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Evaluating Kids for Youth Football: Draft Considerations for Your Winning Team
In many football associations around the country, coaches have to evaluate the talent pool of kids and then enter into a draft to select specific kids for their teams. The drafting process, much like recruiting in college or drafting in the pros, is an inexact science. Kids are kids. Some kids look great on paper and in their evaluations. But then they do not pan out like you would have hoped once the football season starts. Other kids outperform your expectations and become incredible contributors to your team. When our coaching staff conducts football evaluations before our draft, we try to home in on a handful of key points to help identify kids we want to select.
One of the main points we try to consider when entering a new season is our overall team needs. In our league, we are allowed to "freeze" our coaches kids. So going into the season, we already have about 6-7 core players on our team. Thus, our draft selections very much depend on the skill level of these core players. For instance, if one of our coaches son's is an experienced quarterback and another is a skilled running back, then we know that we need to perhaps select players more appropriate for other positions. That does not necessarily mean we would pass up a good potential quarterback or running back. But if given the choice between that and a "position of need", we will most likely select another position player.
Of course every team is different. If you are a new football coach and you are building a team from the ground up, then you do not necessarily have to consider needs since you need all positions filled. That said, it is important to understand the importance of having a core of talent at the skill positions like QB or RB as well as at the linemen positions. When evaluating the available talent pool, consider the following key factors.
In youth football, experience is an important thing to consider when evaluating kids for a draft. I have seen first year players struggle, only to have them come out and dominate in year two with experience under their belt. In many instances, these kids tend to feel more at ease in their second season. They understand the game a bit more and are a lot less hesitant to make contact in drills. For younger kids especially, the fear factor of getting hit often takes a season to get past. So if you see that a kid has a year of football experience, make a note of it. It does not necessarily mean you should draft them. But take it into consideration along with these other factors.
However, not all experience is rated equal. Our youth football league plays full contact 11 on 11 beginning at age 6. I have seen players with non-contact flag football experience completely freak out when we finally practice in full pads, going out of their way to avoid contact. In these instances, their flag football experience might have helped them understand the game but presented a roadblock when it came to contact. And overcoming this fear of contact can be difficult and time consuming.
Size is a pretty important factor to consider when drafting kids for a youth football team. Height and weight are crucial components. And sometimes more importantly (especially for the line positions) the proportion of height and weight. A shorter kid with a little bit more weight on him might be a good fit for a down lineman or nose tackle. A taller kid who is not nearly as heavy might be more suited for a wide receiver or tight end.
When evaluating the size of kids, you need to think about what kind of position they might best fit into. Size is a key factor most when evaluating linemen. Tackles are usually your biggest kids on the team. Guards are usually also fairly large but have good footwork. Centers are sometimes larger than average but are tough and athletic. When looking at kids as they go through football evaluations, I always try to make notes on where they might fit best in a position.
Speed, Quickness and Agility
Speed, quickness and agility are important factors to evaluate in all football players. For position players like running back, quarterback, and wide receiver as well as linebacker and defensive back, these skills are absolutely necessary. For the down line positions, these skills are also a key consideration particularly if you are trying to evaluate similarly sized kids.
We usually measure speed simply with a 40-yard dash. For younger age groups less than 10-years old, we set up a 30-yard dash. And we give the kids 2 chances to run. These times give us an idea of a kid's straight line speed and allows us to compare kids of similar size and build.
For quickness, we will often use a couple of different timed drills. The M-drill is set up to have kids run around a cones set up in an "M" formation and allows the coaches to evaluate how well kids change direction, how good their footwork is when changing direction and gives us an overall feel for a kids agility. We also will run a shuttle drill back and forth between 2 cones that will also give us a gauge on agility.
When evaluating kids to play in offensive skill positions, as well as linebackers and defensive backs on defense, you want to see good times in these drills. For linemen like guards and tight ends on offense, or end on defense, you want to pay particularly close attention to the footwork. These players have to be able to move well and block or take on blockers out in space.
Strength and Competitiveness
My favorite evaluation drill is for strength and competitiveness. I have run this drill for our evaluations for the past four years. The drill we use is a 3-way tug of war. We set up a triangle of cones with a 3-way rope. And we have 3 kids compete at one time with each kid working to try to pull to their cone. The kid who finally reaches their cone wins. In every evaluation, we usually split the kids into groups of 6. So in this drill, we will have the 2 groups of 3 compete. Then we pair the 2 winners from the first 2 groups with our best estimate of the 3rd place winner to try to arrive at a champion for the overall group.
This tug of war drill not only measures strength but also shows how much competitiveness and fight a kid has. I have seen kids completely give up on this drill in evaluations. And then see them give up on plays in practice and games later in the season. Similarly, I have seen some of the smallest kids "fight to the death" in this drill turn out to be tenacious football players.
For potential linemen, you absolutely want to see good performances in this drill. The ability to use their legs and lower body and take advantage of leverage is so important. And this drill really can definitely separate kids who have this ability from the ones who do not.
Intangibles include a mixed bag of items that are as important to the evaluation process as these other tangible factors. I always first try to look closely at how well the kids listen to the instructions in the evaluation process. If a kid is completely confused on how to run a drill when it is their turn because they were busy talking and goofing off in line, you might want to note that in your evaluation. Coachable kids have very good listening skills.
Drafting kids in youth football also means you are also drafting parents. Having supportive, reliable and involved parents is crucial to any team's success. And it is just as important to the child's success. Kids in youth football can not drive themselves to practice. And attending practices is one of the most important things a kid can do when learning the game of football. So drafting kids with parents with which you are familiar will make your life as a coach go a little smoother.
Many football coaches in our area (myself included) coach other sports as well. When you have coached a child in another sport, you might already know their strengths and weaknesses and their "coachability". If you know a child has played in other sports but is new to football, you might check with your fellow coaches to see what they might know about the child. This kind of information might prove valuable as you evaluate players for your team.
Coaching youth football is a blast. Part of the fun of coaching is the evaluation process. We all want to find that diamond in the rough. We all want to find the kid that is a bit rough around the edges but is coachable and turns out to be a productive member of your team. At the same time, we want to make sure that we also put each kid in a position where they will be the most successful and will learn the game of football. But most importantly, we want the kids to have fun. The evaluation process is an inexact science. Hopefully by using some of these ideas, you can have a successful football evaluation, draft and season.