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Ponderosa High School focuses on football fundamentals to shut down opposing offenses
by: Jamie Woodruff
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During the last three years, the Ponderosa football staff has committed itself to focusing on the fundamentals of defensive football. The first twenty minutes of every defensive practice are spent on either a team pursuit drill or a circuit. Our circuits are something we feel are unique and they have allowed us to emphasize the importance of executing basic football skills.

Since the inception of this philosophy in 2001, we have amassed 53 interceptions and 38 fumble recoveries. This has given us an average turnover ratio of + 17. In 2003, 13 of our 25 interceptions came on tipped balls. We have averaged one blocked kick every two games. We believe you get what you emphasize in practice.

We normally have four coaches to teach a station within our circuits, but have performed the circuit with only three coaches. All of the drills within each circuit have a specific and consistent focus such as: forced fumble drills, fumble recovery drills, interception drills, block kick drills, and tackling drills. Each position coach starts the circuit with the athletes he coaches and performs a drill that is most common at that position. As the positions rotate through the circuit, a coach may have to modify his drill to fit the needs of the position. For example, the defensive line coach may start the interception circuit with the D-Line performing a bull rush, then getting their hands up in the passing lane to deflect the pass. However, the linebackers in our schemes would rarely find themselves in this predicament, so we change the drill to the linebacker blitzing from his position and then trying to tip or block the pass. For only 20 minutes a day, this system has given us profound results.

As with all drills, the intensity of the circuit is predetermined, some circuits require great effort while others can be performed at 50% or less to teach main concepts. The expectations of the circuit are clarified prior to the team break. We don’t like the athlete to move from one station to another not sure what each coach may be expecting in the drill. If it is a high intensity drill all the coaches should expect the athletes to train in that manner. Some things one may want to consider in terms of determining intensity of a circuit include time of year, (pre-season, mid-season, and post-season) and day of the week. During the regular season, we are more likely to hit on Tuesday and Wednesday. Therefore, Monday is normally a pursuit drill or a low intensity circuit. We have also adjusted our routine based on how the kids are feeling physically. If the kids are beat up and sore, we obviously back off on the intensity of that circuit for that day or even the week.

Coaching Points
• Always match players by ability.
• If you want to be good at something-practice it!
• Are you coaching bad habits or allowing them to happen?
• All athletes at a station must be vocal and enthusiastic
(pass, ball, fumble etc.).
• Break all skills down

Forced Fumble Circuit

Drill name: “Separate the Ball from the Receiver”

Purpose: To teach defender to strip the ball away from a receiver whose arms are extended and teach keeping your eyes open while concentrating on the football.
Set-up: Place two athletes in various receiver and defender positions. Designate which players as receiver and defender. The football can be held by the receiver and on command extend his arms as if reaching to catch a pass. The defenders hand should attempt to reach between the arms of the receiver to take away the grip on the football. The football can be tossed or thrown by the coach as the athletes become proficient in hand placement and timing.

Coaching points: Defender should maintain arms distance from receiver. The defender should attempt to have the off hand wrapped around the receiver in order to secure the tackle. Defender will understand that receivers are taught to bring the ball into their body. Be patient and do not over-extend.
Position considerations: As with all drills in our circuits, the adjustments for linebacker and defensive line would be made to make it relevant to game situations. This is where the inside linebackers would defend hook / curl routes, outside linebackers; slants, hitches and man coverage techniques. Our defensive line would work on a speed rush and clubbing down on the quarterbacks throwing arm.

Drill name: “Fingers on the Tip of the Football”

Purpose: To teach our athletes to be aware of the football at all times
Set-up: Designate a ball carrier and defender. Position the athletes into a fit position face to face from the side, or from a trail position. Instruct the defender to place his hand on the football so that his fingers are wrapped around the tip of the ball. On command, the defender will pull the football from the grip of the ball carrier. Move the athletes from a fit position to a controlled contact position and instruct the defender to execute the strip as he wraps to secure the tackle
Coaching points: This is a forced fumble drill. Coaches should be focused on hand placement on a tip of the football and a violent pulling action to displace the football.
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up.

Drill name: “Lift and Separate by Second Man”

Purpose: To take away two or three of the contact points a ball carrier has on the football.
Set-up: This drill progression again starts in a fit position. The ball carrier places the football in his right hand holding the ball tight to his side. We have two defenders. The first defender gets into a good form tackle fit on the ball carrier. The second defender comes in on the ball side to execute the strip. As the designated athlete comes to the ball carrier, he uses his outside hand to lift up on the ball carriers elbow while simultaneously punchingdown on through the football. Move the athletes from a fit position to a controlled contact position after all athletes have mastered the technique.
Coaching points: Good running backs are taught to maintain five points of contact on the football and this drill is designed to take away at least two of those contact points.
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up.

Drill name: “Club Strip from Behind”

Purpose: To dislodge the football from an athlete who is running away from a defensive player.
Set-up: Player A has the football in his right arm and player B lines up behind A; the distance and angles can vary depending on skill level. On the “start” command player A begins running in a straight line while player B chases attacking half the man on the ball side. When player B is close enough to get a hold of A with his left hand he clubs down on the ball as violently as possible with his right hand to force the football to come free.
Coaching points: We ask our players to secure and tackle the ball carrier if the football does not come out on the initial effort.
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up. However, we have incorporated this into the D-lines for finish during pass rush drills.

Fumble Recovery Circuit

Drill name: “Battle”

Purpose: The purpose of this drill is to teach the athlete’s body and field awareness as well as securing the football in a competitive situation.
Set-up: The coach stands between two lines of athletes. On the ball movement the first two players run to secure the football using speed, body positioning or any other means to gain the advantage to the football.
Coaching points: We have talked to our players about reading the rotation and speed ofthe rotation of the football to help predict which way the ball will likely bounce (we have not actually done a scientific test)
Position considerations: As with many of our drills we remind ourselves: the bigger and stronger the athletes the less run and collision to avoid injury.

Drill name: “Haystack”

Purpose: We like this drill more for enthusiasm and humor than for a football skill. However, we have found that it forces the athletes to keep their eyes open while in the pile. It also may help for the feel of the football.
Set-up: We stack as many hand shields, agile bags, and dummies as we can to hide the football. The players have their backs to the stack. On the command the athlete attempts to recover the football as quickly as possible. Coaching points: Enthusiasm is the key to this drill.
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up.

Drill name: “Possession Recovery”

Purpose: The purpose of this drill is to teach the athletes how to recover the ball in a tight situation, such as a fumbled exchange at the line of scrimmage or a stripped ball at the end of a run.
Set-up: The set up is the same as the Battle Drill except the coach uses two footballs, one for each line.
Coaching points: We tell our athletes to trap the ball with both hands on the ground and pull it as tight as possible into their midsection. The next step is to put as many parts of their body in contact with the football as they are capable (both thighs, both forearms, both hands etc.) and to curl on their side in a fetal position. Another thing we do is to have them stay on the ground in a good position until a coach or extra player taps them to tell him he does have possession. We have also had another player come in late to try to steal the football.
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up.

Interception Circuit

Drill name: “Tip Drill”

Purpose: This drill is designed to help the athletes maintain their focus on the football at all times.
Set-up: There are many variations of this drill, but in general the athletes line up in a single file line and work in pairs. The coach throws a football to first player as the pair run toward him. The first player tips the football up in the air so the second player can catch it.
Coaching points: Spacing between the two athletes should be approximately five yards. The second athlete should catch the ball at as high a point as possible.
Position considerations: The defensive line works from a closer position to simulate blocking the pass at the release. At times we have worked in groups of up to four defensive linemen to have a better opportunity to catch the ball no matter which direction it may go off of the tip.

Drill name: “Batted Pass”

Purpose: The purpose of this drill is to teach the defensive line to be a factor in the play, even if they do not get a hurry or a sack.
Set-up: The coach stands at seven yards from the LOS. There are as many as three offensive linemen and one defensive lineman. The objective is for the defensive man to get a push on the O-line. The DL should attack 1/2 man on the middle or chosen OL. The DL only tries one pass rush technique. The OL will maintain the pocket. As soon as the DL sees the coach raise the ball, the DL gets separation and positions himself to jump and block the pass. The coach should attempt to maintain proper passing technique with good velocity.
Coaching points: We practice great get-off, attack half a man, good hand placement and body leverage in this drill. During separation, maintain passing lane responsibility and get two hands up if possible. If the QB is not attempting to pass the ball toward the DL he should continue his pass rush or pursue in the direction of the pass.
Position considerations: We will set the drill up with our linebackers as if they are on a blitz and picked up by a running back, which makes the drill look the same as above. Another option for the LB; he can come unblocked and the coach simulates a hot route pass over the LB who tries to block or tip the pass. When we get to the DBs in the circuit we work our robber coverage technique because we rarely blitz or stunt from our secondary.

Drill name: “O/D Drill”

Purpose: To practice underneath man coverage skills.
Set-up: The coach positions himself five yards in front of two athletes standing shoulder to shoulder. On the coach’s command, the players execute their drop technique for pass responsibility or simply back pedal. When the coach points the ball towards one player he breaks at 90 degrees and becomes the receiver, the other player becomes the defense trying to defend the pass. The linemen love this drill!
Coaching points: The athletes can be in the LB stance or DB stance. As the athletes become more proficient allow the receiver to break away at different angles to simulate routes (corner, hitch and fade).
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up.

Kick Block Circuit

Drill name: “PAT / FG from Edge”

Purpose: To teach the technique of blocking a PAT / FG attempt coming from an outside position.
Set-up: This drill is most successful when using experienced long snapper, holder and kicker. Place cones for a TE and wingback at the appropriate distance from the football. Add a marker 7yds from the LOS and behind the opposite OT for the athletes to use as an aiming point.
Coaching points: Always use a snapper and go on ball movement. One important aspect is to teach the players to lay out across the block point of the kick. We also emphasize keeping the eyes open and catching the kicked football off the foot with both hands. Add players in the TE and Wing positions as the player improve in their technique.
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up. Of course the timing of the kicker should be slowed to accommodate slower footed athletes. Another variation is to have the holder flip the ball forward with his right hand, as this simulates the kick without a kicker.

Drill name: “PAT / FG from Middle”

Purpose: The purpose of this drill is to teach our inside defenders the techniques of blocking a PAT/FG kick.
Set-up: This drill is most successful when using experienced long snapper, holder and kicker. Use athletes with hand shields or stand-up dummies to simulate the OL. We have used numerous schemes and techniques from our interior lineman. The two most successful techniques are “the big push” and a “pull and skinny through.”
Coaching points: If the athletes are working on the big push, the objective is to re-establish the line of scrimmage 2yds into the offensive teams backfield and then getting our eyes up and hands into the path of the kicked football. If we are practicing the pull technique, it is imperative the DL gets his hand and arms as deep as possible around the OL in order to maintain a grip as the DL uses all of his body weight to sit and turn away from the designated block hole. In both cases timing is emphasized.
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up.

Drill name: “Punt Block from Middle”

Purpose: The purpose of this drill is to teach our inside defenders the techniques of blocking a punt.
Set-up: This drill is most effective when using experienced long snapper and punter; however, our coaches have been known to go through the punting motion and punting into the block of the defense. Place a towel or small arm shield 9yd from the LOS and 2 feet to the side of the kicking foot. This designates the block point (if the punter is 14 yards from the LOS). Then place a second cone 2 yds on either side of the punters original position to teach the path for the blocker to follow so that he does not run into the punter.
Coaching points: Primarily, the athletes have to understand where the block point is for each kicker we study. The athletes know that they must take a path across the block point and see the football throughout the drill. From snap to block, we teach the players to catch the football off of the foot.
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up.

Drill name: “Punt Block from the Edge”

Purpose: The purpose of this drill is to teach our outside defenders the techniques of blocking a punt.
Set-up: Same as previous drill.
Coaching points: As with the previous drill the athletes should understand the punters technique and approximate contact point (low, high, right or left).
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up.

Tackle Circuit

Prior to any live contact, we spend a large amount of time teaching technique against air. We continue to emphasize terminology and safety while performing our walk through sessions to insure the athletes understand the correct and safe technique of tackling. We have filmed our team instruction and team drill to document that the safe technique has been taught and is our priority. Never allow athletes to initiate contact with their helmet!

Drill name: “Angle Tackle”

Purpose: The purpose of this drill is to teach the defensive player to get his body between the ball carrier and the goal line
Set-up: We take three “agile” bags and form an arrow pointing away from the defensive player. The BC takes a ready position at the tip of the arrow while the defensive player faces him at the base of the arrow. The bags give the BC the correct angle to run. The defensive player reacts to the BC direction to execute a form tackle. The close proximity between the two players decreases the collision, which controls the drill so the athlete and coaches can focus on good tackling technique.
Coaching points: Match athlete by size and ability. Always keep your chin up. A helpful coaching point in this drill is to instruct the athlete to put his chin on the far hip of the ball carrier. Grab cloth. Keep the feet moving. Don’t allow athletes to pull a BC down; insist on driving the BC down.
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up.

Drill name: “Sideline Tackle”

Purpose: The purpose of this drill is to recognize the sideline is your friend.
Set-up: This drill is setup in various patterns. Basically you need a path or restricted area for the BC, but give the BC a chance by widening the area the farther up the field he gets. Our normal setup is a 15 yard separation. We place one cone on the goal line three yards from the side line; this is where the BC starts. We place another cone on the 15 yard line about 10 yards from the side line; this is where the defense starts. Set five or six more cones between the initial two cones in a straight line. On the coach’s command the BC starts toward the defender and the defender reacts forward. Preferably the defender takes away the field and forces the BC to the sideline to execute the tackle.
Coaching points: The BC only gets one move. We have also used this drill to emphasize an end of game situation: we are ahead and the offense is trying to get out of bounds to stop the clock. We must make the tackle but keep the BC in bounds.
Position considerations: All athletes can perform this drill in the same set-up.

Drill name: “Separate from Blocker”

Purpose: In a well executed offensive play, every defensive player should be blocked or accounted for. As defensive coaches, we know that a large majority of the plays we see, our defender will need to make an extraordinary effort to separate from a blocker and make a tackle. We expect our athletes to make those plays and we practice “separation and run” with this drill.
Set-up: Any configuration that a coach feels can come up can be simulated in this drill. One player assigned to block, one BC and one defender. Again, we have found it helpful to restrict the area for the BC and align the BC and defender within 5 yards early in the season.
Coaching points: All drills performed should simulate a situation in the game.
Position considerations: We have found that this drill has helped the most with our DB’s in defeating the stock block and maintaining their responsibility to the defensive scheme (secondary force and our alley players).

Drill name: “Open Field”

Purpose: This drill is designed to teach an athlete how to be patient in an open field situation. The last thing a coach wants to see is a legitimate chance missed because a kid went for the knock back hit instead of securing the tackle.
Set-up: Again we start with a restricted area and increase the area as the athletes become more proficient.
Coaching points: Always keep your feet active, avoid giving the BC a “two way go.” Make the tackle. It doesn’t have to be textbook perfect, but the tackle must be made.
Position considerations: We place our D-line closer to the BC and the DB’s get more room to the ball carrier for obvious reasons.

Related Videos
American Football Monthly now offers a full line of coaching videos. So, if you enjoyed this clinic article,
here are a few videos that you may find interesting:

FV 01778: Defensive Line Drills (Aiken)
FV 00048E: Defensive Middle Guard (McBride)
FV 00048G: Defensive Secondary (Oliver)

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view our online catalog at
About the author

Jamie Woodward has been head coach at Ponderosa High School in Parker, Colorado for the past 12 years. His overall record is 90-39 during that period with five League Championships and five County Championships. His defensive coaching staff includes: Randy Huff (Defensive Coordinator); John Randall (Defensive Backs Coach); and Mike Alletto (Defensive Line Coach).You can reach Coach Woodward at


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