Special Teams is a game breaker in youth football. Most pee wee teams do not practice Special Teams the needed amount of time, and they pay the consequences in the game. Plus, a lot of youth teams, place a high number of minimum play players (MPPs) on their Special Team units. Not enough practice time and MPPs usually leads to disaster.
Our pee wee team has a dedicated Special Teams Coach, and we spend at least 45 minutes a week out of 6 hours of practice on coordinated Special Teams practice. This year, I am turning our warm-ups and end-of-practice conditioning time into Special Team drills to get 30 minutes more of Special Teams practice a week. We also ask our skills players, kickers, punters and returners, to practice at home. I wish we had more time, because this is still not enough.
We have been very lucky with our Special Teams play, but I still cringe when we punt the ball. I think the punt is the most dangerous play in youth football. We only punt if we are backed up within our 25 on a 60 yard field. There are so many variables in the punt starting with the snap. You must find an accurate long snapper and practice the long snap everyday. A bad snap can add 7+ more yards of negative field postion to an already difficult defensive situation. Punters are also very inconsistent at the pee wee level. The receiving of the snap is tough and then to punt with 7+ players running at you takes a unique personality to stay calm and not miss the snap or shank the punt. We ask the punters to kick out of bounds toward our special teams’ coach. I do not want the possibility of a return, because the punt return in youth football is a great play for the return team, especially if the team has a top running back. Open field tackling at the youth level is very poor and a good punt returner on the loose is a chance for a big gainer or even a TD. So never kick down the middle of the field to the punt returner.
I am also worried about Kick-offs, especially, if we have not called an on-side kick. Like the punt, a good returner can mess up your day. I never kick deep. I usally kick to the second line of receivers and try to kick to an MPP. We kick the ball on the ground so there is a possibility of a weird bounce and fumble by the receiving team. Never kick to a starting running back that is also on the kick return team. Pick out the player that is having trouble where to line-up or is not paying attention. John T Reed says in his book, Coaching Youth Football, to kick to your sidelines, because it is hard for the players across the field to hear their coaches and usually have uneven spacing allowing for a great on-side kick opportunity. Kicking short also reduces your chances for a big return. Most of the time, the receiving team falls on our squib kicks. You must train your kickers to identify these keys and be consistent. If your kicker can not kick to the second line on the ground and kicks high and deep, you must find another kicker.
We have been very successful with our kick-returns. We have four talented returners, all starting running backs. We spread these returners around the kick return unit based on the opposing kickers kicking habits. We put one of our starting FBs on the front line because he looks like a lineman, one of our halfbacks on the second line, another FB offset behind the 2nd line and our speed demon deep offset from the deep FB. We then move them around these lines based on the kicker. We score a TD on a return about every other game. The kick return blockers have assigned players to block. We have tried to set wedges and walls but this has not been as successful as assigned blocks.
Our punt return unit is a punt block unit. We assign a punt returner and ask him to return the punt if he is unopposed. We stack the line adnd try for a blocked punt. We tell everyone on the team, except for the returner, not to touch the punt once it has crossed the line of scrimmage.
A big advantage to any youth football team is a PAT kicker. We found our PAT kicker last year and he was very successful, about 40%. Because the PAT Kick is 2 points in our league this is a huge advantage. My advice to any youth team is to start working on this skill early. We waited one year too late. Like the punt, practice the long snap and make sure you have a hands player holding. Our holder is our speed demon back because he can pass and runs well in a crowd if the snap is muffed.
Practice, Practice, Practice Special Teams! Good luck.