Zone Blocking in a Youth Football Option Offense

Zone Blocking

(Youth Football Option Offense)

By Coach Jim Adam

Youth Option FootballFor the very first time this past season I taught zone blocking to offensive linemen running an option-based system. I was pleased with the results, and thought it would be a good blog topic. Some of this post is in the nature of How We Did It. But I will use the beginning of the post to take you through some Why We Did It – and that takes a little background information.



I’ve taught option football to many different teams, in a few different offensive systems, and for a variety of player ages.  My youth football coaching curriculum vitae is getting longer by the year, and probably depressing for my wife. But it’s all been great fun for me.

In all the years previous to 2015, offensive linemen that I coached would learn ‘rules per play.’ For example, the left guard learned that for Midline Left he had to

  • identify the ‘dive key’ (being the first defensive lineman to the left of our center) and then
  • block the dive key down if
    1. the dive key lined up in the A gap OR
    2. the dive key crossed his face into the A gap
  • OR, if the dive key was head up or wider, to rip past him to the middle (or closest playside) linebacker

Those have been our rules – we always “protect the mesh”. Not everybody does it quite that way, but that has worked for us pretty well for fourth graders and older.

Last year I was asked to coach a group of 2nd graders, and this fall I just finished up my second season with them. As 2nd graders, they were the absolute youngest kids I’d ever coached in tackle football.   I’d spent the fall of the previous year (2013) introducing a couple of 8th grade teams to the flexbone offense they would be running in high school. That was really fun, because those 14-year-old kids could grasp new ideas very quickly. It was a humbling experience to suddenly start over with 7-year-olds in 2014.

I did my best to simplify things in the backfield that year by running from wishbone formation instead of flexbone (no motion necessary); and running far fewer plays. The only option play we really tried to run for 2nd grade was midline. In spite of those changes though, we really didn’t have much success running the option.  We were able to execute a good outside pitch option in practice a few times – but I was never confident enough to have us try it in a game. Our team was OK – we were about .500, though no scores were officially kept for that grade and the games were more like controlled scrimmages. But we certainly wanted to be better.

As I examined the season after the end of 2014, I noted three offensive problems.  First, neither of our QB’s were quite proficient enough to run an option system. The first was a really good athlete that turned the wrong way from under center too often. The other kid wasn’t quite courageous enough to run with the ball. Those are both pretty important qualities for a QB.

Our second problem was a general lack of athletic athletic ball carriers. We had only three. In a wishbone or flexbone system for kids, you need four to six athletic runners – four that start for you, and at least two more for depth.

Finally, I was not satisfied with the way our linemen were getting off the ball. I thought that some of that problem was due to the complexity of the rules that the linemen were expected to follow. There were just too many conditional statements to process for a young kid before the snap. I knew that all our offensive linemen were actually pretty good, and that they should have been better than they were. So that really disappointed me, because that meant their struggles were really MY fault.

In the spring of 2015 I started planning how I would do things differently. Specifically

  • What would I do if I had only two good runners? Both the QB’s I’d had I knew were moving out of our area, so that was an open position and we were down one athletic runner to start – would we have new guys that were athletic enough for all the backfield spots? Or would we need to run from an I formation? I planned for that eventuality, re-aquanting myself with Power, Blast, ISO, and Speed Option from I formation.
  • How could I get our offensive linemen to be faster to their blocks at the snap, and more sure of their responsibilities?

Pre-Season Thoughts

I found out during the summer of 2015 that of our sixteen 2nd grade players, three had moved out of the area, and four had chosen to do other sports (three soccer, one fall baseball.) It isn’t unusual to have some turnover from first year football players, but having 20% move out of area was pretty bad luck.  In addition, three of our four assistant coaches were now out of the area or otherwise unable to coach. However, we added eight new kids to roster, and two of them came with dads that would help coach. In e-mail exchanges and at the pre-season meeting I held, we all talked about our goals for offense, and my desire to get our O linemen faster to their blocks and more certain of their assignments. We determined that our backs would likely be better than they’d been.

In our meeting I told the assistants about an e-mail conversation I’d had with another youth coach about zone blocking. He’d written to me because he’d always taught zone blocking because it was so relatively easy, but he wanted to run the option. He was going to give it a shot, using some of my system and some of his.  The easy part he described intrigued me, so I had started reading as much as I could about zone blocking. I looked here. And here. And here. And probably a lot of other places that I can’t remember now.  Lots of the ideas I took away were great, but most of them were still too complex for my purposes.

So I did what I usually do, and simplified it down to make up my own system. I wanted our linemen to be sure of what they were supposed to do, and get there quickly and aggressively. From day one we began describing just four blocks to our third grade linemen:

  • Zone Right, which we would call Zorro
  • Zone Left, which we would call Zulu
  • Outside Right Zone, which we would call Oreos
  • Outside Left Zone, which we would call Olives

Instruction During the Season

Teaching these blocks would require our guys learning four general topics: Direction, Responsibility, Step, and Target.

The Direction for the block was pretty simple, because we used the direction in the words for the blocking assignment itself. In the huddle in the early part of the season we’d say “Zone Right, Zorro.” Later on we were able to shorten that to just “Zorro.” The direction part is in the name, and the kids picked up on the left and right aspects of the naming pretty well. None of the guys had any problem with the left and right direction of the blocking, even later on when we used only the shortcut words.

Responsibility (which man to block) was taught using pictures, repeated instruction from ready stances on the line, and drilling. Below are the pictures that we used that showed the responsiblity priorities. Our players were told to imagine themselves as the filled in circle player, and that their teammate on the line would be the open circle player. We drew that teammate just as a landmark.  The numbered boxes represented where opponents might be lined up, or might show up in the first step after the snap. The most important opponent to block would be #1 – but if no one was there, and no one suddenly showed up in that space at the snap, then the opponent to block would become #2, then #3, and then finally #4.

Zone Left PictureZone Right PictureZone LeftZone Right

Outside Zone LeftOutside Zone Right

Outside Zone Left PictureOutside Zone Right Picture
The drawings are pretty close to what we taught. The only added information had to do with the third and fourth options on each style of block. First, if on Zorro or Zulu our blocker has only #4 to block, then he is encouraged to combo on from there to any linebacker that shows up in the 1 or 3 area.  For the Outside Zone Blocks, if the teammate stepping in front of you gets to #3 first, OR you can’t get to your target in four steps, then climb to the #4 area and cut someone off.

From ‘ready’ stances on the line, we’d put defenders out in all the places they might block, call out the block (i.e. “Zulu”) and then see if the linemen could point out to the coach who they’d be blocking. We did these ‘identification’ drills at each practice. Those would be followed by live drills – the same exercise, but step and block on the snap count.

Each block had a different style of first Step. The drawing below is from one of the articles I linked earlier.

ZBS footwork
Zone Blocking Footwork Image
For our purposes, we only used the B step and C step. The Zorro and Zulu blocks used the B step. The Oreos and Olives blocks used the C step. We worked on the two B steps and the two C steps at every practice. When we did the step and block drills at practice, we’d start with one step, then go to two steps, then go to live blocking. During the one-step and two-step drills we would work on stances, get off, and body position at the step. We worked on six inch first steps, and how wide to open that first foot. For Zorro and Zulu, the distance of the second step would vary based on the Responsibility. For Oreos and Olives, our second step could cross over if we hadn’t reached our responsibility yet.

Target means our aiming point for blocking contact. For Zorro and Zulu the target is the Direction half of the defender (as we look at him) struck with the opposite hand. For example, in Zone Left (Zulu) if our lineman identifies based on Responsibility that he will probably be blocking jersey #61, he aims for the 6 on the front of the player’s jersey, and tries to get it with his right hand. For Oreos and Olives, our linemen are trying to get the far side shoulder of their opponent with their own near side forearm, make contact, and then (in most cases) climb. So for Oreos (Outside Right Zone) if our right tackle has identified a six technique to his right as his likely block, then he is trying to get his own left forearm on the 6 tech’s outside shoulder to pin him inside. We teach that if he can’t get to him in four steps to pin him, then to just drive him on in the direction that he is running away.

Putting It All Together

By teaching these four blocks as the basis of what we were doing, I could shorthand every lineman’s responsibility for every play. For 3rd grade we ran Midline Lead, a couple of different off tackle Power plays, and a couple of different Sweep plays as our most prevelent plays. We had a lead ISO dive for the fullback that hit the B gap that we called Bazooka, which used a split zone concept and a lead A back blocking through the split. We ran an Outside Veer Triple option out of pistol successfully several times as well, though didn’t use it as much as we eventually will. The matrix below shows each lineman’s responsibility on each of those plays. The slight variations of the normal zone blocks have an asterisk and are described below the matrix.

Play / Player Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
Midline Lead Right Zorro Zorro Zulu Zulu * Zulu º
Midline Lead Left Zorro º Zorro * Zorro Zulu Zulu
Power (16, 36) Right Zorro Zorro Zorro Zorro Zulu
Power (17, 27) Left Zorro Zulu Zulu Zulu Zulu
Sweeps (Rocket 38, Jet 38) Right Oreos Oreos Oreos Oreos Oreos
Sweeps (Rocket 29, Jet 29) Left Olives Olives Olives Olives Olives
Bazooka Right Zulu Zulu Zulu Zulu Zorro
Bazooka Left Zulu Zorro Zorro Zorro Zorro
Veer Right (OSV from Pistol) Zorro Zorro Zorro Zorro Zorro **
Veer Left (OSV from Pistol) Zulu ** Zulu Zulu Zulu Zulu

* Playside Guard’s first Step for Midline is toward the center, but he dips shoulder to skip a head up dive key if possible. If head-up crosses inside we block him down.
º Playside Tackle has a Zone block inside – but skips the B gap player if he is the dive key.
** Playside Tackle’s has a Zone block on any head up player, but he skips the closest outside overhang, who is the dive read for this play.

There’s much more to all of this, but I was pretty pleased with the results. We had better backs this season, but our linemen improved a lot. Of 13 teams in our league, only two were better than us, and one other was about even with us. We ended up 6-2 on the year, and we’ll be getting better!

Below is the first of two planned videos about some aspects of our season: