Here are a number of methods for implementing special teams periods, drills and proper approaches to improving specials teams on an individual and a team basis to develop your kickers and punters.
Starting With Kickoffs
As a rule, coaches must never let kickers start their practice sessions with full-approach kickoffs. A kickoff is the most taxing type of kick, so proper warm-up is very important. Kickers should begin practice sessions by attempting field goals or punts.
At the same time, coaches can involve the kicker or punter in practice plans to keep them ready. Some form of kickoff should be practiced during every practice session. This will prevent coaches from hearing: “Coach, I didn’t know we were kicking off today.”
On top of that, all coaches want the onside kick to work in a game, but waiting until Thursday to rep it can change it from a kicker’s strength into his weakness. Here is a simple onside practice period.
First, the No. 1 kickoff team should practice the onside kick vs. the scout hands team. Then, the No. 2 kickoff team should practice vs. the No. 1 hands team. This drill should last no longer than 10 minutes.
This drill can be conducted inside of 50 yards. In the huddle, call one of three types of onside kicks: left, right or drag. My favorite onside kick is when the kicker slowly “drags” the ball alongside himself. This gives you four men on their three, if done properly.
The kicker should be the player to recover the ball. This is a great method for solving a heated battle for No. 1 kicker. See who really wants the ball regardless of the field conditions and make him recover it every time.
Having a strong onside kick allows any team to be sharp and prepared for any situation. It keeps the opponent flat-footed and afraid because they know an onside kick can come at any time.
No football coach wants to admit to a less-than average component of his team. When looking at players, coaches tend to skip over the negatives and focus more on developing strengths, hoping they can overcome weaknesses.
Coaches forget that 1-of-6 plays is typically a special teams play. For this reason, coaches should spend 10-20 minutes per week during the off-season developing kickers and punters.
Let’s start with the punter.
Handling The Ball
When in the weight room or gym, coaches or teammates can help punters by tossing them 20-25 balls every day. This should take a maximum of 5 minutes.
Too often, coaches tell punters to warm up on their own. When coaches observe the warm-up, the punter usually starts with the ball already in his hands, progressing to the punt.
This is extremely bad for the punter because he forms bad habits and loses a feel for timing. It can also lead to poor handling of snaps and a complete change in technique or panic when it matters most. When punters panic, they take more steps or lose rhythm, then badly miss-hit the ball causing a loss in confidence.
This simple ball-tossing drill should start with the punter about 5-8 feet from the person tossing. The punter should be in his normal stance and take this drill seriously. The person doing the tossing should increase the speed with each toss, forcing the punter to focus on the ball and control it.
This is not the time to strengthen your long snapper; do that afterward. The focus of this drill needs to be for the punter to cleanly catch the ball and develop great hands. Once the punter catches it, he gives it back until the period is up. Tell your No. 1 and No. 2 punters to do this drill together every day. It pushes them to improve.
Stretching And Placement
Kickers must work on two areas during the off-season. First, they must stretch. Then, they need to stretch, and finally, they should stretch more. It’s a myth that a kicker can’t be both strong and flexible.
Second, the kicker must prepare his holder. The holder is the most under-worked position on the field, but becomes well known when he fails.
For this drill, start with the holder in his stance and focus on technique. A holder must begin with his front knee on the ground. His back knee is up in the air because he will use it as a guide for his elbow when placing the ball on the ground.
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Make sure the holder uses his front hand to spin the laces out, with his back hand used for holding the ball down. The index finger is the proper finger to use on the top of the ball.
While most of this may sound basic, these small adjustments to technique will correct weaknesses.
Holders should also practice the toss drill. Tell your kicker it is his responsibility to warm-up the holder.
On The Attack
It’s extremely important that coaches help the team understand it is everyone’s responsibility to excel at special teams play. By attacking opponents, coaches can energize the team during this segment of practice.
Add an unexpected wrinkle during the season by naming a special teams captain. This leader must help oversee your off-season drills, as previously mentioned, or incorporate new weekly schemes. He should provide a fresh look at your specialist, allowing coaches to keep more focus on offense and defense.
It is critical that this focus and attack mindset be established on punting from the end zone, both from a punting and punt-blocking perspective. The key to the end-zone punt is decreasing the get-off time for the punter and improving the aiming point for the block.
Coaches should consider the following key points to help punters improve their get-off time:
- Keep the punter 12-18 inches away from the end line to allow space in case of a bad snap.
- This is a one-step punt area. The first responsibility is to get the punt out, the distance and height of punt are secondary. Watch the number of steps the punter takes as well as the length of his stride. Often, pressure leads to longer strides than necessary. A small, one-step stride assures the timing is on-point and the distance traveled is short.
- Practice what the punter should do following a bad snap. Perhaps the punter should roll out to his kicking-leg side for a rugby-style punt. Or, maybe he should run out of the back of the end zone for a safety to avoid giving up a touchdown.
The tables turn when your special teams is on the field to block a punt from the end zone. Make sure to help your punt-block team understand each of the following points.
- Outside-pressure players must practice a landing point. Place a cone for a drill and have them lay out in the front of the cone. This is how most athletes get a feel for the target or landing area.
- These players must also focus on one hard step up-field to create separation, then plant hard on their outside foot, heading full-speed toward their target. These first two steps must be a big focus point.
- Always work on scoop and score. Get everyone involved. It is a fun activity because everyone has the chance to score. This is a great place to focus on intensity – what many players call “beast mode” – during special teams play.
These points may seem elementary, but if coaches don’t discuss and plan for them, end zone punts can change the game in an extremely negative manner. Properly planned and executed, these plays can turn the tide of an entire game during a single play.
Every coach, every player, every team has tendencies. I am known for being too easy on my athletes. Our head coach often reminds me that I must show my teeth every now and then to keep players in line. It’s because of tendencies that coaches must evaluate their special teams film.
I watch other coaches as much as I can during a game. If a coach doesn’t pay attention to his specialists all game and suddenly seems interested in a play, a fake may be coming. Or, if he is often close with his specialists, he may walk away to act like he is not doing anything different, also indicating some kind of fake.
To have great special teams, coaches must be involved at all times and remain consistent and steady. Much like in the game of poker, coaches must not tip their hand in any direction.
Here is my final point. Coaches often come to me and say: “The kicker just stands there and looks at me when I ask him a question.”
Kickers and punters can be quiet, kind athletes. Challenge them to be their best, but understand that just because your kicker or punter may be quiet and kind, it does not mean he is weak. These athletes are often studs in the making.
Kickers and punters are men of passion, a passion to win, a passion to be successful and to leave a proud mark upon their programs. Get to know them, and get to know yourself at the same time.
This article was written by Sam Watts, Kicking/Punting Coach at SamWattsKicking.com.
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