Looking to enhance the experience for young football players and ultimately help increase participation, USA Football is unveiling a pilot program Wednesday in 11 organizations around the country that features fewer players, smaller fields, no special teams and no three-point stances.
The Rookie Tackle program is intended to serve as a bridge between flag football and 11-man tackle football for kids to help them learn the game and develop their skills, USA Football chief executive officer Scott Hallenbeck told USA TODAY Sports.
“This is that middle entry point,” he said. “Rookie Tackle is not going to replace 11-man football. We don’t believe in that. That is not our position. This is additive and necessary for the ongoing advancement and growth of football.”
The 11 organizations reflect a geographic diversity and size and span from the Tualatin Valley Youth Football League in Oregon City, Ore., to the Georgia Girls Tackle Football in Smyrna, Ga., and the Suffolk County PAL Football League on Yaphank, N.Y.
Ten of them are youth leagues with a previous relationship with USA Football through the Heads Up Football program. The 11th is the Philadelphia school district and will offer Rookie Tackle from sixth to eighth graders to help offset lack of resources with equipment and field space.
USA Football says the pilot program will involve leagues with a total of 24,000 players, including those who play flag, Rookie Tackle and 11-man tackle.
Among the highlights of Rookie Tackle:
- Leagues can choose to play six, seven or eight players on the field per team. Overall roster size will be decreased to encourage greater time on the field for each player. The roster size allows for smaller coach-to-player ratio. “Every youngster should have the opportunity to play meaningful time,” said Nick Inzerello, USA Football’s senior director of partnerships and education. “That’s why they sign up.”
- No position specialization; players will be able to experiment at different positions.
- No special teams. “Sometimes those skills and fundamentals of punting and kicking and long-snapping are more challenging for youngsters at their first experience in tackle football,” Inzerello said. “We want to eliminate them and quicken the pace to get more snaps on offense and defense.”
- Two-point stances only except for the center. The center will still snap the ball, but he cannot be covered by a defensive player or hit.
- Smaller fields at 40 yards-by-35 yards, scaled by size and player level.“We think it will foster more physical activity,” Inzerello said. “Typically on a smaller field, one or two of the fastest players cannot be able to overtake a game. The boundary turns them back into the field and there are more sustained drives and forces teams to utilize the field.” For areas where field space is an issue, two games can be going simultaneously.
The plan is part of the United States Olympic Committee’s American Development Model, which encourages kids to learn a wider range of athletic skills. Inzerello draws the comparison to baseball where the game does from T-ball to coaches pitching to player pitching. The idea is to create a development pathway with a focus on “right age, right stage.” The game should match the skills of those playing it.
“We wanted to create a game that kids enjoy and ultimately help improve their skill development without losing the integrity of football,” Inzerello said. “It’s all football, whether it’s flag, Rookie Tackle or 11 player. Let’s celebrate that kids are playing football.”
As part of the pilot, USA Football has created substantial material to help leagues and coaches understand the rules and be able to explain the game to parents and players. USA Football master trainers will be visiting each site and during the season the organization will be doing surveys and gathering feedback from league executives, coaches, parents and players.
Players also will wear devices that track what USA Football called “efforts” to see the impact on physical activities. An “effort” is when a player reaches a certain speed and maintains that speed for three seconds.
“We want to better understand the level of enjoyment for players who are playing the game and coaches who are coaching the game,” Inzerello said. “We want to listen to youth commissioners and leaders of organizations — what worked well? But also what were the challenges? We want to listen to parents who want to get their kids involved in football and how did this experience benefit their kids. … We think we will see more efforts and that kids are more physically active. That will translate into a more enjoyable experience.”
USA Football had a smaller test program last year with two sites. Among them was the Westfield Youth Football League in Indiana, which will be part of the larger pilot this year.
“We progress our kids to be ready for regular tackle,” Jake Gilbert, who is the varsity coach at Westfield High but also runs the youth program. “I think some people think regular tackle is the only thing that is football. This is how it’s played and we should start little kids out that way. I always thought that was a mistake.
“We were a pilot last year and some of these things are things I’ve done since 2000. Some of them were new things that they wanted us to try that were successful. One thing I was surprised that shrinking the width of the field ensured that all the kids stayed active for longer on each play. … I also was encouraged by the results on the two-point stance.”
Former New York Jets and Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington, a member of USA Football’s football advisory committee, is part of the Central Kentucky Youth Football League based in Lexington. Pennington said the league expects to have 75 kids in the Rookie Tackle program, playing eight-man football. The league decided that it would have flag football for kids under 8, introduce Rookie Tackle to players who are 8 and 9 years old and then begin 11-man tackle at age 10.
“I’m a big believer in flag football and keeping kids interested in the game,” he said. “Being a contact sport, there is not a definitive line there at certain ages. Some kids are ready for contact at 9, some are not ready until 12. I want kids to love football and create as many entry points as we can until they are ready to make the switch to full-contact tackle.”
The eventual goal is creating a national standard but also provide individual leagues with enough flexibility to adjust to particular local circumstances.
“We expect to be able to move this closer to a national standard with the idea in 2018 of opening it up in terms of a national pilot and let people opt it,” Hallenbeck said. “But would continue to analyze the research and get more feedback and learn how we can continue to modify it.
“We’re in this for a long haul. We don’t expect to have a perfect solution in the next year or two. This is something we have to stay with for a while.”