As a special teams coach, you have the ability to interact with almost all of the players on the team, instead of just one side of the ball. This allows you to build a connection in a different way with all the players. As competitors, we all want to feel like we are contributing to the success of the team. There will be more players contributing to special teams than offense and defense, and quite possibly this may be their only way to make an impact. Stress the importance of their responsibility. A player’s only role may be to jam a gunner on a punt return. However, that allows our returner to gain more yards, which helps out our field position, which benefits the offense and defense.
Special teams is often one area of practice that the players look forward to the least. I believe that as the coordinator for any special team you have to have a genuine enthusiasm for the individual drills and scheme which you are going to coach. If you are not excited about it, why would anyone else be? Players can always tell how you really feel about something, so approach it with the same passion you do a team period. Early on in camp, I will get involved with a specific station. As the players become more comfortable I will leave it to another coach so that I can be present in all the drills. Moving from station to station, giving a correction where it is needed, or more importantly, calling out a player when he takes a rep that is exactly what you are looking for builds a level of investment. This is not simply a period to grind them and make them tired, these fundamentals will make a difference in the game!
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Our focus in the preseason, even before we introduce any scheme, is to establish the fundamentals that each special team’s player will need to make us successful. During the season more often than not individual periods for special teams are reduced or cut out, making it all the more important to develop good fundamentals in the preseason. We believe that repetition is the key to success, build the muscle memory up so that in the game it becomes as near to instinct as possible. Each practice during preseason we will have two 10 minute periods devoted to a special team. We will split up the position groups, minus the offensive line/defensive tackles/quarterbacks, into four even groups. A coach at each station will then execute the drill for roughly two minutes and fifteen seconds (giving time for them to rotate to the next station). Early in the preseason, we would allow time for each coach to explain the drill, but toward the end we expect the players to know and execute the drill with minimal need for instruction.
I chose to focus on Punt Return because I was responsible for running the look squad for the punt team at UNH. Like most schools the punt team was run by the head coach, so above all else, I wanted to make sure we were giving the best look possible. While I know there are many different ways to approach punt return, these are a few of the things that I believe helped us to be successful.
- Keep it simple. And often said statement but I believe it allows our guys to play faster. I would rather do one thing really well than a whole bunch of things just ok. Punt teams nowadays often utilize multiple formations, motion, shifts and even different punting styles (regular or rugby).
- Focus on the fundamentals. We start preseason with 4 stations:
- Stance/Get Off
- Block Point Mechanics
- Hold Up Technique at the Line of Scrimmage
- Protect the rim at the Point of Attack
- Our scheme each week will vary based on the operation time of the opposing punt team, however every week we will go in with at least one block and one return. (If their operation time is 2.1 or faster, we will almost always operate with a return game based on the situation.)
- The returner you are working with. If we have a dynamic athlete more often than not we want to give him the chance to make a play.
Every week going into a game we will set the goals that we hope to accomplish. We make sure that these goals are emphasized during the week, and that our scheme aligns with them.
- Secure a change of possession. This is always the number one goal no matter what. If we have to leave safe defense out there with no returner to accomplish this we will.
- Play penalty-free. At the minimum where we catch the football is where our offense should be starting from.
- Average a first down in returns. Every first down we get is one less that our offense has to pick up.
- Score or set up a score. I like to have a goal each week that is somewhat challenging to reach. This goal can rarely be accomplished without multiple individual efforts from the unit. The feeling of accomplishment when we are able to check off the hardest goal builds a strong sense of pride throughout the unit.
- For the returner we expect him to catch everything. There are a lot of yards that get left out thereby allowing a ball to hit the ground and roll.
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Lastly here are five techniques that I believe are the core fundamentals to having a successful punt return team.
- Sprinters stance: – Heel to toe relationship with the feet, down hand out in front of your face, butt raised slightly, power angles in hips, knees, ankles.
- 2 Point stance – Heel to toe relationship, leaning forward (chest slightly over the knees, knees over the toes, weight evenly distributed between feet, ready to drive off with back foot). Good athletic position selling rush demeanor.
- Jammer stance – Feet are neutral, chest over your knees, knees over your toes, hands slightly up and in front, ready to control and redirect Gunner.
- Key the back tip of the football for great get off!
- Understand who is blocking you (get skinny, beat with speed, chop hands, change pad level)
- Know and understand where the block point is!
- Mechanics at the block point
- Hold your hands until the last second, and shoot them out, don’t swing at the ball
- Thumbs are together
- Have your chin down to your chest
- Eyes watch your hands take the ball off the foot (Big eyes!)
- Accelerate through the block point!
***Blocked punt that stays behind line of scrimmage either team can advance, we can attempt to scoop and score or fall on it (the ball will still be ours even if you miss, as long as they don’t pick it up and convert a first down.
***Blocked punt that goes beyond the line of scrimmage, instant poison call
We will also focus on two different kinds of hold up technique. Crush Technique is a more aggressive style designed to let the opponents blocking scheme work to your advantage. Mirror Technique allows your players the versatility to work against a scheme (typically shield) where the blocker might go two directions.
Crush Technique (One second on LOS = 10 yards of space for the Returner)
- Sell the get off first, he will naturally block himself if he thinks you are rushing. The closer to the snapper the longer he has to stay with you!
- Attack the V of his neck with violent hands and great athletic position (you can hold early, but not late!)
- Do your work early, the longer he is at the line the more room we have to catch the ball
- If the blocker is coming to you it is easier, anticipate contact and let him block himself.
- If the block is working away from you (especially in shield), get on his hip and force him down the line for as long as possible.
Mirror Technique (One second on LOS = 10 yards of space for the Returner)
- Start in your two point stance, selling a rush demeanor.
- Before the snap, move into a Jammer stance on the man you are responsible for.
- On the snap mirror his footwork with your own, punch with both hands, working to keep him on the line of scrimmage as long as possible.
- When he eventually releases, fall into phase and execute protect the rim technique.
The last technique that we coach is protecting the returner. As a visual, we relate it to basketball, where everyone is working to “protect the rim”.
Protect the Rim Technique
- Every return is different…but at the end of the day we want to put ourselves between the ball and the man!
- After you have done your work at the line of scrimmage, you will wind up in a trail position on your man.
- If you are running hip to hip with the player, use your off-hand to punch his inside number and regain a two-hand fit. (If you get over the top of him, anticipate he will try to work back underneath you)
- If you are not able to maintain a hip to hip relationship, disengage and sprint to reengage him at the midpoint (where he starts to bend toward the returner). Work to put your body in front of his and put your hands in the air, essentially create a pick with your body between your man and the returner.
- If you are completely beat, peel off and find the most dangerous man. Trust that the returner will make your man miss.
In conclusion, I would like to thank the AFCA for allowing me to contribute to the Summer Manual and hope that this material will help you in some way.
Kyle McAllister arrived at Bowdoin in the summer of 2018 after a stint as recruiting coordinator, special teams coordinator and defensive line coach at Tufts University. He will assume coaching duties of the cornerbacks for the Polar Bears this season. He began his coaching career at Georgetown in 2010 and was the defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator at St. Lawrence from 2010-12. Prior to joining Tufts, he was the defensive ends coach and punt return coordinator at the University of New Hampshire beginning in 2012.