blast from the past
by: Mike Leach
(When he was Offensive Coordinator University of Kentucky)
Football coaches often ask each other, “What is your best drill?” At the University of Kentucky, our best offensive drill is called Routes On Air. It is the cornerstone of how we teach and practice our pass offense with our quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs.
One of the reasons that our staff was hired at the University of Kentucky was because of our pass-oriented offense. This same offense was very successful for us at Valdosta State and Iowa Wesleyan. At both schools, we went to the playoffs for the first time in school history. The offense broke several national records and produced All-American QBs and receivers.
The key to our success was sticking to drills that focus on practicing fundamentals and provide a high number of repetitions. Routes On Air allows us to effectively teach our pass routes and plays. At the same time, it lets us focus on the specific techniques each player needs to develop to improve at their position. We can get high repetitions in a short period of time.
Running the Drill
To run the drill, we set up in a base formation from which our offense usually operates. The offensive line is not involved in the drill. We have five receivers and five QBs, all participating simultaneously. The five QBs all line up side-by-side in their pre-snap position. The five receivers are lined up in their relative positions within the formation.
Across from the offense we align large, stand-up dummies to represent defenders. The dummies are positioned to the area where the defensive backs and linebackers would be, after they have taken their zone drops (see Diagram 1). The dummies are set up to represent two-deep zone coverage.
We adjust the dummies to represent whichever coverage we are going to face that week: three-deep zone, four-deep zone, etc. If we do not have five QBs, we will fill in with graduate assistant coaches or other players. The extra receivers not lined up in the formation wait behind their respective position.
The coach calls a play, for example, “Y-sail.” The starting calls out the cadence and all five QBs drop back to pass. All five receivers run their proper route for Y-sail. Each QB throws a ball to one of the five receivers. The receivers catch the ball that is thrown to them, tuck the ball, and turn and go straight upfield.
After the play, the next set of five receivers steps up and replaces the receivers who just participated. The QBs rotate positions so that they are throwing to a different route in the play Y-sail on the next snap. We run each play at least five times, so that each QB throws at least once to each route in the designated play. (See Diagram 2).
We coach the QBs to never throw over a dummy, since the dummies represent defenders. Instead, the QBs are taught to throw to receivers who have settled in open spots between two defenders. Likewise, the receivers are coached to never settle behind a dummy. They are to split the defenders and settle into open areas of the field. After each repetition, the QBs rotate as follows: the QB who threw to the No. 1 read (Z), rotates to the far left to throw to the No. 5 read (H). The other QBs shift one spot to their right, so every QB is throwing to a new receiver position in the play. This forces the QBs to practice throws to all the routes in play.
All the receivers and QBs on the team get a high number of repetitions in a short period of time. Plus, every receiver is receiving a ball every play. We can go through every pass play that we run, five times, in about fifteen minutes. We do this drill every time we practice. The formations may vary from one practice to the next, but the scheme remains the same.
This drill would be a valuable addition to any offense. Even a predominately run-oriented offense will occasionally throw the ball. By using this type of drill, a team can maximize the time devoted to the passing game. The number of receivers or quarterbacks utilized in the drill can be reduced to accommodate a team’s offensive scheme. The QBs can execute the drill with dropback, shotgun, or roll-out techniques, as long as all quarterbacks are doing the same thing.
During this drill, there are a number of coaching points that we are constantly teaching our players:
Alignment-The receivers are taught proper alignment based upon the formation. If the ball is in the middle of the field, we generally like our WR at the top of the numbers and our inside receivers just outside the hash. The RB’s alignment will depend upon the set.
If we are on the hash from the short side of the field, we would have the WR at the bottom of the numbers and the inside receiver split the difference between the outside receiver and the formation.
On the wide side of the field, the inside receiver aligns just inside the hash, and the WR splits the difference between the hash and numbers.
Stance-X, Y, and Z are in a narrow two point-stance, with one foot in front of the other, like a sprinter. We want most of the weight on the front foot so when the ball is snapped, the receiver will naturally move forward. His hands are relaxed and, for balance, the front foot is turned in slightly. The stance needs to be comfortably low, so the receivers can come off the ball low. The receivers look in at the ball and take off when they see it snapped. The RBs are in a two-point stance, with their feet under their armpits and their hands resting lightly on their thighs.
Get-Off-The receivers are coached to get a quick first step with no wasted motion. We want the back foot to come immediately forward, with no false step or hitch. As the receiver comes out of his stance, we want him to stay low, as if he is coming out of the blocks as a sprinter. It is best to stay low for as long as possible. This will help both speed and release.
Route and Route Alignment-We emphasize running a precise route with respect to depth, landmarks, etc. The receivers are coached to “stick” each route, meaning they should plant their toe in the ground and push off the planted foot as they cut. We want the cuts sharp. Sticking the route will force the defender to freeze for an instant before he can determine the direction of the receiver’s cut. If the cut is curved or rounded, the defender immediately knows the direction that the receiver is going. It is also important to stress that the receiver settle into the open area of the zone.
We work on variations of the same route, depending upon the coverage. For example, a corner route may be adjusted any of the following six ways (see Diagrams 3A and 3B):
A-This is a basic corner route against a two-deep zone.
B-When the defensive corner is covering the flat and the safety is coming over the top to cover the receiver, this is a good adjustment.
C-If the defensive corner is playing a bump technique, and it is hard to get an outside release, we may adjust this way. The receiver wants to convince the free safety that he is going to go vertical, but then breaks to the corner instead.
D-In a four-deep coverage, or when the safety is playing shallow, this is an effective way to beat him deep.
E-This is good when the defensive corner is playing a man coverage or a trail technique.
F-We call this route “CPC”, for corner-post-corner. This is a good route to go to if you have previously run a couple of post-routes.
Catching the Ball-In the course of Routes On Air drill, we emphasize catching technique. We stress that the ball be caught in the hands. During a game we are happy with any ball that is caught. But, in practice we want to teach the technique as precisely as possible. This develops good habits that will result in great technique in the game.
After the receiver catches the ball, we want him to properly tuck and protect the ball. The receiver should turn and go. We really stress a quick pivot and burst straight up field after the reception. This technique has greatly enhanced our yardage after the catch.
When the receiver is running for a ball already in the air, he should run with his arms at his sides in a natural running motion. The hands should not go up until the last instant to catch the ball. If a receiver runs with his hands in the air, it will slow him down and tip off the defender that the ball is coming.
As we execute a drill, there are several players waiting in line for their turn. We expect them to be attentive and watching the drill as we coach the players actually running the drill.
Stance-The QB’s feet should be under his armpits or slightly closer together. We like a fairly narrow stance, because this will allow a big first step on the pass drop. His back should be straight with the eyes on the secondary. The toes should be turned in slightly, with the weight on the inside balls of the feet. When our QB puts his hands under the center we like the hands as high or as far back as possible, so he can get the ball up right away.
Pass Drop-As the QB receives the snap, we want him to push the ball up to his armpit with his armpit with his bottom hand. The ball should be carried high and ready to throw at all times. This needs to be a compact, rather than swinging, motion. We work on several pass drops out of this drill. We work a majority of our drops from under center or shot gun, but occasionally we will roll out. If we are under center, we usually work a five-step or seven-step drop, depending on the play. Our five-step is three long steps and two short gather steps. The seven-step drop is five long and two short.
The long steps, made in a straight line, should cover as much ground as possible. The last two steps should gather the feet under the body so the QB is ready to throw or move around in the pocket if necessary. We stress the depth and straightness of the drop.
Setting Up-As the QB sets up, we want him ready to throw at all times. We want his feet balanced up under his body, with the ball high. A right-handed QB should set up on his final drop step, with his back foot slightly to his right. This will open his hips slightly to his left, allowing him a better view of the entire field. This will also let him throw to his right. He should maintain this ready-to-throw position even as he moves around in the pocket.
The Throw-When he throws, the QB should shift his weight from back foot to front in a natural motion. As the ball is released, he should step to where he is throwing. The front foot, hips, and throwing hand should be pointed toward the target on the release. Where it is possible, we like the QB to put the ball on the receiver’s jersey number, away from coverage. The receivers turn to the side where the ball is placed.
We also look for any hitches in the QBs’ throwing motion. The QBs need to emphasize their follow through and turn their thumb down as the ball leaves their hand.
QB Reads-This is one of the most important aspects of the drill. The focal point of this aspect is addressing the progression of reads that the QB should go through on each route. For example, the QB with the No. 1 read should release his ball as soon as he plants his back foot on his last step. The QB throwing to the No. 2 read, should focus his eyes on the No. 1 read before releasing his ball to the No. 2 receiver. Finally, the QB that is throwing to the No. 5 receiver should look at the other four receivers, in the proper order, before releasing his ball to the No. 5 receiver.
As a coach, it is difficult to actually see where all the QBs’ eyes are looking. However, you can see what order the balls are being released to the receivers. If the balls are not released in the order that the QB’s are suppose to read the routes, then you know there is a problem. All the QB’s eyes should go through the proper progression of reads, on all five receivers, each repetition.
In the course of a game or practice, our receivers are taught to adjust their routes if the QB has to scramble. The receivers have specific landmarks that they go to when they see the QB scramble. We work on this with Routes on Air as well (see Diagram No. 4). It shows our scramble adjustments to the play Y-sail to the left and to the right.
The basic rules are:
1. The deep receiver to the playside aims for the cone in the back of the end zone.
2. The deep receiver to the backside aims for the goalpost.
3. The sort receiver to the playside works up the side line and settles.
4. The other receivers run across the field and try to get in front of the QB’s hand. As they do this, the receiver should keep themselves spaced at the initial level of their route. For the purposes of the drill, the starting QB determines the direction of the scramble after the pass drops. The other QB’s follow. The receivers adjust accordingly.
Over the years, Routes On Air has been a tremendous help to us over the years in developing our passing game. It is a drill that can be adjusted to help any football program, at any level.