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32 Solutions for the 12 Biggest Problems You\'ll Face this SeasonHow to deal when it all falls apart...
by: Mike Kuchar
Senior Writer, American Football Monthly
© September 2008
Monitor and adjust. It’s probably the most useful axiom in the coaching and teaching profession. We’re all regimented people by nature, which is why we get into this in the first place. We have everything accounted for and leave nothing to chance – from the opening stretch period in practice to our awards dinner in December. But what if that plan starts to tumble and collapse right in front of our face? What if your all-area QB tears his ACL during two-a-days? What if your seniors are not taking accountability for their program? What if your 4.4 burner at tailback just can’t seem to hang onto the rock? Now what do you do? Most of us assume the attitude of “crossing that bridge when or if it comes.” American Football Monthly has crossed it for you – and provided solutions just in case you’re left dealing with Plan B. We polled thousands of coaches across the country at every level on what common problems they will see during the year. Your problems – their solutions. So we may not be able to help you with every little thing – like 70 percent of your team coming down with the Impetigo virus (as it did for us at North Brunswick (NJ) last summer) but we will play Mr. Fix-it for the following:
Problem 1. Not playing to the level of your opponent – avoiding a major let down early in the season... how do you deal with this issue? Are there ways to motivate a team that is under achieving?
Solution 1: “A team that is not ready to play each week is a team with low goals, low self-expectations, or a fat head! A coach must know which team he has and eradicate the problem. The low goal team or low expectations team must be told or sold the high expectations that the program has for them. This can be done by having the kids set the goals and clearly have the expectations outlined for them. I recommend doing away with things like wearing jerseys to school on Mondays after a win and other items to refocus on the current week.” - Bob DeLong • Offensive Coordinator • Xenia High School (OH)
Solution 2: “The best solution for under achieving by playing to the level of an opponent has always been schedule! If the early games are either archrivals or teams of programs equal to or better than ours, there is no problem or concern with under achieving. We have always stressed during our “preparation season” – what many seem to think is the offseason – that our early opponents are preparing for us so we must prepare for them.” - J. Gawen Stoker • former HC • Indian Valley High School (PA)
Solution 3: “A core belief in our program is ‘to look beyond the score and scrutinize the way we play.’ That is what we're selling to our kids here at Massillon Jackson High School . I'm convinced that once our kids understand and embrace that concept, our weekly goal becomes more than just winning that game that week. We want to be proud and pleased with the way we played. Our opponent becomes ourselves. We attempt to play to our level and try to minimize the level of play of the opponent.” - Thomas A. McDaniels • Head Coach • Massillon Jackson High School (OH)
Problem 2: Your running back has ball control issues... if he’s prone to fumbling, how do you improve his ball security?
Solution 1: “From day one we always talk about the five pressure points when holding the ball – the fingertips, the palm, the inside forearm, the bicep and squeezing the ribs. You have to enforce this during every aspect of individual, group or team work. Every chance you get, monitor to make sure that your player is holding it that way, in the tuck position. We do everything from seat rolls to plyometrics carrying the ball just to make sure he’s doing it right. And we rarely switch the ball unless he is in the open field. It only causes problems. We have them carry it in their dominant hand. If it becomes a reoccurring problem, I don’t think punishment is the answer and it usually is a lack of fundamentals, not a psychology issue.” - Kurt Roper • Offensive Coordinator • Duke University
Solution 2: “As a spread option team, ball security is a priority with us. Just as everyone else, our players are taught the five pressure points and run through a variety of ball security drills. We always try to combine drills, like our run skeleton. We use two cones. As the backs go through they have to keep the ball covered with both hands until they pass the LB level cone. Then, five yards past that cone the back executes an up/down while holding the ball before returning to the start of the drill. We also make our backs hand the ball to a coach or an official at the end of each play. We never lay the ball on the ground. We tell our backs to lose a play to a fumble but never lose the possession.” - Randy Pinkowski • Head Coach • C.B. Aycock High School (NC)
Solution 3: “We have tried everything you can think of. After 41 years in coaching I can only say that the most effective tool has been to sit down and explain to the player what can happen with a fumble. The extra yard he struggled for and got the ball popped out isn't very comparable to the opponent having possession of the ball and putting our defense back on the field. If they still don't get the idea, then we tell them it's like carrying your momma's purse to the store and some guy is trying to steal it. Now do you want to tell your mom what happened to her purse?” - Louis Farrar • Head Coach • Charter Oak HS (CA)
Problem 3: Not being able to get the ball in the hands of your playmaker and teams finding ways to limit his touches...what do you do to counter the frustration inherent to this problem?
Solution 1: “Like many high schools today, we feature a multiple formation offense. By placing our ‘playmaker’ in a number of positions and places on the field, we can exploit a defense and force it to over compensate to defend him. When that is done, we use all of the weapons at our disposal. We are not a single player team. In addition, an outstanding player can be of use in a number of beneficial ways; as a blocker, a decoy, a special teams threat, etc. If the player has extraordinary talent, we/he can perform regardless of the tactics devised to stop him. Do not hesitate to use him. His talent must be available and used! The opponent still must perform. We do not ever allow the opponent to take him out of the game. A well coached team will always find ways to use him. Finally, frustration only occurs when emphasis is misplaced.” - Ron Stolski • Head Coach • Brainerd High School (MN)
Solution 2: “We use the shovel pass as our play whenever we have a key player who has not had enough touches. We run a misdirection shovel (old ‘run ‘n shoot’ play and a simple trap for the OL); a fake option play with an underneath shovel; and a slip screen type of shovel. These plays offer virtually a 100% completion rate (not a bad selling point to the QB also). Because the OL blocks each as standard plays, we can generally get a guaranteed touch with a chance for that playmaker to have an opportunity for such a play. We always include these in our script to make sure we get the ball in his hands early or at key moments in the game.” - Steve Hopkins • Head Coach • Basehor-Linwood High School (KS)
Problem 4: Dealing with an early season setback such as an injury to your best player...how do you counter this setback and what is the contingency plan if this occurs?
Solution 1: “I actually had this happen to me this year! This past season was my first year as a high school head coach and I unfortunately had two of my top five players go down with a serious injury. Injuries are things we as coaches have really no control over and when they happen you must have a contingency plan if this occurs. By contingency plan I'm meaning giving multiple players looks at multiple positions early in the pre-season so that they are comfortable with any new positions in case of injury. I'm at a very small school so one injury can really hurt a season but you cannot throw your hands up in surrender! You and your coaching staff have to go with the next best guy at that position. For example, I have all my O-linemen practice at all positions on the line from right tackle to left tackle and between because you never know when you’re going to need someone and they have to be prepared!” - Jared Van Acker • Head Coach • Galax High School (VA)
Solution 2: “Knock on wood a lot! However, all players in practice rotate - our starter takes six snaps in each group or team situation and then we rotate for three plays. We stagger the rotation so key backups are always with other starters so we are not always running just a #2 unit. Secondly, we do have a special set of script offensive plays for such a situation where we might lose a key player; that is, point of attack OL; QB; RB; TE for example which are ‘all the time’ plays, ones we believe we can execute with any sub against any opponent and our kids believe they will succeed. On defense, we have personnel groups which can be used to change up our front or our style. This allows us to not rely only on a certain one or two players. We have a ‘bandit’ group to put faster, quicker rushers on the field. All our players know this, and when Bandit personnel comes in, and two of our bigger, stronger, not as quick defensive linemen leave, we still believe we will succeed. Hopefully, if a key front player were lost, we could use those bandit players as a group or have developed a successful sub for the starter in case of an injury. We also have a rotation for special teams - long snappers, punters, etc., but these positions are actually the most difficult sometimes to replace. The backup simply has to be ready, so we simulate an injury often in practice situations and call out for key subs on all phases - offense, defense, and special teams. Having said all that, in high school, this is still our greatest challenge; to prepare backups and to do so while still improving.” - Steve Hopkins • Head Coach • Basehor-Linwood HS (KS)
Solution 3: “Injuries are setbacks for some, but opportunities for others. We stress the opportunity angle. But we're not unprepared. Each day in practice, we work some of the back-ups in with the starters, both as a way to create depth and ‘just in case.’ As a coaching staff, we also spend some time each week talking about the strengths and weaknesses of our kids which most of us do anyway. Part of the discussion concerns this very topic: ‘What if we lost our best lineman or runner, receiver, etc.?’ By having this conversation ahead of time, we begin to create that contingency plan, should something happen.” - Jack Marmon • Assistant Coach • Little Falls High School (MN)
Problem 5: Senior leadership issues among the team – upper classmen not taking accountability for THEIR program... how do you get your team back on the right track?
Solution 1: “This issue should be addressed beginning in the freshman year. Then, with a logical leadership teaching sequence, the senior class understands that the day they report for that last season, it is their team! If the coaches are new and do not have the luxury of years of training, I suggest a shock effect early training camp leadership course for seniors only. It could be conducted by the coach, meet every day for a few minutes, and emphasize the rewards of great leadership for everyone, starting with the guys who are seniors! They could be reminded that the pro scouts ask early and often about each prospect's leadership capability.” - Bill Curry • Head Coach • Georgia State University and former Head Coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama, and Kentucky
Solution 2: “You must constantly be communicating with your seniors. Goals and meetings should take place with this group before the season starts. If you're not proactive with this, and if you don't communicate properly early and often, you will have senior leadership problems. You must develop your leaders.” - Bill Cretaro • Assistant Coach • Chittenango High School (NY)
Solution 3: “During two-a-days we have a Leadership Seminar. There, we go over all the attributes that we as a coaching staff feel are important to our team. The following are some of the items we talk about: The only real requirement you must have is a sincere DESIRE TO BE OF HELP TO YOUR TEAMMATES. A false effort will immediately be recognized as such. This type effort will have a more harmful effect than helpful. Sincerity and enthusiasm are contagious. Your main communication tool is your behavior during practice and games. Even if your productivity isn’t at its best on any given day, your effort and competitiveness must be consistently among the highest on the team. Spend more time hustling and working hard, and less time telling your teammates to hustle and work hard. They’ll respond to your example more than they’ll respond to your words. The example has to come first.” - Jeff Schaum • Head Coach • Maclay High School (FL)
Problem 6: Tackling issues – the team’s consistency in missing tackles..how do you improve this problem?
Solution 1: “With spread offenses being more prevalent than ever, this is definitely something that can’t be over coached. Like a lot of other programs, we have our players split up into stations and work situational tackling like angle, goal line, open field, etc. But something else we do is work on half field tackling which we call our focal pursuit tackling. On every defensive scheme there is a force player who attacks the outside pec of the ball carrier, the hammer player who attacks head up on the ball carrier, and the cutback player who attacks the backside hip of the ball carrier. Players need to know where they fit in each scheme and learn how to vice and leverage the football. It has become more of a team issue and less of an individual issue.” - Will Muschamp • Defensive Coordinator • University of Texas
Solution 2: “Poor tackling usually has to be fixed from the ground up. One of the biggest fundamental flaws I find myself constantly correcting is footwork. Many players feel that the longer step they take prior to contact will equate to a bigger hit. Others leave their feet completely and feel that diving through the air will result in a bigger hit. Both of these will lead to missed or inconsistent tackles. To me, the timing of tackling is much like hitting a baseball or boxing. The step prior to contact should be a short one, getting in the ground just prior to contact. If that step gets in the ground too early, the tackler will usually overextend and will wind up with his head down or lunging too far forward. If contact is made prior to the step getting in the ground, there is no power. The timing of the step can be practiced very easily. If you have a sled that has pads that can be extended upward (hinged), you can have the athlete start from 3-4 yards away and hit the first pad, fit and roll hips, and then retreat back. Then attack the next pad and repeat the process. After going through the sled, he will get from 5-7 reps within 25 seconds with you right in front of him. This is a very efficient way to isolate and coach their footwork.” - David Edward Prince • Defensive Coordinator • South Florence High School (SC)
Solution 3: “Tackling issues are issues that develop early on and as the coach, you must go back to the basics and teach tackling from the beginning. Unfortunately, many tackling problems can be attributed to high school age kids watching poor tackling technique from higher levels and the emphasis our culture puts on the ‘de-cleater’ by taking someone off the ground. Tackling is instinct and an art that can be learned through repetition after repetition after repetition. We practice tackling every week and the kids go through a tackling circuit where we break our kids up into four groups into four stations of tackling: eye-opener drill--where the defender meets the ball carrier in four holes and wraps up on contact and runs through the tackle; the popsicle drill: the coaches stress hip movement on contact and exploding upward through the sled and grabbing cloth/wrapping up; sideline angle tackling drill-where the defender takes an angle on a ball carrier and drives through the tackle emphasizing getting their head in front and and using the sideline as an extra defender; and the form tackling drill where the coaches run the defender through the step-by-step process of making a proper tackle emphasizing pad level, proper head/shoulder placement, and use of arms/hands.” - Jared Van Acker • Head Coach • Galax High School (VA)
Problem 7: Dealing with academic and disciplinary issues like cutting classes or grades...what can be done to solve this issue?
Solution 1: “I have a grade book printed up locally. It contains the same number of pages that are in the school year. There are columns on each page where the player lists his classes, a place where the teacher can check homework completed, behavior problems, tardiness, and put their grade in once a week. The players have to get their book signed by the teacher daily. Failure to do so and they will get a reminder (up-downs). I thought the teachers may not like signing every players book at the end of class all day long, but as it turned out, they really liked it. It helped them out just as much as it has our players. When the players reported to practice each day they had to show me their book as they entered the field house. It's a pain checking all of them everyday, but it sure solved a lot of problems before they develop. In the off-season, I check them before weight lifting each day.” - Sam Harp • Head Coach • Danville High School (KY)
Solution 2: “Again, playing time is the best motivator. While we do not suspend players for poor grades, we do have policies that don't permit players to practice or play in games if they don't meet all their academic commitments. In our school academics come first, and while I don’t make a regular practice of it, I have allowed some players to take a day off of practice to get ‘caught up’ academically. With regard to disciplinary issues, we have team rules that can prohibit playing time.” - John R. MacKay • Head Coach • St. Georges School (RI)
Solution 3: “Class cutting and academic transgressions: one thing... this generation fears one, and only one thing... the bench. If you are willing to bench a starter or two, you can get class attendance up very, very quickly. You also create more competition for playing time among those who do things right without being reminded.” - Bill Curry • Head Coach • Georgia State University
Problem 8: Unproductivity in the red zone. Not being able to finish drives especially because of the lack of a strong field goal kicker...how to you deal with this issue?
Solution 1: “After stretch-flex and some ballistic warm-up, put the ball on the 8 yard line and go first offense vs. first defense with four downs to score. Start every one of the three work practices putting the ball on the 8. Make sure your coaches are intense and coach, although the idea is to emphasize scoring/holding them out. The losing unit does up/downs.” - Bruce Evans • Linebackers Coach • Clarke Central HS (GA)
Solution 2: “Develop a good working relationship with your soccer coach and you will have an ample supply of the necessary evil known as kickers. The red zone takes extra practice. We dedicate two scrimmage periods per week to coming out and going in the end zone. To keep it simple, once we are inside the five, we come out of the spread and go into the power I formation. The kids love this change and so do the fans. In our teaching progression, everything is taught by field landmarks even play selection. The kids understand the need to protect the ball in this area and the type of plays we will call. This, again, allows them to play with confidence.” - Randy Pinkowski • Head Coach • C.B. Aycock High School (NC)
Problem 9: Special teams letdowns – losing a game because of special teams play...what can be done to improve special teams play?
Solution 1: “There are plenty of things you can do to not let this happen. Here are just a few:
• Be ready for critical end of game kicking situations which can make or break your season. Have your field goal team practice running onto thefield as the clock ticks down – while teammates are screaming.
• Put your punt team under pressure by executing a one step punt from your own one yard line – with a twelve man rush.
• Install a ten man rush on your punt return team – against various punt protections.
• Be sure your kicker can hit an onside kickoff on command - with both feet.
• Prepare your hands team by safely recovering any type of onsides kick - from multiple kickers. These are many of the things that we do to avoid this.” - Lee McDonald • Special Teams Coordinator • North Brunswick Township High School (NJ)
Solution 2: “Several years ago our special teams were a real problem. As head coach I decided that I would take over the special teams. Immediately that gave credibility to it. The first part of our playbook and our practice is special teams. At the beginning of each season I show the team a 5 foot trophy. I explain that this is not the award for the team MVP. Instead it goes to the player that grades the highest on special teams. Believe me, every player in the room wants to take that trophy home. No players are off limits. Every coach has an area that they are responsible for on each special team (just like on offense and defense). If that area breaks down during a game, that coach is accountable for it. Our special teams have become a real weapon for us. I feel like it is an advantage we have against any opponent.” - Bill Kennedy • Head Coach • Spring Valley High School (NY)
Problem 10: Poor personnel management from the sideline; penalties for not lining up properly, offside penalties, and your athletes' running onto the field late. Is it the coaches' or the players' fault or both?
Solution 1: “Usually, these kinds of problems result from trying to do too many things that are poorly practiced. You never take enough time to do a few things right. Just as actors don't walk onto a stage without rehearsing, the same can be said for game management. The head coach must lay out who is responsible for what, who reports to whom, what each coach is accountable for and how we communicate. There also need to be quality control people who are watching and listening to be sure things are properly done. Many times there are coaches, players, fans, etc. who get overzealous and want to run things. Game day communication needs to be practiced. Coaches can do this by viewing a game tape and having the head coach orchestrate the communication process. Each coach has a job, a location and another coach with whom he communicates. Once you have your game day communication process in place with your coaches, take practice time and simulate a game.” - Larry Payne • Assistant Coach (retired) • North Bend HS (OR)
Solution 2: “Both! Coaches need to have their players ready and need to have them ‘in the game.’ If a player is consistently making the same mistake, like not lining up properly, then he should not be on the field. That is up to the coach to make sure the best player is on the field to do the job. There should always be communication between the coaches and the players as to what is going to happen. That way when a certain situation arises the players are ready to get on the field. It is also the players’ responsibility to pay attention to the game so when they are needed they will know it.” - Zak Bessac • Offensive Coordinator • Warner Park HS (CA)
Solution 3: “In my opinion, offsides or illegal formation penalties are completely avoidable. We have adjusted our formation so the same players are on the line every play or off the line every play. That way there is no confusion and the players understand the expectation. To combat offensive offsides we have gone to the ‘freeze’ or ‘chatter’ concept. We go on one all the time, unless we call a ‘freeze,’ at which time we go to the line with the called play being no play. It was good for 15 yards per game last season and only one offensive offsides against us. As an offensive coach, I am always okay with starting at first and five or getting a key third down conversion because the other team has been sucked into our rhythm.” - Sam Nichols • Head Coach • South Haven High School (MI)
Problem 11: On field game/time management issues... what can be done if this is a problem within your coaching staff?
Solution 1: “Proper preparation prevents poor performance! All coaches should know your total offense and defense. It is each coach's responsibility to know the techniques being used by the other members of the staff. Changes are to be made from joint decisions with the head coach. Each position coach is responsible for the following: a. thorough preparation for all practices; b. preparation of charts or teaching aids for his position; c. Constant probing of one's thinking to assure he is covering all phases of the game for those players over whom he has direct teaching responsibility; d. Willingness to devote his time tirelessly to all phases of the game; and e. Attitude on the field which indicates a real enjoyment of coaching. Patience and demanding persistence are the keys. We accomplish this by meeting one night a week as a staff beginning in January. In Florida we have 20 days of spring practice in which we get to put our meetings into reality. A lot of our ‘problems’ are already covered prior to the season.” - Jeff Schaum • Head Coach • Maclay High School (FL)
Solution 2: “You must actually practice special situations such as: 1) taking a knee to end a half or game; 2) spiking the ball to stop the clock; 3) running through your two-minute drill with a live clock. It is my responsibility during practice to actually keep a clock when we run this situation. If we fail to get a first down we actually practice running the FG team onto the field, lining up, and executing the kick; 4) We actually practice running plays which take the ball to the middle of the field and getting down on the ground to set up a FG try; and 5) Taking a safety when you have the ball deep in your own territory late in the game with the lead. If you want to be successful in a game with these unique situations you MUST PRACTICE them.” - Joe Bosley III • Assistant Coach • Hereford High School (TX)
Problem 12: Communication issues between the press box coaches and the sideline coaches...how do you improve this issue?
Solution 1: “First and foremost be certain that the sideline communication system you are using is in good working order by pre-testing during the week and immediately prior to the game. Second, have the personnel in the box and on the field matched with their position groups/assignments. The defensive staff is talking to the defensive staff, etc. Third, the sideline and press box must have contributed to the game plan during the week. They participated in comprising the plan and now are actively engaged in implementing it. In addition, they have discussed necessary adjustments, corrections, etc. Their pre-game and half-time direct communication is absolutely essential to implementation. As a head coach you must match up your staff properly and expect and demand their proper preparation.” - Ron Stolski • Head Coach • Brainerd High School (MN)
Solution 2: “We are not convinced that communication between press box and sidelines is all that valuable. If you have one of your position coaches in the press box on the phones and all week he has been successfully coaching his position players, those kids come out of the game to communicate with their position coach who is in the press box. This does not work. The player has lost his ‘crutch.’ In most high school situations the staff does not have the luxury of more than one coach per position.” - Jerry Parrish • Retired Head Coach • North Kitsap HS (WA)
Solution 3: “The solution to the problem is an easy one. When your staff planning meeting takes place, through the game plan for offense and defense, all coaches have specific assignments. We would insure all details of the game plan, while both coordinators would direct any issues regarding it. If any issues occur during the week, each coach would work out the problem with the head coach in attendance. We would have a staff walk thru to make sure we were all on the same page. That would allow any adjustments in the game plan both offensively and defensively with the final approval of the head coach. Communication is essential from the press box coaches as ‘the eye in the sky’ has an advantage seeing certain situations which will be relayed to the coaches on the sideline.” - Ron Prince • Assistant Coach • Santa Rosa High School (CA)
You can go online to www.AmericanFootballMonthly.com to continue to find solutions to ‘12 In-Season Problems.’ Additional responses from AFM subscribers are included for each of the 12 problems.
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