Let’em Play!

SJA_Football_green helmetAs I think about the training camps I’ve participated in as a player, assistant coach, and head coach, memories ebb and flow, but the near torture that was the end of practice conditioning (wind sprints, gassers, timed runs, etc) was the least favorite part of my football experience. Since then, I have never been a fan of ending practice with conditioning. While players will undoubtedly encounter fatigue during the season, (and our staff reminds players of Lombardi’s sentiment, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all,”) old-school conditioning drills do not translate well to the game of football. Worse, they often drain player morale and disincentivize coming back the next day.  A better approach is incorporating conditioning into the football position specific drill work we do throughout practice. Our coaches incorporate bursts of intense work during practice with a 1 to 4 work to rest ratio throughout.

Our offense leverages tempo as a weapon. We minimize the time between snaps to just enough time for our Quarterback and O-linemen to read the defense, make their calls, and execute. By doing so, we limit defensive adjustments, substitutions, and the opportunity for rest. Increasing tempo during practice helps our players get used to the pace we expect them to keep during a game, uses positions, steps, and techniques translating directly to team success, and concurrently conditions our athletes.

We choose to end practice with a game, (to play) but not football.  We play a different game every day of training camp.  After practice #1, we played Ultimate Frisbee.  2018-08-16 Football fieldWe divided the players into 8 teams and our practice field into 4 fields. Not only do players work at maximum capacity, their movement patterns translate well to football (e.g. lateral movement, changing direction, tracking an object in flight, reacting to an opponent’s movement, etc.)

As coaches observing this period of play, we supervise the activity, but intentionally do not make up the rules.  We give them the field, the frisbee, the game, and the team; but they make up their own rules and those rules may differ from field to field.  As coaches, we observe; assessing performance and reinforcing safety.  We see who can run, who can cover, who can play an object in flight; but more importantly, we observe how players interact.  Who takes a leadership role?  Who creates or solves disputes?  How do teammates communicate? Who can follow, taking direction from an upperclassman or peer, yet finds ways to contribute?

On a team that graduated 16 seniors from an undefeated season, we are looking for every opportunity to develop leadership, cultivate interdependence, and build a team. These games give our kids those opportunities and they love playing them.  They even like playing soccer.  Everyone leaves practice with a smile on their face, looking forward to coming back the next day.  That is not the way I remember training camp in the late 70s and 80s. Times change… Let’em play!

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for your time!

Parents’ Meeting

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression…”

We will host a “Meet the Coaches” parent meeting the night before we begin training camp.  It is an opportunity for the parents of our players to meet and greet the men who will be working with their sons for the next several months.  It is also a time for me to share some very important details of our program. 2018-08-08 Parents GuideIf we are to create and sustain the Hilltopper culture, we need parents to buy in and support our tenants of character, leadership, and team before self. In much the same way we encourage our veteran players to welcome new teammates, I encourage veteran parents to welcome the parents of new players.

First order of business is to inform them that safety is our number one priority.  We share that all of our coaches have USA Football certifications in Shoulder Tackling and Equipment Fitting, Concussions in Sports, Heat Illness Prevention, and Sudden Cardiac Arrest and that we have all successfully completed CPR and AED training.  We explain our acclimatization policy that brings us from helmets, to uppers, to full gear over the first several days of Training Camp.  We inform them that we have a full-time, certified athletic trainer at all practices and games who is also available to them before and after every practice.

Next, we share the Academy’s core covenants for athletics:  Committed, Competitive, Classy.  Parents and players both must understand all practices, meetings, strength training and video sessions are mandatory. We share our training camp calendar and game week schedule, clarifying and confirming the expectations of committing to this team. Family emergencies and academics are the only things that trump scheduled football sessions.  Hilltopper teams are competitive and expected to practice and play with passion every day. While the spirit of competition and the thrill of victory fuel our efforts, we must demonstrate character and class on and off the field. We ask parents to reinforce competitiveness, but never at the cost of good sportsmanship.

Then we focus on the importance of communication and encourage parents to have their son come talk to me if he has any issues.  For some young men conveying a personal issue to an authority figure like a head coach can be a daunting task. However, it’s also a life lesson and I believe our work as coaches should serve our players long after the last whistle of their football careers. To that end, we ask parents to prepare their kids for the path and not the path for their kids.

If a parent insists on meeting with me, there are two hard and fast rules:

  • We will not discuss specifics of an individual’s playing time.
  • We will not mention the name of another player for the purposes of comparisons.

During the Parents meeting, I explain my thought process around playing time, starting, traveling, and dressing for games. Each is a privilege to be earned. None are guaranteed.

The coaching staff works assiduously to field the combination of student-athletes we think gives us the best chance for victory. I tell parents their son is evaluated on a daily basis by their position coach, coordinator and me. We evaluate not only his athletic performance but perhaps, more importantly, his attitude and effort.  Although all four grades (9th-12th) practice together, we do not dress everyone for home games and even fewer players will make the travel team for our away games.

This leads us to the conversation I call, “It’s Not Easy.”  It is not easy to compete at the level we do.  It is not easy to make the travel or dress list.  It is not easy to get through one of our practices or strength training sessions.  It is not easy to learn our offensive or defensive systems.  It is not easy to play football.  There will be failure and/or loss.  We ask parents to let their child fail and encourage them to work harder to succeed.  We believe athletics in general, and football in particular, serve to inoculate student-athletes against both the inevitable loss, failure, and fear they will experience and must overcome to be successful in life.  Again…prepare your kids for the path, not the path for your kids.

I go out of my way emphasizing to parents training camp is the one right of passage associated with becoming a Hilltopper football player. Our program is planned, executed and supervised in detail. It is intentionally challenging and designed to deliver both success and failure in doses calculated to foster allegiance, loyalty, and reinforce the best of what being on a team can bring. I emphatically state our prohibitions to hazing or bullying. I ask parents to echo this message to their children and should anyone encounter or hear of such an incident to immediately report it.

Additionally, we share the importance of Training Camp detailed in my previous blog with one other important detail…Uniformity.  We wear St Johnsbury Academy Football gear and accessories in Green, White, Black or Grey. We understand and appreciate the individual talents and perspectives each individual brings to our team, but as we shape this team, our culture, and mutual respect, we ask our players to set aside individual priorities and put the unity, focus, and interests of the team ahead of self. When team members are on our field, in our weight room or our meeting/video room their appearance, words, actions, and decisions must uniformly reflect our core values and culture.

We close our “Meet the Coaches” meeting with an open discussion of parents’ questions. Taking the time to clarify and confirm both understanding and expectations of a young man’s commitment to this team, and a parents’ support of their player’s endeavor sets the stage for future success.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for your time!

Thoughts on Training Camp

The “transformation” is about to begin…2018-08-02 year Transformation

Earlier this week, I was invited to attend Jets training camp by my longtime friend, Jets coordinator of pro scouting, Greg Nejmeh.  Greg played for me and coached with me at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).  While I was watching the team stretch at the beginning of practice, I saw them all begin to clap in unison as they looked towards the indoor facility.  They were welcoming a new player wearing a red jersey with number 14.  It was Sam Darnold.  He had just signed with the Jets and was transitioning on to the team.  As he made the long jog to the far grass field where the team was stretching and the clapping began to fade, you could hear one veteran cry out, “get your a$$ on the field” and everyone else begin to laugh…  At that moment, I was reminded that Training Camp is as much about building your team as it is about teaching offense, defense, and special teams. Culture matters… becoming a teammate is a process… and coaches must guide the process

Training Camp is the rite of passage for our program.  It is the welcoming of new players into our culture as well as the transitioning of the team from spring/summer work into the new season. As coaches, we’ve experienced firsthand, as well as observed multiple iterations of a team’s transformation from what was before, to what will be moving ahead. Although upperclassmen may have a leg up on offensive and defensive schemes, terminology, and practice routine, Training Camp begins the same way for everyone: with lots of focus, guidance, and direction for our players.

We revisit the common stages of teambuilding and by in large, most of camp is centered around “forming” and “storming.” When it goes well, we get to “norming,” and in a few instances, coaches and players see glimpses of “performing.” However, the final step is rarely widespread before the start of our first game-week of practices. The phases are however important, and Camp serves a role in clearly delineating a transition point in our season.

Leadership emphasis and “personal example” are imperative. If we are to help our new teammates grasp what it means to be a “Hilltopper” and to buy into our culture, upperclassmen and coaches’ words, decisions, and actions must overtly set the example and reinforce our character and culture.

Camp is intentionally hard. Players are stressed both physically and mentally, and each day serves a variety of individual and collective opportunities to confront personal fears, anxiety, and adversity. We program both success and failure in order to slowly build commitment, momentum and belief in ourselves, our teammates, and the team. We come out different than when we began and the transformation occurring during this rite of passage is an awesome thing to witness.

It’s important to note, Training Camp is our one rite of passage. Planned and executed in detail, there is only one transformation we strive to achieve. Both prior to, and during Training Camp the coaches and I take the opportunity to address the issues of hazing and bullying, and emphatically state there is no other rite of passage on our team. Team building reinforces the very best of character, culture, and interdependence. Hazing and bullying are its antithesis and are never tolerated. Nothing destroys a team faster.

For the Hilltoppers, Camp is a culminating event marking the transition from offseason to in-season, and the shared experiences on and off the field serve to solidify the vision, values, goals, and purpose behind who we are as a team. Coaches state our specific intent going in, and emphatically denounce any other effort by teammates, students, community members, or other entities who might try to create a separate initiation, rite of passage, or event that could rapidly deteriorate into a hazing incident. Hilltoppers treat one another with dignity and respect and reinforce the notion that individual words, actions, and decisions reflect on the whole team’s identity.

I look forward to discussing our transformation in the coming weeks, highlighting the lessons learned during Camp, and describing how the 2018 Hilltoppers rally together to start the new season.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for your time!


OTA Recap & Looking Ahead

Lessons Learned

As I evaluate the past 5 weeks of OTAs and the week of Mini Camp, we have seen tremendous growth in a very “green” offensive line. They have a strong understanding of Zone, Man and Gap Schemes and the different languages we use to communicate the blocks we execute in those schemes.  I’m proud of the things they accomplished, but I’m always looking for ways to improve, and things we can do better. To that end, I must ask myself, “What were our mistakes? Knowing what I know now, is there anything I would do different were we starting over?” I make notes of these items and link them to a2017-07-11 check list calendar for the start of next year’s OTAs. When next year’s OTA preps come around, I’m ready with notes and a fresh perspective and don’t have to rely on my (aging) memory to get it right!

The mistake that I recognize making is not checking the scheduling conflicts of our players before planning the OTA sessions.  I had originally scheduled Monday’s as our OLine day and Tuesdays and Thursdays as our 7v7 days.  Unfortunately, I found out on our 1st Monday 2 of our projected OLine starters were playing Babe Ruth baseball and had games every Monday at the same time as our sessions.  Then, I got the American Legion baseball schedule and saw that my own son, our backup quarterback and projected starter at Split End, had games every Tuesday and Thursday.  In week 2, we made the switch to have 7v7 practices on Mondays and Thursdays and OLine training on Tuesdays. Lessons learned and noted for next year: “anticipate schedule conflicts and plan accordingly.”

The best thing we did this year was to incorporate a training app for our strength and speed workouts.  We used “Train Heroic” (https://trainheroic.com/).  It has allowed us to eliminate paper workout programs and the administrative trivia of filing and occasional loss.  It also allows me to track the number of workouts each player go in during the sessions, how long each workout took and what their loads were for each lift.  As a boarding school, some of our players live out of the area, state or even country.  The app allowed them to do the same workout as their teammates who live locally and aggregated the pertinent data for our staff.

An ancillary benefit of the app was that it allowed me to step away during the Week 5 training sessions.  I had noticed that our kids were developing nicely during OTAs but no one was stepping up in a leadership role. We graduated a dominant senior class who possessed great leadership skills, and who cultivated great followership amongst the underclassmen. Stepping away a bit offered returners the opportunity to step up as leaders and was of paramount importance for us during OTAs and Mini Camp and will be again for Training Camp.

We had a lot of talent last year, but it was the social cohesion and belief in “team” created by our senior leaders that made us a special, and arguably the greatest team in the 100+ year history of St Johnsbury Academy. We have talent again this year, but our future leaders will need to be cultivated and accept the responsibilities of their new roles. I look forward to relaying our progress in that vein during the coming weeks.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for your time!

Mini Camp Preps

Mini Camp Preparations

As we finish OTAs and prepare for minicamp, I am reminded of some great advice I received before going on a vacation.  A good friend told me to put out all the clothes and money I would like to take, then put back half the clothes and take out double the money!

The philosophy on clothes is what I have used ever since for vacations, as well as for preparing my “Installation Book,” (The book of plays we plan to install).   Playbooks are like closets.  They contain all the clothes you never wear but refuse to get rid of.  I must have 50 t-shirts in my closet but I only wear about 12 of them, and I would only take 6 of them on a vacation.

Let your Playbook serve as your closet, but make your Installation book your suitcase.  The longer the vacation, the more you can take.  Our Mini Camp has 5 practices during the last week of July.   Mini Camp is a short camp (5 days of only 1 practice/day).  It is geared toward teaching alignment, assignment, techniques, drills, and base plays.  Mini Camp is conducted in shorts and T-shirts.  There is no contact in drills.  It is also the first time we invite incoming freshmen to join us which allows coaches an evaluation of new players prior to training camp.  Mini camp’s limited time and focus equal a “small suitcase” of plays.

Training Camp last for 2 weeks with 14 Practices, 3 Walk-Throughs, and 2 Scrimmages. We are in full pads by day 4 and drills are full contact.  That may be a bigger suitcase, but it is not the entire closest!  Do not spend your valuable time teaching plays that you will never call.  Focus only on the ones that would make it in the suitcase!

One additional note:

Next Saturday, July 28th, we will host the Northeast Kingdom 7 v 7 tournament at St Johnsbury Academy. 7 v 7 (sometimes called 7 on 7) has quickly become a great opportunity to build team chemistry and evaluate potential. We have ten teams from Vermont and New Hampshire signed up to compete and have room for two more. 7 v 7 is a non-contact passing scrimmage with no blocking permitted. Quarterbacks have four seconds to release the ball and teams compete to move the ball down the field and score on one another.  Games are timed and officiated, and we’ve developed quite a tradition for friendly competition.

Further, we will also host the OLine Challenge and Strong Man Competition for offensive and defensive linemen. This event gives student athletes the opportunity to compete in both individual and team-oriented events designed to both showcase talent and build team cohesion.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for your time!

Summer OTA’s Week 5


In Week 5 of Summer OTAs, we install the Slide Protection used in our drop-back passing game.  Our Slide Protection is a half slide.  We NEVER full slide.  We want to get the Running Back out as a receiver if there is no blitz and we do not want to have the matchup of a Running Back pass blocking a Rush End.  We want offensive linemen pass blocking defensive linemen.

Our Slide protection combines two schemes discussed in earlier blogs:  Man & Gap.  Half the offensive line is in a Man scheme while the other side and the Center are in a Gap scheme.  The Running Back blocks to the Man side.  This allows for a 6-man protection with 3 blockers on each side of the ball.

Just like the Man Schemes in our running game, the Man side Guard blocks #1 on the Line of Scrimmage and the Tackle blocks #2, regardless of their alignment.  The Center begins the Gap scheme Slide away from the Man Scheme.  The Center has the A Gap, Guard has B Gap and Tackle has C Gap.  The Running Back has a check release vs any blitz to the Man side.

On day 1, we will have the offensive linemen communicate from Tackle-to-Tackle on the Man side then the Gap side as follows:  “I have #2, I have #1, I have A, I have B & blitz (with no DL in the B), I have C”.  As we advance to protect vs stunts, the Man side Guard and Tackle can switch vs twists but those two offensive linemen have those two defensive linemen.  The Gap scheme of the slide already accounts for all twists and blitzes.

2018-07-12 Slide Protection

If a defense attempts to blitz our protection to keep the Running Back from getting out into his pass route, we will bring the Running Back across the formation in his protection.  Since the Man and Gap sides are predicated on the side the Running Back is going, the offensive linemen must identify where the Back is protecting then call the protection accordingly.

2018-07-12 Play Action Slide Protection

Note the importance of communication on the line of scrimmage. As discussed earlier in the OTA Blog Series, we are also working on team building and interdependence. Our team plays a high tempo scheme and we use offensive tempo as a key component of momentum. The only way to support that tempo is to communicate. Communications further reinforce roles, responsibilities, and convey a sense of understanding, purpose, and confidence. When we have a common vision of success and communicate effectively to achieve that goal, it feeds tempo strengthening both our offense and our team.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for your time!

Summer OTA’s Week 4

Communicating on another level…

As we begin Week 4 of Summer OTAs, I am reminded of a phone call I received last week.  The call was from legendary New Jersey high school coach Fred Stengel of Bergen Catholic.  Sometimes when I receive a call from another coach it is to get information.  Other times it is for affirmation.  This call was most definitely the latter.  Fred wanted to talk over their Pin & Pull scheme vs the defense Grayson HS (GA) runs.  Knowing he was preparing to face the preseason #2 ranked team in the nation, Fred did not want to leave any stone unturned.  Fred knew exactly what he wanted to do.  We just went over it step by step for every position on the offensive line.

As coincidence would have it, we introduce our Gap Scheme Pin & Pull play in Week 4 of OTAs.  Gap Schemes are characterized by some offensive linemen blocking down or back, while others pull to the play-side.  Although the play is called Pin & Pull, it would be more appropriately named Pin OR Pull.  Every offensive lineman will either Pin or Pull based on the defensive alignment. When running Pin & Pull to the Right, if you have a defensive lineman in the gap to your Left, you Pin him.  If you do not have a defensive lineman to your Left, you Pull to the Right.

2018-07-05 Gap Scheme Pin-Pull 1

The bulk of my conversation with Coach Stengel centered around the steps, visual target and strike points for the Play-side Tackles block in the 4i, how to handle the 0 Nose, and how to block the wide 9 technique on the Tight End.  The rule of thumb for every offensive lineman and Tight End is that when running Pin & Pull to the Right, all Pullers step with their Right foot and all Pinner’s step with their left foot.

2018-07-05 Gap Scheme Pin-Pull 2

Getting back to the topics of our conversation, the play-side Tackle will take a bucket step with his inside foot to see that the 4i does not penetrate and knock off pullers.  He will have a visual target of near Pec and strike points of sternum and near shoulder to see that the defender is pinned from play-side pursuit.  Since the Nose is head up on the Center, he is in the Play-side Guard’s backside gap.  The Guard will take a bucket step with the same visual target and strike points as he down blocks the nose.  The Center is the puller.  Since the Tight End does not have a defender in his Left gap, he quick pulls to the wide 9 technique with a visual target of far pec and strike points of sternum and far shoulder.  I then shared that this generally causes the wide 9 to widen so as to not get reached allowing a good running lane between the down block on the 4i and the expanding wide 9 for the pulling Center and back to run through.

As we discussed in Weeks 1-3, communication between offensive linemen is critical to their success.  The same can be said for communication between offensive line coaches.  If there is anything you wish to discuss, I would look forward to hearing from you.

Coach Rich Alercio is available to discuss coaching philosophy, X’s & O’s, or teach his O-Line “techniques in the trenches.” Contact Coach at richalercio@gmail.com and share http://www.olineskills.com with your colleagues and friends. Thanks for your time!