With each new season, football becomes more and more of a passing game, both at the college level and in the pros. That means coaches can expect to have a number of aspiring pass catchers. These young players might have visions of scoring last-second, toe-tapping, game-winning touchdowns, but it’s your job to make sure the fundamentals are front and center.
This means teaching young wide receivers how to catch the ball, how to develop footwork that gets them open, how to run precise routes and, depending on the level of competition, how to read coverage.
Catching the Ball
The most important thing a receiver does is catch the ball. Fancy footwork and flashy moves are great, but only if the player catches the ball. Once you get the basics down of proper hand placement (generally speaking, thumbs together for a high ball, pinkies together for a low one) and catching the ball away from the body, use these drills to advance your players’ skills.
Sticker on the ball: To get your receivers used to looking the ball in as they catch it, put a sticker on one of the quadrants of the football, near the nose. This gives them something to focus on, which helps ensure their attention won’t wander and that catching doesn’t become too mechanical. If you don’t want to mess with stickers, have them focus on finding the laces as the ball comes to them. For a more advanced version of this drill, try making the receivers jog or run routes as they find the sticker/laces.
Band pull down: This drill requires the same setup as the sticker/laces drill—receiver standing still, catching passes—with an added twist. Have a coach tie a band around the receiver’s arm and then stand to the side while holding it. When the receiver moves his hand to catch the ball, the coach tugs lightly on the band. You don’t want this to completely disrupt your player, especially a younger one, but this helps him adapt to defenders trying to jar the ball loose.
You’ll want to break out the cones and ladder for these drills. Footwork’s important to everyone on the team, but when it comes to receivers, who will often line up across the best athletes the other team has to offer, good footwork can mean the difference between a failed play and a successful one.
Cone drills: Cones are an excellent way to have your receivers practice quickly changing direction. Place the cones in a square, with each cone about five yards apart. Your receivers should go through the drill with a football in hand, making sharp 90-degree turns. Be sure to emphasize the cut and getting better at it; it doesn’t do you any good if your players are literally cutting corners.
Another version of this drill features the cones placed not in a square but in a zigzag shape, each cone three yards off some central line (and each still about five yards apart from each other). This gives your receivers practice at making quick 45-degree cuts.
Ladder drills: No coach is a stranger to the quick foot ladder, and these workouts are part of the warmup session for many practices. When teaching your receivers, try incorporating the ladder in their catching drills. Have them perform lateral, quick-feet drills through the ladder while also focusing on properly catching the ball.
This will become a bigger deal for receivers as they get older, but while they’re young enough, route running is still secondary. That said, it’s never too soon to start teaching them to be where you (and the quarterback) need them to be.
Cone route tree: This one’s fairly straightforward. Position cones in such a way that they branch out for all the routes you’re going to incorporate. Teach your receivers which cone to cut at for certain routes. For instance, they’ll cut at a certain cone for a hitch route, at another cone farther up for a curl and so on. The cones make it so their cuts are sharp and the routes are precise every time.
For younger players, reading coverage probably makes the game more cerebral than it should be at this point. Still, it can’t hurt to give them a basic understanding of coverages and how their defender will respond to them in different ones. It’s not a drill, per se, but in parts of practice that simulate game action, you can periodically ask them what coverage they’ve been facing and what the corner looks like in man coverage versus zone. If they think about this now, they’ll be better players down the line.
For wide receivers to be successful at any level, they should be able to get open and catch the ball, and not necessarily in that order. By using these basic drills, you’ll make sure you have players who can achieve those objectives, and they’ll be better players in the future because you properly trained them.
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Photo: Jamie Williams / CC 2.0