October 2, 2009 • Football

Turning wide receivers into ‘primetime players’

Photo: Kevin Hoffman
Photo: Kevin Hoffman

Although it may only be an issue of semantics, I have never liked the idea of labeling a player a “big play” wide receiver. All players, including wide receivers, are expected to work to make every play a big play.

For wide receivers, this includes making big plays out of run plays. The average high school offense is predominantly run-oriented so wideouts must manufacture big plays, even if they aren’t getting the ball. Nothing bothers me more than watching a wide receiver jog two or three steps and stop every time a run play is called.

With the evolution of the spread offense, more receivers are taking the field. If they won’t prove their worth and block, why not just pack the box with big players that are hungry to hit and drive the opponent every play? Hopefully this article provides you with a tool for turning the “prima donna” into a “prime time player” — every play.

‘No block, no rock’

No other skill differentiates great wideouts from average wideouts more than down-field blocking. Unfortunately, it has become a lost art in the pros, the supposed role models for our young players.

Developing a winning attitude among wideouts begins with run plays. You can begin to change your players’ attitude with one simple phrase: “No block, no rock.” I begin every two-a-day practice in August by making a statement telling wideouts they will not play if they do not block.

Practice what you preach and show players the importance of blocking by beginning your individual practice periods with a blocking drill instead of running routes or racking up catches. It doesn’t have to take a lot of your practice time to send a powerful message to your players about the importance of blocking.

During the early part of the season, it is important to indoctrinate your wideouts with two important ideas. First, great wideouts view run plays as an opportunity, not a play-off.

Every run play has the potential to be a big gainer if the secondary can be taken out of the equation with persistent, hard-nosed blocking.

Secondly, wideouts must believe that no big plays happen without them. No big plays in the passing game happen without the receivers blocking and catching downfield and no runs of 15-plus yards or more happen without wideouts blocking downfield.

Once your players buy into this philosophy it is amazing how quickly their intensity and confidence level will change. In order to put your athletes in a position to be successful blocking in games, they must be given opportunities to practice blocking techniques with game-like intensity.

Teach the players proper blocking form in drills. Work on their balance, hand placement, and drive. Incorporating drills that include live blocking helps to develop timing and tenacity, as well as increases the level of competition and intensity.

Setting up drills such as mini-Oklahoma or scoring drills brings out the competitor in your players.

During these drills, teach your players to become a head-hunter; not cheap, but aggressive. Coach their effort as much as their technique by demanding that they block to the “echo of the whistle.” Challenge them to lock on to the DB and drive him off of the field onto the sideline — how demoralizing!

On film, coach your players to be the aggressor at the end of every clip. When the tape stops, demand that each wide receiver is in contact with a player in an ugly shirt. If they miss their first responsibility, turn up-field, and find somebody else.

My players are believers in equal opportunity. We’ll hit anybody anytime. As the saying goes, you play like you practice, so set up chances for your crew to practice and play with a lineman mentality.

Making believers

In a typical game where a team runs 60 plays a game, 15 passes might be called if the team throws 25 percent of the time. Depending on the type of pass, coverage, number of receiver options, and blocking in the line, a receiver may only actually get the ball thrown to him one time a game.

This creates the ultimate “seize your opportunity” situation. The fate of the play rests on the wideouts’ shoulders, or, more appropriately, in his hands. All of his teammates and coaches are counting on him and every fan is watching in anticipation of the catch. Great receivers are comfortable with these pressure opportunities.

Catching a football is as much an issue of attitude and confidence as it is of focus and repetition. Certainly drills must be set up to allow players to get as many catches a day as possible. And drills should emphasize catching the ball in a crowd, utilizing distractions and teaching players to catch the not-so-perfectly-thrown ball.

But when it comes to catching the ball, what you say as a coach is as important as what drill you do.

Let’s face it, catching a throw from a strong-armed QB while running full speed or coming out of a cut blind to the ball already in flight, isn’t easy.

But how many complimentary comments or statements of praise do you offer per catch? Conversely, how many opportunities to rip a player for a dropped ball do you miss? There is no right way to build a receiver’s confidence to catch the ball but there are two schools of thought discussed below. Your personal preference, coaching style, and the ability level of your players will dictate which will work best for you and your players.

One method for building a player’s confidence is through praise. This isn’t merely saying “good job” or “nice catch” repetitively. For a less talented group of players, the use of emphatic, specific, genuine praise for catches, even those we take for granted will build a sense of confidence in the player.

We set a personal goal of making more positive comments than negative ones to every player, each day. We’ll also include a bit of constructive criticism with anything that can be construed as negative. Players hearing these comments will begin to have more confidence in the coaches. It becomes contagious. It always makes sense, and builds up the players.

A different philosophy is required for a confident wideout. We try to get him to believe that catching the ball is about as tough as breathing. Something you are expected to do on your own, something worthy of praise.

Convince your players that they can catch every ball and constantly remind them that they have great hands and are expected to make every catch. When you offer praise, especially when a player is down on himself, make it a big deal, more meaningful. If you can make the players believe, they will!

Two coaching points have really added to the success of our receivers. Since they aren’t blessed with great speed, we focus on things they can control — their hands, for example.

We will often use tennis balls instead of footballs. If you want to break kids of catching with their pads, this is the tip for you! Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who is well known for his wide open passing game, uses a tennis ball machine to shoot balls up to 60 mph. at his players in practice.

The second coaching point we consistently remind our players of is — “Look the ball into the tuck!” Whether running drills with tennis balls or pass, every player is reminded at least once to look the ball into the tuck and turn up field for a minimum 5-yard sprint.

These are issues of focus and effort that each player has complete control over.

With constant reminders about focus and discipline in practice, the attitude and effort of your group will improve in games.

You made the catch — now what?

The most important stats of great wide receivers are “yards after a catch and yards after contact.” The play doesn’t end with the catch. We coach them to be playmakers when the ball is in their hands. We often refer to our running backs and wide receivers as “ball carriers.”

Utilize the running backs coach by having him teach the receivers basics such as properly securing the ball, hand preferences, and various cuts in the same terms used with the backs.

Once they know the basics, combine the receiving drills with running-back drills. Instead of working three-step routes alone, use cones and the one-man sled to create a running lane with a “defender” to juke.

Let your players know their ball-carrying opportunities are limited so they need take advantage of them. Remind them; no big plays happen without us.

To stay consistent with the theme of creating a winning attitude, set up drills that will force the receivers to take a hit. Use the blaster, work on one-on-one open-field tackling with defensive backs, or set up an American Gladiator style scoring drill in which the receiver must blast through two or three defenders with shields in order to score from 10 yards away. Drills become less mundane when players are put in a more competitive situation.

The more comfortable the receivers become with carrying the ball and establishing contact, the better they will perform when called upon. Average receivers become great when they can turn six-yard hitches into game-breaking touchdowns.

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