This article is designed to give insight into how we prepare our coaches, and our kids, for in-game situations through game and practice planning. We are constantly evolving to figure out ways to play the game, ahead of time, in order to mentally prepare our coaches and kids for the pressure that can come with playing a high level of defensive football. If you have ever had a third down situation, or a goal line play, where you were not sure what to call, I hope our system of game planning and practice planning can help you.
We have identified areas of focus in the game planning process and used those areas to build our team vs. scout team scripts for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday practices, during a traditional Friday game week. As defensive coaches, we all face the same dilemmas each week about what should be included in the script and what should be left out. The situational outline provided below can be used as a road map to make those decisions easier.
Azle High School is a 5A division 1 high school in Texas (nearly 2,000 students). We have over 200 kids in our program, which includes grades 9-12, so our athletes play one side of the football. Following the 2017 season, we knew we needed to make changes to the way that we handled in-game situations and how we called defense. We believed that we spent most of our time in practice lining up to formations and fitting base plays or concerns that we had. We worked goal line and had a situation script on Wednesday, but overall as a coaching staff, we felt our team periods were stale and had a tendency to drag. Our entire call sheet on game night was a big library of information, and when crucial situations would arise, the library could be overwhelming.
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After the 2017 season, we did a study of how many times we were repping calls in practice and how many times we ran them in the game. In the simplest form, if you are practicing one call with 40% of your practice reps, should you be running the call 40% of the time in the game? We were not even close. Ultimately, we felt we were not spending our practice time in the right spots. We needed to have a better situational plan and to be able to practice situations effectively. This would ultimately give our kids the best chance of being successful.
Solution #1: Game Planning
The first change we made was changing the way we prepared and watched film as a staff. In the past we would each watch full games on our own, and we would tag our break down columns on Saturday night. On Sunday when we met as a staff, we would again watch full games. To change the way we practiced, we had to change the way we prepared.
Now each coach is responsible for putting together a cutup for us to watch as a staff. We come together as a staff on Sundays and each coach presents their cutup of information, and we build the call sheet together based on the specific areas of focus. As a rule of thumb, once we complete our game plan board on Sunday/Monday morning, we may take some calls away, but we never add anymore. The cutups we create are shown below, along with the coach assigned to build each, as well as a picture of the game plan board (see diagram 1) we fill out as we watch our cutups.
- Formation Concerns/Motions/Uncertain Punt/Extra Point – Linebackers Coach
- Top Runs/Run Concerns – Inside Linebackers Coach
- Top Pass/Pass Concerns – Cornerbacks Coach
- Pass Protections – Defensive Line Coach 1
- Goal Line – Defensive Line Coach 2
- 3rd Down Situations – Defensive Coordinator
- Openers – Safeties Coach
After the game plan board is complete, we will build our call sheet (see diagram 2) with the information that we game planned as a defensive staff. From there, our call sheet is the biggest resource we have when scripting our practices for Monday Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Solution #2: Practice Planning
Now that we have our game plan board and our call sheet complete, we have to go into practice with a plan to work each situation we focused on as a staff. We break down our team segments in practice by focusing on the same areas we built our game plan, which is shown below:
- Top Formations and Plays (what the opposing team runs the most and is the best at)
- Formation and Play Concerns (unique formations/plays that are difficult to fit)
- 3rd Down Situations (3rd & 1-4, 3rd & 5-10, 3rd & 10+)
- Goal Line Situations (+7 yard line to the goal line)
- Specialty Situations (punt return, uncertain punt return, swinging gate, EP/FG block, FG return, 2 min., Hail Mary)
We are a morning practice team at Azle. We are on the field every day at 6:20 a.m. and practice runs into our athletic period, which is the first period of the school day. We use a traditional segment clock with 5 minute segments. Periods 1-6 are used for pre-practice, special teams, and our heavy/goal line offensive package. In the early part of the season our practice lengths are as follows:
- Monday – 22 Periods (1 hour and 50 minutes)
- Tuesday – 24 Periods (2 hours)
- Wednesday – 19 Periods (1 hour and 35 minutes)
For our team segments, we use a JV scout team all three days of the week. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we also use our Varsity offense as a scout team. This is a “good vs. good” thud period, where we will run cards for each other during our “emphasis” period. The “good on good” scout opportunity has provided our offense and our defense an opportunity to work specific situations with a relatively fast and clean look.
This has also provided our Junior Varsity team an opportunity to have their own team segments with an offensive and defensive emphasis, opposite of Varsity.
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Below, I have listed our practice format and provided example practice scripts for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. One thing you will notice is that we do not have a traditional 7 on 7 period. However, during our team segments we always run an 11 on 11 play followed by a 7 on 7 play. This allows for us to work tempo within our scout teams and utilize 7 on 7 with the same situational emphasis as our 11 on 11 huddle.
Monday’s practice is a 22 period practice, in which 15 periods are exclusively dedicated to specific sides of the ball. The Varsity offense and defense stay on their side of the field. As a defense, we utilize the following practice structure on Mondays:
- Walk Through/Tackle Circuit
- Individual (15 minutes)
- Run Hull and 1/2 Line Pass
- Perimeter Drill (7 on 7 drill that will run quick screens, sprint out , jet sweep, speed option, etc.)
- Team vs. JV Scout (11 on 11 and 7 on 7 huddles)
Our team emphasis on Monday is top formations, plays and a goal line period (see diagram 3).
Tuesday is our longest practice of the week with a length of 24 periods (2 hours). Nine periods of Tuesday’s practice are exclusively working the offensive or defensive side of the ball. On defense we utilize the following practice structure on Tuesday:
- Walk Through/Tackle Circuit
- Individual (10 minutes)
- Run Hull vs. Stunts (four-man stunts with safety insert)
- Team vs. JV Scout (11 on 11 and 7 on 7 huddles)
The 10-minute team period is top formations and plays, similar to Monday’s script. After the 10-minute JV script, we move into our “good on good” scout period against the top Varsity offense. We will scout and run cards for each other for a 15-minute emphasis period. In the defensive emphasis period, we spend five minutes working formation and play concerns. These are troublesome formations or plays that may only be used a few times per game. We practice these if we have concerns about our fits that we want the kids to see. We classify the concerns as the stuff you probably should not worry too much about, but they just will not go away.
The final 10 minutes of our defensive emphasis against the Varsity offense scout is spent on third down situations. Again this is an 11 on 11 play, followed immediately by a 7 on 7 play. We run an eight play, third down script, with three plays of 3rd & Short, three plays of 3rd & Medium, and two plays of 3rd & long. The script below (see diagram 4) identifies the Team vs. JV and Team vs. Varsity offense period.
Wednesday is our shortest practice of the week with a heavier emphasis on special teams. Wednesday is a 19 period practice, which is 1 hour and 35 minutes. Five periods of Wednesday’s practice is exclusively working the offensive or defensive side of the ball with the JV scout team. We utilize the following structure in our 5 periods of defense:
- Pressure/Stunt Review (Defensive Front)
- Goal Line Coverage (Secondary)
- Formation Recognition/Defensive Package Substitutions
- 15-Minute Situational Script vs. JV Scout Team
Our outside linebackers coach is responsible for scripting the offensive formation and plays for the situation script. We built a template, as a coaching staff, and he puts the script together and runs the JV scout team. We will not script our defensive calls during this portion of the Wednesday script, but instead, utilize this as an opportunity to call the defense like we would in a game by using our call sheet. This is the only script during the week where we do not utilize a 7 on 7 huddle after the 11 on 11 play. We try to make it as game-like as possible.
During the situation script (see diagram 5) against the JV, we will work openers or gadgets, third down situations, uncertain punt/punt return, goal line, swinging gate, extra point block, field goal return, and Hail Mary.
After our situation script against the JV, we move into “good vs. good” scout with the varsity offense. This is a 20-minute period where each side of the ball has a 10-minute emphasis period. We move back to utilizing the 7 on 7 huddle during this portion of practice, and the emphasis is on having perfect execution of the calls that are made. During the perfection script, we take the opportunity to look at anything that we want to see or need to see. Any situation that we have planned for can be used in this script (see diagram 6). Typically, we use this time to look at top formations and plays, concerns, 5-man pressures, and special coverage calls for the week.
Thursday’s practice is a “kick the field” script on air. The meat of our work is done on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. By the time we walk off the field on Wednesday morning, we feel confident that we have spent a great deal of time looking at the different situations that can come about during a game.
As a coaching staff we are always evaluating the way that we practice and the way that we script our team segments. The plan described in this article has helped us be more prepared on game night. By the time Friday night arrives, we have been through situations that may come up in the game, and our kids and coaches are not in the dark about what is coming next. There is no element of surprise when you have already put yourself in those situations. It builds confidence within your team when you face the first third down of the game and everyone knows what call is coming from the sideline. We have learned that having a better plan for situations has helped us increase in all statistical categories including third down percentage and turnover differential.
Cody Gilbert was hired as the defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator at Azle High School (TX) in April of 2017. This is Gilbert’s second stint as an assistant at Azle. The Hornets are 20-4 the past two seasons, including winning back-to-back district and bi-district championships. Defensively, the Hornets gave up an average of 21 points per game over the course of the last 3 seasons, and have set a new mark for tackles for loss, sacks and interceptions.
Prior to returning to Azle, Gilbert was the Defensive Coordinator at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas. In one season at HPU, Gilbert oversaw the reconstruction of the Yellow Jacket defense that improved in total defense, rushing defense, and turnovers.
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