Basic Counting

First Things First

Before I ever teach an option play, the first thing I have to teach is counting.

Let me back up – actually, the first thing I teach is how to snap a chinstrap. And I won’t mention about a hundred other things that come before counting. But let’s say that our new 2nd grade football players can now get their cleats tied and mouthpieces in and chinstraps buckled and can break a huddle and get to the line and, sometimes with a little help, manage to get in the right position and show a reasonable facsimile of a stance.

THEN I teach them to count defenders, before I ever teach anything else about the option play.

Some of you that are option aficionados will know what this counting business is that I’m talking about. But there’s a slight twist to the way that I teach counting defenders that works pretty well with young kids, and it may be different than what you’ve done before. Old hands, please bear with me.

Back when I played – by the way, every coach needs to be able to say that phrase gruffly, and with deep reverential feeling for those better days – Back when I played, we counted defenders, but I must admit it was very confusing to me. I played fullback, and if the quarterback gave me the ball, I ran. If he didn’t give it to me, I faked, then blocked. It was pretty simple.

So when I became responsible for trying to teach 8-year-olds which guys we block, and which guys we don’t, I had to think about it for a long, long time.

Hard Stuff

Here in the KC area, we don’t play tackle football until we are in the 1st or 2nd grade. And since most of our kids learn to count in kindergarten, counting isn’t impossible for them. They actually count pretty well. In fact, counting in football is actually easier than any of these things:

  • Who’s the (tackle, linebacker, safety, cornerback, etc.)? The names of positions are an absolute mystery for new players.
  • Even numbers are right, odd numbers are left (or whatever your direction scheme is.) You might suspect that the concept of even and odd could be tough for young kids. But did you anticipate that momentary confusion many 2nd graders have over which direction is right, and which is left?
  • Get your head across his body… Get your butt down… See what you hit… (ad infinitum.) Young players have little idea where any of their body parts are, relative to where you want them to be.

You get the idea. And you may rightfully wonder how in the world a kid that isn’t certain of the difference between left and right is ever going to understand how to be part of an option play.

But they can understand it, and they do. The secret is that there ARE in fact two abstract ideas that nearly every new young football player can understand.

Two Easy Ideas

The first idea kids latch on to is “We’re going that way”. I don’t know if it is from other sports like basketball and soccer, or just some sort of fundamental intuition about defending your turf and capturing the other guy’s territory. But young players do understand the concept of the competition for real estate in football, with very little explanation necessary.

The second abstract idea they get, given the first, is Inside versus Outside. Since the players know there is a battle for forward progress, they get pretty comfortable lining up play after play to commence that battle. And shortly thereafter they notice that the guy snapping the ball is always (relative to where they’re supposed to be lining up) to what the coaches keep calling the Inside, and that the out-of-bounds line is always out there to the Outside.

In fact, I’m reasonably sure that Inside and Outside are more quickly understood than left and right. Armed with that understanding, I set about creating the defender counting scheme that we could use.

Why Counting Defenders is Critical

For youth players, and perhaps any players, counting defenders for the option is a necessity. The biggest reason I can think of to count defenders is that you can teach a consistent way of blocking a play, without worrying about the particulars of the defense the other team is playing.

Back when I played – I think hereafter on this site that phrase will become BWIP – most teams played a 5-4-2 Oklahoma style defense. Nowadays it is really hard to find a team that  plays with two deep safeties. At some point during the last twenty years, youth coaches woke up, and said “Hey, we WANT them to pass – why the heck are we playing with two safeties?”

BWIP, youth teams ran the 5-4-2, and the 6-3-2, and a gap 8 in goal line situations. That was it. It was quite a bit easier to create a playbook when you only really had to prepare for three different defenses.

Elsewhere on this site you’ll find detailed information about all the option plays we run. But for the most basic triple option that we run, our dive key read is usually a defensive tackle, and our pitch key read is usually a defensive end. It’s very similar to what I ran with the wishbone back in the 70’s. Against a 5-4-2 we would block the corner with our end, and the play-side safety with the lead running back. Our playside tackle would have an ‘option’ block on the 4 or 5 tech defensive tackle. If that defender crossed his face, he’d block him down. Otherwise he’d rip inside and block the playside linebacker for the dive.

When I returned to youth football coaching in the late 90’s, I was not surprised to see most teams with just one safety. I WAS surprised to see the variety of different defenses our teams would face week in and week out.

One week we’d see a 5-3 with wide outside linebackers. The next week the defensive tackles would be over our guards and the linebackers would be cheating inside. This would be followed by a team that played gap 8 all over the field; then we’d see a 6-2; then a 4-4; etc.

Frustratingly, most college and high school option-oriented web sites will draw up plays against 4-3 or 3-4 defense. Those are about the only defenses that we DON’T see in youth football.

This variety has only become more bewildering as we’ve become more successful running the option. In fact, for our football club I have coined the Adam Rule of Defensive Scouting, stated in two parts:

  • Whatever defense our next opponent will play, it will not be the same as that of any of our previous opponents.
  • Whatever defense our next opponent will play, it will not be the same as any defense they have shown to that point in the season.

So counting defenders is the easy way – really the only way, given limited practice time –  to combat the defenses that we’ve never seen, and for which we can’t prepare.

Start Counting

Here’s the counting twist I mentioned about 800 words ago. For our youth players, we count from outside to inside. Most of the option sites that you may visit, and most college and high school teams I believe, will count from inside out.*

*I think this is because the dive happens first in the sequence of the triple option play, and they want their quarterbacks looking there first for a pre-snap read, and so it makes more logical sense to them to number from inside out. And they’re not wrong to do it, and if you can teach it the way they do, more power to you.

We look at the outside first for our youth players because little kids know where the outside IS. They can’t always find the first down lineman playside of the center, or the first lineman in a 4i tech or outside, or whatever the inside-to-outside scheme starts with.

In flexbone especially though, you will almost always find a cornerback sitting furthest outside, with pass responsibility for our split end.  This is the #1 guy for our counting scheme.

The #2 man is the next man to the inside that is on or near the line of scrimmage. The #3 man is the next man inside, but he has to be OFF the line of scrimmage, at either a linebacker or safety level. So sometimes the identification of #2 and  #3 are reliant upon each other. When those two players just inside of #1 are stacked, or close enough to stacked that they could be stacked by the time the ball is snapped, then we treat the man nearer the line as #2, and the deeper man as #3.

Note that by our definition, a true safety won’t ever be #2, unless he moves up to the linebacker level before the snap.

The #4 man is the next man to the inside, that is ON the line of scrimmage.

So without the long explanations in between, here’s our counting method of defenders 1 through 4, suitable for copy and paste:

  1. Furthest Outside Man
  2. Next Man In, ON or NEAR the line (can’t be safety)
  3. Next Man In, OFF the line (linebacker or safety)
  4. Next Man In, ON the line


Below are drawings of a few of the defenses our team saw in 2010 alone, with the players numbered according to our rules:

6-5 Defense?


5-3 Double Eagle

5-3 Ends Wide


Reduced Front