How To Implement Important Fundamentals of Punt Return

Our Punt Return & Special Teams philosophy is built around the following three questions.

  1. Is it sound?
  2. Can we teach it?
  3. Can they execute?

We are not overly complex and we have adapted most of our phases to our personnel, but we use these three questions to build our scheme for each season and each opponent. This allows us to be simple in scheme and allow for our players to develop and execute the fundamentals.

On each of our phases there are less than four techniques used, so we are able to concentrate our attention on the development of those techniques. This also allows us to train all the players on our team and then utilize them at any of the positions. We are able to create more depth on each of the units and, as a result, we have had more success at the end of the season because players have been working to develop these same techniques all year.

At Fordham, we stress the importance of the three P’s when talking about special teams.

  1. POSSESSION – On the return units we want to secure the catch and maintain possession of the ball at all times. On kick units we want to attack the ball carrier and create turnovers. Any turnover during a special teams play will have a big impact on the outcome of the game.
  2. POSITION – Each time the ball is punted or kicked there is a great deal of yardage involved. Field position is a critical factor that can have a profound impact on the outcome of a game. The further a team has to go, the less likely they are to score.
  3. POINTS – We believe our special teams philosophy will greatly increase our chances of scoring points for our team and place our offense in the best possible position to score.

Special teams at Fordham are emphasized both on and off the field. We have daily special teams meetings with the players and separate meetings for the staff to preview that day’s practice. These meetings allow us to install and teach the fundamentals and techniques we want our players to execute. We also use these meetings to make any corrections and prepare our players for the upcoming opponent. On the field, we use a teaching progression to develop our players.

Throughout the year, we will use individual drills and group work to continue skill development. During spring practice, we will install all of our units so that we can work on each of the fundamentals throughout those practices. The focus for that time of year is a one-on-one matchup and creating competitive reps. We choose to do most of our drills in a progression that leads up to utilizing the full unit. We have taken the approach of installing the big ideas first, then drilling down to the fundamentals used on each phase.

Once we get to fall camp, most of the players in our program have done the drills and are prepared to apply them to group and team situations. We will start again with the full install of all phases, then proceed to work individual, group, and team situations. As we move into the season, we devote individual time for our fundamentals. We understand that time is a commodity during practice and you have to prepare for what the opponent has shown, but because our phases are simplified we are able to dedicate part of the time to the development of fundamentals. In order to efficiently do this, we use circuits to start the period with quick rotations and then move to the looks for the week. We have seen this have a positive impact on our player development as it gets later into the season and our depth chart has diminished.

In our program, the head coach has a major impact on special teams and is involved in every aspect. Players are able to recognize that special teams are important because all of our coaches are involved. The head coach is in all of the meetings, and as a staff we all have involvement in setting our depth chart. We allow each coach to provide input as to who he will be coaching on that unit. We believe this creates more of an investment by the assistant coaches and inclusion into each of the phases.

The players who take the field for our special teams units are required to show Heart, Intelligence, and Technique (H.I.T.).

1. HEART
  • Players on our units must take great pride in teams
  • Full Effort/Full Time
  • This can be easily seen by their peers and the staff
2. INTELLIGENCE
  • Know the scheme and make full speed decisions
  • Know the rules and game situations
3. TECHNIQUE
  • Learn what will put you in the best position to be successful
  • Take from the meeting; apply to practice and game situations

We use this acronym to break a meeting and on the field as a reminder to the players of what we are requiring from them on these units. We use H.I.T. to refocus their attention in any situation as well as celebrate success of the units.

Punt Return

The focus of this article will be our Punt Return circuit, and the individual and group drills that we use for the development of fundamentals. Philosophically we are a return unit, but it is important for us to install the block portion of the unit as well. We will initially separate the block portion from the return portion, but we can mix and match any of the drills to create a circuit for any type of practice. In each of the drills that follow, there will be Set-Up, Focus, and Coaching Points as well as a diagram to depict the drill.

Takeoff Drill

Takeoff Drill; Punt Return

Align in a sprinters stance with a flat back and the dominant hand down. Eighty percent of the weight should be on the front hand and foot while crowding the line of scrimmage. Your front hand should be behind the ball with your head behind your hand. Your head and eyes should be focused on the ball so you can explode vertical with low pad level for the first three steps. A proper takeoff is the first step in getting to the block point.

Set-Up: Place the chute on the field running parallel with the sideline. Have a coach take a knee under the chute or use a snap stick to provide ball movement and simulate cadence. Place cones at desired distance from the chute to provide a finish.

Focus of Drill: Maintaining pad level while exploding off the ball. In the first three steps, players should be able to gain five yards.

Coaching Points: Make sure players are keying the ball by varying the cadence. Head and eyes should be up as players explode through the chute. Finish through the cone.

Block Point Drill

Block Point Drill; Punt Return

Understanding the angle to the block point is critical in order to have success. Once a player has reached the proper depth, they must be able to bend and use the correct technique to take the ball off the punter’s foot. The block point may be adjusted on a weekly basis, but is usually around nine yards from the line of scrimmage. Upon reaching the block point, the player should be bent at the waist and shoot his hands out, taking the ball off the punter’s foot. We want them to shoot their hands with the outside arm overtop, which will force the players to naturally turn their shoulders allowing for their jersey numbers to be pointed at the punter. Reaching with the outside arm will also allow for the angle to continue to change and the player to cross in front of the punter, preventing any type of penalty. A player’s head and eyes need to be focused on the ball with arms extended, palms facing down, and index fingers overlapping with the focus of taking the ball off the punter’s foot. Players should accelerate through the block point.

Set-Up: Place the bottom of the hoop five yards from the line of scrimmage. Have a simulated snap and cadence so that players can key the ball for the takeoff. Coach at the block point will take a knee and have a football in hand to extend as the players approach. This hoop can be moved to help simulate a block versus a two-man or three-man shield.

Focus of Drill: Maintaining pad level while exploding off the ball. Bend and bring outside shoulder across the body while moving closer to the block point. Bend and shoot hands out to the extended ball. See the ball and take it off the punters foot.

Coaching Points: Make sure players are taking the proper angles and seeing the ball. They should accelerate through the block point and scoop and score if the ball comes out of the coach’s hand.

Dip and Drive Drill

Dip and Dive Drill; Punt Return

When attacking protection, it is imperative to have low pad level and not give the opposition any area to punch. Prior to contact, we want our rushers to dip the shoulder closest to the block and “grab grass” while clearing the hip of the man in protection. Edge and outside rushers want to take an angle that crosses the block point, while middle rushers must run by the punter on his kicking leg side. It is imperative to not run into or rough the kicker. Any penalty by this unit can be detrimental in our overall success. We never want to put our defense back on the field once we have forced the offense to punt.

Set-Up: Use cones to mark off the block point nine yards from the line of scrimmage. Simulate a snap and block before reaching the block point. Have a coach with a shield set up with depth to try and knock a rusher off his path as they dip and drive past. A punter will time up his kick so the rusher will be able to take the punt off his foot while accelerating past the block point. To alter the drill for work versus a shield, move the coach back to a stationary 7 yards, and have the player attack the shield as he would normally. In this instance, we teach to reach with only one hand and aim for the “window” between the players in the shield. We will “get skinny” by turning our shoulders and attacking an edge, while reaching with the arm closest to the block point.

Focus of Drill: Maintaining pad level while exploding off the ball. Dip and drive past the block with the proper angle to the block point. See the ball and take it off the punters foot. Scoop and score with execution of the block.

Coaching Points: Players must have great pad level and the ability to bend to be successful in the drill. Lean into the shield and clear the hip of the blocker on the way to the block point. Bend at both the knees and waist to scoop and score. Palms should be up and hands underneath the ball.

Ground and Pound Drill

Ground and Pound Drill; Punt Return

Use of this drill and the implementation of this technique has had the single greatest impact on what we do on this unit. We had a top-10 punt returner in the country in 2016 because we were able to challenge players at the line of scrimmage and create space for the returner. In this technique, we will stay square as long as possible, striking the opponent in the chest and pulling him into our body. There are various ways we drill this, starting from going on air to full-field 3-on-3 competitions. During this drill, we will always point out any penalties that occur to educate our players on the parameters of this technique. We want them to be aggressive with grabbing and holding the player within the framework of the body, but also be smart enough to let go once they no longer have their leverage and are too far down the field.

Set-Up: We use tunnels to keep the coverage player in the lane on their release. Place these closer together in the beginning and then progress to utilizing more space. We will start the drill on a line and have the punt coverage player put his toes on the line. This allows the punt return player to start up close and then progress to a normal alignment with 1.5 to 2 yards of separation, simulating a game scenario. The first progression of the drill is a 1-on-1 matchup with the punt return player crowding the line. The second progression is the punt return player in a normal alignment and allowing the cover player to release in any direction. Once the 1-on-1 technique has been established, we will work 2-on-2, as well as 3-on-3, to create more game-like situations. The finish to each drill is the cover player is held up less than 8 yards for the desired amount of time, or the cover player was able to get out into a release past the 8 yards and the punt return player gets into trail position.

Focus of Drill: We emphasize moving your feet as soon as your key moves. We have all players executing this technique in a square stance with their eyes focused on the inside portion of the bottom of the numbers. Hands are on the inside of the thighs, ready to strike once your man is within distance. On movement, we will “hot” our feet and be prepared to move laterally to meet the man at the point where he is trying to cross the line of scrimmage. We will not move across the line of scrimmage to lunge or attack the player. The aiming point for the strike with both hands is the inside portion of the numbers, and once hands are inside we want to sink our hips lower and pull the player in towards our chest. The feet and hands are the most important aspects of this drill.

Coaching Points: Players must have their eyes in the correct spot and their initial movement, when the cover player moves, must be to “hot” their feet. Weight must be on the inside portion of the ball of your foot in order to move in either direction. Continue to strike the chest and establish your hands before attempting to pull the man into your body. Bent elbows and sinking of the hips are two focus points that confirm the execution of the technique.

Fight and Finish Drill

Fight and Finish Drill; Punt Return

When utilizing man blocking schemes in returns, it is important to develop individual blocking fundamentals. Once your man is into a release we will widen him off your landmark. Trail the back hip of your man and widen him with short punches. Don’t let your man backdoor you to the returner. Always maintain leverage on the side of the returner and key the hip to alert when the coverage man breaks down. When his hip sinks, you must break down and square up your man. Move your feet and attack while he redirects back up the field toward the returner.

Set-Up: Use cones to mark off the coverage lanes and the returner. Start the drill with the coverage player in the trail position. We will have the punt return player still widen and try to impede the progress of the cover player by striking the hip. The cover player is to run downfield to the designated cone and then try and re-trace back upfield in the direction of the returner.

Focus of Drill: Staying in phase when tracking the coverage. Understand what the return is attempting to accomplish. Use feet and hands to create space for the returner.

Coaching Points: Stay in proper leverage on the coverage man. Eyes must be focused on the hip of the man. Players must move feet and be physical with their punch to create space. Constantly work to finish the block as the coverage reacts to the return.

 

On behalf of head coach Andrew Breiner and the rest of the Fordham Football staff, it is an honor to be included in the Technical Manual of the American Football Coaches Association. The AFCA has afforded me the opportunity to learn from, and work with some truly talented coaches. I began as a member of the AFCA, continued my affiliation as a committee member, and now have been given the privilege to contribute to the Technical Manual. As a coach, I have the responsibility to continue to learn and develop so that I may better serve my players. I would like to thank all of those who have had such a profound impact on my development as a coach.

In closing I would like to thank the AFCA and the Technical Manual Committee for allowing me to contribute to this year’s edition. I appreciate the opportunity to continue my learning and development as I grow in this profession. I stress to the players that being appreciative of what you have, and of what you have been given, is of great importance. There are so many less fortunate than yourself and you must recognize that simple premise before you can take advantage of your own particular situation. I am fortunate to work at a great institution with some amazing individuals and I am excited about the future here at Fordham University. I would also like to thank those both in my personal life and my professional life who have afforded me the opportunity to grow and develop throughout my career. GO Rams!

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Shane Fogarty is currently the special teams coordinator/running backs coach at Fordham University. He returned for his second stint at Fordham in 2015, after serving as the offensive coordinator at Colby College in 2014. In 2013, between his first stretch at Fordham and his year at Colby, Fogarty served as an assistant coach at the University of Connecticut working with the safeties and assisting with the special teams. Fogarty was a graduate assistant for the Huskies in 2010 and 2011, coaching the defensive backs and linebackers for the 2010 BIG EAST championship team, who appeared in the 2011 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and the 2011 squad. Prior to his stay in Storrs, Fogarty spent the 2009 season as an assistant at Norwich University. Fogarty was an assistant coach at Trinity College in Hartford from 2006-08 working with the running backs and special teams in 2008. From February through June of 2008, Fogarty served as a head coach and offensive coordinator for the Carinthian Black Lions in the Austrian Football League.


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