve that defense as the year progresses.

  1. Make sure you are gap sound, have a QB contain player and force player to each side (the force player usually has pitch) and know how to play the zone read every time you line up.  Teach it with simple terminology and if a defensive look doesn’t have a force player or a QB contain player, teach your players how you are going to handle that.  If you are running a stunt, know who has what because it could change. Defensive coaches and teams can control this every week.

    Oct 29, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiver Dominic Thieman (84) is upended by Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. (11) during the 1st quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

  2. Emphasize getting off blocks, running to the ball and tackling.  No matter what look you align in and no matter what position a young man plays, if he is on defense he must be able to do these three things.  He will not do it unless you practice it in drills and emphasize it in team periods and in the film room. Utilize every drill you can to teach these three basics. Don’t use the latest practice rules as an excuse for not doing it physically or daily.  Be creative but coach these three things.  Better tackling means less big plays. One element of this concept that a lot of coaches forget-this is about technique as well as motivating the defensive unit to play hard!  Inspire them to play hard every down.  Defensive coaches and teams can control this every week.
  3. Be a Turnover Fanatic.   If you are young, you are probably going to give up a few more yards and first downs. So you really need a few more turnovers.  This doesn’t mean do a few turnover drills. This means that getting the ball back must be part of your defensive culture. Look to strip runners. Stunt more and be aggressive on passing situations.  Teach rushers to strip the QB as they make the sack.  Coach takeaways in team periods. Look for opposing ball carriers who have fumble issues and let your players know.  You must make an issue about it every week. Do turnover circuits. Keep stats, reward players if you must but get the ball back for the offense. Defensive coaches and teams can control this every week by establishing the right mind set.
  4. Practice Third Down Defense. With a youthful defense, you may give up some first downs on 1st or 2nd down.  But when you do get the offense to 3rd down, you need to be prepared. It is your chance to get the ball back. Most offensive plays are set up for normal situations on 1st and 2nd down.  But third down is the money down.  Your defense must have a third and short, third and medium and third and long philosophy.  You must set up your defense to stop the opponent on third and short.  In order to do that, you must get in the mind of the OC on the other side.  Know what he will do on 3rd and 2 from the right hash mark late in the third quarter.  Let your “D” attack what you expect, whether that is QB sneak or off tackle play. Have a third and long package utilizing both stunts and coverage.  Get your best guys on the field on third down.  Every Wednesday, significant time should be set aside to work third downs.  Write it up, give it to the players and have them memorize it. Do a cutup on Hudl of each 3rd down.  Study it, teach it and convince the players that you are great on third down. Defensive coaches and teams can control this every week.
  5. Substitute, Substitute, Substitute!  An inexperienced or young player who will play hard is better t0 put in the game than leaving old Joe the senior in to play half speed when he is out of gas. Substituting helps build depth and helps build next year’s team. Look for what a player can do well and find a way to let him do it. If he can play defensive tackle for three plays, he can rest one of your other guys who needs to sit a minute.  You will never build depth by keeping the same 11 guys out there. Sometime you put a guy in the game with low expectations only to be surprised by his play.  Up his reps and go win the game next week! By the middle of the season some of those guys will be much better than they were in that first game of the year. Look for ways to get a guy in the game, not reasons for why you can’t play him. Defensive coaches and teams can control this every week.
  6. Stunt More!  No doubt that you will not play read technique as well as an experienced team. Therefore you need to be more aggressive and stunt a little more.  Get the turnover, stunt into the off tackle play.  But stunt more! Learn how to practice this. Have stunt periods. Defensive coaches and teams can control this every week.
  7. Study Goal Line Defense.  Chances are as a young group, you will probably play more goal line situations than the average team.  The DC must know everything possible about formations, plays and what to expect.  Study the video and stop what they do and do it with your best group.  Get a great goal line plan and convince your players that they can stop the offense. Practice it at least two days a week for 15 minutes each day.  Put it on paper for them to study. Defensive coaches and teams can control this every week.
  8. KEEP IT SIMPLE! – When famous defensive coordinator Bill Arnsbarger took over as San Diego Chargers DC in the 1990’s, he said that their biggest problem was getting lined up correctly to the offensive formation. Your system must be so simple that the guy with the lowest ACT score will know what to do at all times.  Don’t have too many stunts and looks and coverages or everyone will just look at you with a blank stare.  Execution is the name of the game. Do walk thrus, chalk talks and video sessions or anything else that will help the players learn the defense. Defensive coaches and teams can control this every week.

Finally, sell your style of defense to your players. Get a vision of what you want this defense to look like and coach to that vision everyday!  Set up your practices to emphasize these concepts and give yourself a chance to be competitive early and a stronger group late in the season.