Copyright 2005 John T. Reed

It is generally taken as an article of faith that lower levels of footall—namely age 6 to 15—can’t pass.

That’s not correct. In the last three years, I have been coaching at a high school famous for its college style one-back offense and strong passing game. Here are some lessons I’ve learned.

Pass types

Generally, the pass plays that work are quick (three-step) drop backs or roll-outs. I have never seen anyone have much success with five-step drops below the varsity high school level. I suspect the reason is two-fold: protection does not hold up long enough for a five-step drop and the longer the route the lower the accuracy of the passer.


The routes that seem to work best are:

I’m not saying the other routes never work, just that these seem to work consistently at the sub-high-school-varsity levels. Of course, it’s partly a function of the defense. For example, a hook probably will not work well against a press (lined up a football length away) corner.

Trick passes

Trick plays like a tailback pass or hook and lateral also work at the lower level, although they are generally only good for once a game, but require as much practice as any other pass play.


We have found that baseball pitchers are generally our best passers.

Five-seam football

Rawlings has a new football. It has five panels instead of the usual four. That enables small-handed players to get a grip on the laces with their fingers while also getting a grip on another seam with their thumb. Not only did our quarterbacks prefer it, so did the receivers and centers. It has more “handles.” You probably have to special order it from your local sporting goods store, but I think it’s worth it. The ball is legal for youth and high school play if it says “NFHS” on it. Some black versions are not legal apparently solely because of color. I do not know if there are any five-seam footballs made in youth sizes.


A route is what one receiver runs. A pattern is two or more receivers running routes on the same play. These patterns generally work best:


We have generally had success with one-step and three-step drops and play action or roll out passes. We generally have not had success with five-step-drop passes. We have never tried seven-step drops, but expect we would get sacked and/or outrun the passer’s arm.


Protecting the passer is generally simple on roll-outs. You typically only need one or two competent blockers. However, with drop-back passes, you need a bunch because numerous rushers are close enough to get to the QB before the scheduled throwing time. The advantage of drop-backs is you can throw to all parts of the field. With roll-outs, you can only throw to the roll-out side. On the other hand, youth pass coverage is not that great so the roll-out side may be enough.

We found that zero line-splits eliminates the need to pick up blitzers and generally works to stop penetration between the tackles. However, it shortens the path of the rushers coming off the ends.

73% of all youth players drop out of all sports by age 13 according to a Time cover story of a few years ago. Why? They suck at sports. Where are those players on a youth team? Generally, they play line. Can they pass block well? Generally, not at all. They can occupy space which will protect an area if you put them foot-to-foot. But they cannot move competitively versus the talented future high school athletes who typically play youth linebacker or defensive end. Only one bad guy has to get through to sack the QB or otherwise screw up the pass play.

So either get rid of the ball quickly with a one- or three-step drop or roll your athletic quarteback out away from the main body of pass rushers.


I have rarely seen play action look as good in actual youth games as the theory. For one thing, youth players seem to react slowly if at all to misdirection. Play action is a form of misdirection. As a consequence, youth misdirection must be broad like the wide receiver reverse or wing reverse. Lesser misdirection, like the inside trap play where the FB takes one step to the right then goes back one gap to the left, is less successful if at all successful against youth defenders. Basically, you can’t misdirect a potted plant and youth defenders tend to react to small misdirection efforts like potted plants.

So the play action that works best is very broad play action with delayed passes like the tailback pass and waggle pass.

We have had success with the fake off-tackle and throw to the FB out in the flat, but I wonder if the fake is the reason or if it’s just that you are throwing to the number three receiver (counting from the outside in) and he is usually poorly covered at all levels.

First two strings only

Your first- and second-string QBs should only throw to your first- and second-string receivers. I do not even let them throw to the third- or lower-string guys in pre-game warm-ups.

A passer has a relationship with a receiver. As a result, they know each other. Velocity of the reciver and the ball. Rotation of the ball. Location of the receiver on various routes. Timing of the throw and route.


An important aspect of passing that I have never seen discussed in print or heard discussed at clinics is trust. Especially on long pass routes, the receiver and quarterback must trust each other. What they typically do instead is the receiver runs a slow “twisting his upper body to face toward the passer” route so he can adjust to the QB’s inaccurate pass. As a consequence, the passer does not know where the receiver will be when so he has to try to figure it out during the play and put a higher arc on the pass. As a result, the defenders find it easy to stop such passes.

Instead, the receiver must run the assigned route exactly as precribed by the coaching staff. He must be highly disciplined and precise. Against man coverage or on vertical routes against any coverage, his speed must be constant, namely, maximum speed. For his part, the QB must throw the ball on time to the prescribed location and spot on or near the receiver’s body. Both the passer and the receiver must be patient with themselves and each other and keep running the play as prescribed. Only when both parties remain disciplined can they over time become competent at completing the long pass in stride to the receiver. Any other behavior pattern, namely the imprecise, “constantly adjusting to each other approach,” will result in the receiver never getting open and the passes being overly easy to intercept or bat down.

You can only have such an intimate relationship with a few people. You can only get enough practice reps with a few people to create that relationship. Making your QB throw to every receiver on the team will prevent him from developing suc a relationship with any of them.

In 2004, when we had an excellent passing game, we had the top QBs throw to the top two strings of receivers for one hour every Saturday morning. That was freshman high school football. Youth teams could devote the same time, but it would have to be within the practice-time rules.

Also, dropped passes mess up the mind of the passer. When he throws to the guy who catches it, he gains confidence in the passing game. When he throws to a guy who drops a catchable ball, he loses confidence in the play.

I got the notion that you should only have the top QBs throw to the top receivers from Bill Walsh when he and I gave clinics at the same venue.

Good luck,
John T. Reed