Thoughts on Choosing Youth Football Defensive Players

choosing youth football defensive playersI wrote an article a few weeks ago about choosing offensive lineman and thought I would address choosing youth football defensive players in this article.  I define youth football by players in 2nd to 6th grade, so 6 to 13 years old give or take a year.  Tackle football really changes from 6th to 8th grade so adjust your tactics from youth football for Junior High players in 7th / 8th grade and higher when passing becomes a larger percentage of the game.  For a large majority of tackle youth football coaches, the offensive running game should greatly influence your defensive strategy.

Since 2002 I’ve been running a multiple defensive system, which I call the BK Defense named after my two defensive ends from that year.  The defense is mainly a 7-4 defense or 70 defense with 7 down lineman and 4 defensive backs playing more like linebackers than corners and safeties.  I can easily adjust into a 6-1 or 6-2 and a Gap 8 for goal line.  If we face a good passing team we will adjust into a 5-3 or 5-2.  I have also run a 5-5-1 with a 6th grade team against a complete air attack offense and had great success.  And by the way, I’ve been in the playoffs just about every season and won 2 of our last 3 Super Bowls, so shifting isn’t an issue of the defense.  Since I run a wide variety of defenses I think I have a good idea about choosing defensive players.

My rule of thumb for choosing tackle youth football players is choose players that look and play like fullbacks; good speed, quick feet & hands, strong, and love to hit.  This is especially true on defense.  Maybe I am partial to fullbacks since I played fullback but these versatile utility players are almost interchangeable at every position on youth defenses especially at the recreation youth football level.  For Select youth football teams, one must certainly look for more skill specific players, so here are my thoughts on that selection process…

Defensive Ends / Outside Linebackers

My defensive ends are usually my best tacklers / defensive players.  They are usually above average weight and height.  I like tall DE’s, especially for pass rushing if you are in a passing league.  They will have top 10 speed on your team and top 5 quickest in a 10 yard dash.  DE’s have a nose for the football, smart and know how to play contain and rarely get caught crashing underneath.  They must be coachable, obedient, and consistent.  Your DE’s cannot be wildcards, they must be smart and understand the ramifications if they crash and break contain.  DE’s are usually FBs and blocking WBs / TEs.

Inside Linebackers / Middle Linebacker

If the DE’s are your top two tacklers / defenders then the Inside Linebackers are a close second or tie.  The ILB will be bulkier than your DE’s but just as quick.  They have a nose for the football and have the “mean gene” because the love to hit anything and anyone.  They are football smart.  I usually have a Mike/Sam and Will inside LB.  Mike is heavier than Will.  The Will LB will be faster and have great pursuit abilities.  These two defensive players must be hitting someone on every play.  You do not want a ILB that watches the action.  If you are playing a 6-1 with just a Mike, I like my Mike to be very aggressive and flow to the ball well.  Mike must be able to fill and attack the inside lead blocks.  Mike cannot be timid.  The Mike LB is the player in practice that you worry about hurting your starting RBs in the Oklahoma drill.  If you have that players and they are quick, then you might have found your Mike linebacker.  Linebackers are usually FBs and blocking WBs / TEs.


There are many opinions about choosing cornerbacks.  In youth football under 7th grade I like CBs that are light weight fast outside linebackers.  Unless I have scouted our opponent and they pass more than 25% of the offensive plays, my CBs play more like OLBs. They play run first then pass, so these two cornerbacks are great open field tacklers and have great pursuit speed.  They must also be able to handle man to man pass coverage.  So, basically I am looking for small DE’s with top 10 speed, open field tacklers, understands passing downs, and can cover receivers up to 20 yards down field.  My CBs are usually in our top 8 to 10 players on the team.  CBs are usually offensive TBs or WBs.

Free Safety / Strong Safety

Since I usually only use a Free Safety, they might be the fastest player on the team that tackles well in the open field.  One of my tailbacks usually plays free safety. Sometimes if you know the team is not a passing team you can play a minimum play player at FS and blitz your safety.  If you play a passing team then your free safety must be fast, play good zone coverage, man to man coverage, and understand passing downs vs short yardage.  Most importantly they must be fast with good pursuit speed to catch their fastest back on a break-away sweep.  If I move into a 5-2, I play a Free Safety and a Strong Safety.  I will move my fastest OLB to SS.


If you play a noseguard with weak DTs you will need a strong noseguard with hefty weight and quickness or a medium sized player that is a ferret type player with a great nose for the ball.  Sometimes your best NG is a player that is always in the backfield around the ball, even with the biggest O-line they are quick enough to penetrate the o-line.  This is a ferret player and they make great NG.  In the past I’ve had two CBs that I used at NG because they could tear it up in the middle with a slow Center.  If an offense is a power running team, then you might want some heft at your noseguard and contain two or three holes with his mass and rush. Either one of these type players make great NG’s in youth football.  Many times this will depend on your roster.

Defensive Tackles

I like defensive tackles that are just slow DE’s.  Maybe a little heavier than your DE’s but very quick off the ball.  I play my DT’s in the C gaps so I like them to penetrate quickly to hit the hand off mesh point instead of waiting for the RB to hit the hole.  If we can hit the mesh it causes a ton of confusion in the backfield.  DT’s will usually be double teamed so they must be coached on how to defeat the double team and not get blown off the line of scrimmage.

Defensive Guards

If you play two defensive guards with our without a noseguard you can play a minimum play player at DG’s.  You can have them submarine or crab crawl in the A or B gaps depending on your philosophy.  I usually have my DG’s crab crawl the A to B gap to try and keep blockers off my LBs.  This crab crawl move also defeats the wedge.  Usually the DG are big and slow to take up space or very quick ferret players to penetrate the LOS.  Whoever you put at DG they cannot be blown out into the LBs, they must be taught to drop and roll if they are losing the LOS battle.


My DE’s, ILB’s and CB’s are my best defensive players.  I like to protect the outside perimeters because the sweep is the best play in youth football.  You also need to protect the off-tackle C gap lead or double lead run, so make sure your DT’s can handle attacking lead blockers and causing a huge pile of blockers. If you are lucky to have a quick defense then your season should be a good one.  A slow defense is a weak defense.   Attack, Attack, Attack.  Remember, if the offense doesn’t score you never lose.

What are your thoughts on choosing tackle youth football defensive players?  I would love to hear your comments, leave me a comment below.

Coach Parker
Keller, Texas / DFW / Ft Worth TX


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