Simplify, Maximize and Unite Your Special Teams Culture [Video]

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The goal of this article is to share our philosophy on coordinating Special Teams and simplifying this phase of the game by complementing both offensive and defensive terminology, drills, and techniques. We will cover both big picture ideas and share drills that we have found useful in contributing to our success. 

This past season our special teams showed up above the line when it comes to performance. Each unit demonstrated significant improvement over previous years. Nationally we finished No. 1 in the country in blocked kicks, No. 2 in blocked punts, No. 3 in the nation in kickoff return, forced three additional takeaways, were 100 percent when executing fakes, and up until the last week of the season we were No. 1 in the country in protection. We believe our success was a result of the following: a buy-in from the players and staff, simple schemes focused on fundamentals, and a common effort to maximize each player’s ability and put them in position to be successful.

We will discuss some general philosophy and an idea or two on how we coordinate the six units that comprise of the Special Teams. The intent of this article is to share how we have tried to simplify special teams play, maximize its efficiency, and unite both our staff and players in order to win football games.

RELATED ARTICLE: PJ Fleck On Coaching Your Culture

Objective 1: Create an identity and a culture of this collective unit and reinforce the importance of its role in winning games. Special Teams has six units under its umbrella while Special Forces has the four running units.

 OFFENSEDEFENSE
PAT/FG:A Team (Automatic)B Team (Block)
PUNT:BOMB SquadSWAT Team
KO:SEAL Team VIFORCE RECON

We use military elite special forces names for Kicking Units that start a drive. We use elite law enforcement names for units that close a drive. We elevate status or reward players that start on multiple units. Platinum players are on four units (often your best young players not starting on offense/defense), Gold players are on three, Silver are on two. Their names are mentioned in the special teams meeting and are on our scouting report. When only a few players are standing when we ask the platinum group to stand I believe it is a moment of pride for those players.

Special Teams; Culture

We also name a special teams game captain, using meeting time to tell the team why a player was chosen. We want an offense/defense starter on at least one unit of special forces, but to start on no more than two units in a game, not including A/B Teams. Our Punt Team is elevated in status because we are looking for the best players to be on this unit; our players know that if they are on this unit, they are the most dependable players on the team! They are elite.

Objective 2: Borrow and incorporate as much a feasibly possible from both offensive and defensive components in order to maximize teaching, practice and meeting efficiency.

Notable Challenge: A team and staff is comprised of individuals with different agendas. Melding those objectives in to one clear objective is the essence of coaching. Here is how we attempt to do so at Georgetown.

We distribute the responsibility of these units logically among the staff. The offensive staff is responsible for the Point After Touchdown/Field Goal (PAT/FG) Unit that we have named the A-Team. The PAT/FG Unit is an extension of the offense and must be part of that unit’s practice time, meeting time, and authority. Fakes and play design should marry the terminology and the philosophy of the offense. Scoring Offense is a reflection of the offense and this is a scoring unit. I would suggest making the quarterback or offensive coordinator the holder coach because now you have his ownership. It is named the A-Team because it must be Automatic (points after touchdown and red zone field goals) in its results.

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The defensive staff is responsible for the B-Team or Block Unit. Systematically, we need to approach this play the same as any defensive play – know the down and distance, identify the formation, communicate, and make proper adjustments. We treat field goals differently than points after touchdown. Our players must know the situational rules. The goal of this distribution is to immediately link the offensive and defensive staffs to special teams play and its success. Offensive and defensive coordinators should have the buy-in to these two units! On defense, we do not want to reinvent the wheel when it comes to aligning versus multiple sets. Having the defensive coordinator in charge should force carryover learning. Once again, these are the only time we need the coordinators full attention.

The four remaining units (Special Forces) do not require the attention of the offensive or defensive coordinators, allowing them to focus on players not being used on special forces depth or on development squad.

Depth Chart: We have a two deep, but in reality if we are one and a half deep we should be fine.

Development Squad or Attack Team (Scout): Ideally 10 to 11 players

All other players are under the offensive and defensive coordinators’ supervision. These are posted daily so players know who to report to when we call the units. This is the best way I have found to ensure we have everyone working during these periods. We do not want special teams to be a punishment.

Simplify the Game by using the same terminology.

The language of special teams should be borrowed whenever possible. Below are terms we have taken from both the defense and offense.

Pursuit Terms

  • Force: Player responsible for keeping the ball carrier and any lead blocker on the inside.
  • Reckless Force/Fast: Player responsible for keeping the ball carrier inside, but can have a two way go on any lead blocker. Force player must adjust off the reckless force player.
  • Fill: Player that is at a different level, like a linebacker, who must fill where needed.
  • Chase Player: Aggressive backside pursuit aimed at far leg of runner, designed to get the ball carrier to ground or force a delayed and dramatic cutback.
  • Clamp: Aggressive backside pursuit at the level of the ball.

Universal (O/D/SPT) Terms

  • Throw Your Shield: This technique shows up in defense, offense, and special teams. The art of avoiding a clip or a late hit out of bounds needs to be practiced; our term is throw your shield. We ask our players to “throw their shield” by sinking their butt down, turning their back to the defender or ball carrier, and bringing their arms up to a body builder’s pose, creating a shield aimed at making the defense go over the top or eliminating a late push out of bounds.
  • Near Foot Technique: This is the technique of being under control or balance with near foot closest to the ball carrier or blocker, outside foot back, with hips square to the line of scrimmage.
  • Near Foot Near Shoulder: This is the strike position in tackling or block destruction, near foot in ground while near shoulder or hands delivers a blow.
  • Wrist Above The Elbow, Capped, No Brown: These are the main coaching points to ball security.
  • Shimmy: The movement of feet and body to under control or coming to balance.

The above terms show up in multiple units. Speaking the same terminology is our way to simplify the game.

Tackling

We use the Seattle Seahawk Tackling Method. We drill profile tackling, the Hawk tackle which we call Bulldog, the bulldog roll tackle, compression tackling, tracking, chasing, and clamping.

RELATED ARTICLE: How to Implement Important Fundamentals of Punt Return

As a defense, we tackle every day. In special forces, we must recognize that we are in more space and teach accordingly while also recognizing offensive players do not tackle as frequently and must get caught up. We pride ourselves on defense in swarming to the football, taking good angles to the football, and taking our shot. Going forward, we will chart our missed tackles in one of two categories – a good miss (proper leverage) and a bad miss (improper leverage). We want an aggressive mentality when it comes to tackling.

PUNT & PAT/FG Defense

From a defensive standpoint, our block units must be able to understand and adjust to multiple formations. The use of muddle huddles, tackle over, or unbalanced formations, along with shield spread and tight formations, must be easily understood and recognized. Defensive coordinators most likely have automatics for these exotic formations on base downs, so having a unit coordinator not reinvent the wheel is another way to maximize our learning and efficiency. We utilize a recognizable call from our defense that will allow us to align soundly. We have carryover learning, simplicity, which allows us to focus on technique.

When defending a punt formation or a PAT/FG, we need to recognize the same things we do on defense: down and distance, number of backs, number of eligible, and who is the center in the offense. During a field goal, we need to do the same thing. On defense, we align based on the center with a Rip or Liz call. The center is the middle of the five offensive linemen, so, ultimately, Tackle Over formations do not disrupt or change us. If we have six offensive linemen or an ineligible tight end (unbalanced) we consider that formation the same thing, and will have specific concepts and rules we will use. Because punt units have many eligible jersey numbers, we always use Tackle Over concepts in recognizing the center.

Kickoff DEFENSE

We use man marks in this phase like a defense uses offensive linemen as keys. Players are assigned a man mark or front line keys and must leverage their man mark accordingly. We have back line keys to confirm a play in the same manner linebackers and safeties see flow and pulls. We have a Force or contain system just like defense. To the short side of the field, we will have a reckless force player and a force player. The Fill player is always the kicker or theoretically the sideline. To Field we will have a Force Player and a Fill Player, the kicker will be an alley/cutback player to the field.

Unit Responsibility of Coaches

At Georgetown, we have different coaches responsible for each unit. We believe this is a great way build ownership, distribute the work, and develop our coaches. As special teams coordinator, I oversaw the whole but I was responsible for the punt team and, along with our wide receivers coach, the kick return. We develop players not ready to contribute and prepare the Attack unit for the opposing units.

Mo Banks, our secondary coach and now our new special teams coordinator, is in charge of defending the punt, developing the techniques for players not ready, and preparing the Attack for our punt unit. Coach Alex Kolt is in charge of our kickoff unit. This set up helps ensure that all players are working and developing during these periods and the Attack units are coached by an experienced coach. Players not on special forces are responsible to their respective coordinators. Being on Special Forces must not be a punishment and if players not on these units are inactive for this period it does create a culture of punishment.

Review: Special Forces is comprised of the four units that run in space. When meeting and practice time is allotted, these phases fall directly to the coordinator and the head coach. These units tend to utilize the same personnel and are managed by the skill coaches on our staff (wide receiver/defensive back/linebacker/running back/tight end). Offensive and defensive coordinators, the quarterbacks coach, and the offensive line coach are allowed to work with their positions. When utilizing our defensive Line coach on forces, our defensive coordinator is responsible for the line during that period. Although, we do draw from players in these groups. We believe the positives do outweigh the negatives when considering maximizing our time allotment.

We have a fourth down/punt day (Tuesday) and a “Start the Drive”/kickoff day (Wednesday). Thursday is an everything day. We kick PAT/FG every day, but our starter kicks Tuesday while our back-up kicks on Wednesday.

Note: We label any specialist that must execute a special skill as a Sniper (punter, kickers, snappers). A sniper must execute a special skill under pressure of time and conditions. We no longer call out for punters and kickers almost in a derogatory way. Both of our snipers made all conference this season!

Establish clear and achievable objectives for the group

It is better to have fewer goals that are easily understood than try to attempt to take six units with separate goals and create different identities. If we can have three goals that our players and coaches can recite verbatim, we have created a base or launching point for the unit as a whole. Knowledge and understanding can grow and expand within the parts, but each week our “musts” are reiterated prior to the game and reinforced when discussing the quality control on the day following the game.

In reviewing some proven defensive goals and researching both offensive and special teams’ goals from coordinators around the country, we arrived at three special teams musts at Georgetown.

  1. Own the Possession. This goal is always 100 percent. It means different things to each respective unit, but in short the following apply: ball security, eliminating possession changing penalties, defending fakes, on-sides kicks, perfect protection, consistent operation. The bottom line is, our players know that each possession is critical and the objective is written in a positive reinforcing manner.
  2. Net More, Get More. This goal is about field position and winning the NET punt game and drive start average. The most obvious benchmark of special teams is about real estate. Creating advantageous field position for the offensive or defensive units is the No. 1 part of the job description.
  3. WIN The Explosives (Score/Steal a Score/Set Up a Score). We want to be +2 in explosive plays. We expect explosive plays from our special teams and at the same time demand we eliminate the opponent’s explosives. We believe that if we are +2 in this factor we have given our team a better chance to secure victory. These are the game changers, the momentum plays that can cripple our opponent, like blocking a field goal for a touchdown (10-point swing). We believe that when culture and talent become one, the explosive plays will follow.

At Georgetown we have found that if we are 100 percent on our three musts, we have won significantly more games than we have lost. If we hit two-thirds of the musts, we win more than lose, and if we are less than that, the odds are we have lost the game.

The players at Georgetown can remember our three musts. To me, this ownership is critical in developing our philosophy and our players mindset in taking the field. I can’t stress this enough. We have only so much time to communicate and develop our language and priorities in special teams. I never understood a coach who would have more goals than three goals because three, quite honestly, was the most I could retain.

Review: Special Teams and Special Forces must be part of the culture and this culture must be built. We keep things simple for the players, have a philosophy, and give our guys the tools to be successful. Our players understand the importance of the 30 or so plays in winning a football game. We use our best players (starters can play on up to two units) without overworking them. We elevate the status of players who start on multiple units, and with each week, we are getting more and more to buy-in. How we organize the staff is not uncommon. Our coaches do a great job taking ownership in their unit, but we always maintain a united front. We work extremely well together which is a testament to the culture.

Note: We had a moment in camp where the team was not living up to the standard we had set for them. We brought the Special Forces into our team room and told them the truth. Certain players were communicating a selfish attitude regarding special teams. This communication was not verbal but rather by body language and accountability. It appeared they were too good for this type of work and were doing their own thing. At some point as a coach, you have to cut your losses and we did just that. We banned players from the unit which put them back to their respective coordinators. We challenged the players who stayed to be “ALL IN”. Since that time, we gradually became a unit that put us in position to win games (blocking kicks, scoring touchdowns, forcing turnovers, etc.).

In 2016, the signs were there in terms of the buy-in. We have guys who start on defense or offense now asking to contribute and be involved in the adjustments. The players who were banned tried to get back on the units. It reinforced that we are on the right path, that they are all in. That conviction has helped lead to some spectacular moments on the field.

Keys to our Special Teams Success in 2016

  • Strong group of specialists, our Snipers, the guys who have to execute a very specific skill (snapping, kicking, punting).
  • A great staff that teaches fundamentals and works together.
  • Motivated and knowledgeable players (no longer a place for non-starters).
  • Honest communication with simple goals and reachable objectives.

Suggestions for Special Teams Culture

  • Highlight or reward contributions (number of plays per game)
  • Highlight leadership (name a game captain)
  • Reinforce the musts all the time
  • Reward not punish (i.e. put practice periods and meetings where they do not add to overall time commitment)

Below are Drills that we have found purposeful in Team Football.

Team Drills

Drill #1: Fast-Force-Fill

Purpose: Leverage and converging the football

Application: Defense and coverage units

Special Teams; Drill; Fast Force Fill

Drill #2: Capture the Flag (3 vs. 1)

Purpose: Avoiding and stacking, getting from point A to B efficiently, great evaluation tool for finding pass rushers, punt/kick blockers, kickoff coverage guys, and return unit players that must block. You also find you best competitors.

Application: Defense, Offense, Special Teams

Our top kickoff drill that has crossover with our punt team is the kickoff medley. This combines the core defensive skills involved on kickoff: avoiding blocks, destroying blocks, and tackling. The goal of this drill is to refine these skills for as many players as possible in as short a time as possible. CAPTURE the FLAG is a more compact, aggressive version of this drill.

Special Teams; Drill; Kickoff Medley

The video below shows both of the team drills in action.

Avoiding Blocks

A big part of our kickoff coverage is avoiding blocks. We teach our players to avoid blocks in the first 40 yards of the kickoff. In order to avoid blocks, we teach our players to run at the player who is attempting to block them, step on the blockers toes, dip their shoulder, and slip and stack him. In order to do this, we want to get as close to the blocker as possible in order to make it hard for him to react when we change direction. Once we have closed the distance to the defender, we will take a hard pressure step with foot opposite the direction we are going, dip our shoulder nearest the defender, and rip with that same arm. We want to minimize the surface area the defender has to make contact with us, and we want to get right back on top of the defender so he cannot push us past the ball carrier.

Destroying Blocks

The technique we use to destroy blocks is the butt and press. Once we get close to a blocker in the defensive phase of a kick, which we define as 15 yards off the football, we want to take on all blocks with a butt and press. We will sink our butt and strike the defender with our hands, running our feet with our arms locked out. We always want our feet to be gaining ground! Once we have engaged the blocker, we will get our eyes to the returner. Once the ball has committed, we will pull the blocker forward, and rip in the direction of the ball carrier.

Drill #3: Throw Your Shield/Decision Drill

Purpose: Developing a skill to avoid blocks in the backs or late hits out of bounds.

Application: Offense, Defense, Special Teams.

It has been an honor to contribute this article on behalf of the Georgetown Football. On behalf of Coach Rob Sgarlata and the Georgetown University football staff, it is a privilege to submit this article on Special Teams play. I especially want to thank Mo Banks, Alex Kolt, and Colin Woodward for contributing to this article.

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Kevin Doherty was named Georgetown’s defensive coordinator in January 2017 after serving as the team’s special teams coordinator and defensive backs assistant from 2012-16. Doherty brings 25 years of college coaching experience, last serving as the Assistant Head Coach and defensive backfield coach at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. From 2001-09, Doherty coached at Harvard University, helping the Crimson win Ivy League championships in 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2008. He was the defensive backfield coach in 2001 before becoming co-defensive coordinator in 2002. Prior to Harvard, he spent two seasons at University of Connecticut as the defensive backfield coach. Doherty spent one season as the Head Coach at St. Francis (Pa.) in Loretto, Pa., after a successful six-year run as the defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator at Marist College. From 1989-1992, Doherty was the defensive backfield coach and special teams coordinator at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. He also spent the spring of 1989 coaching outside linebackers at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass. Doherty began his coaching career at Syracuse University under Dick MacPherson from 1987-1989 as a Graduate Assistant Football Coach. In 1987 he helped the Orange to a Sugar Bowl Championship and a 1988 Hall of Fame Bowl Championship.

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Comments 1

  1. As important as simplicity is to teaching special teams, I believe such simplicity is best achieved by NOT using the same exact S/T schemes as all your opponents.

    When you are sound but different in your S/T schemes, you force upcoming opponents to use up more of their precious preparation time than if you used, say, exactly the same schemes as they did.

    Being different costs you nothing in preparation time, forces opponents to use up more of their practice time to prepare for you, and makes it even easier to develop S/T espirit de corps…

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