I want to paint a quick picture for you. You are going into Week 4 of the football season and have just taken over the punt unit. You are going on the road against an SEC opponent and gave up two blocked kicks the week before. So, what are you going to do? My answer was to take a chance and install a completely new system, the Zone Shield. This may sound like a completely ludicrous situation, but it is exactly what happened at NIU this season and why I am such a firm believer in our system.
We installed this punt system in one week, in the middle of a football season, and did not have a single issue going forward. Not only did we clean up our protection issues, but we also improved our coverage. It is not specific to college and can easily be adapted and implemented at the high school and lower levels.
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In this system it is the execution of the techniques that matter. As a quick reminder for every coach that wants to switch to this system, if you put the proper personnel in the proper situation you will have success. We will look at the following criteria for what I believe allowed us to have success in our punt system:
- Personnel and body types
- Alignments, rules, and techniques
- Protections and coverage
- Formations that maximize personnel
5 Key Reasons for the Zone Shield Punt
As a brief and general overview, there are five key reasons you should switch to the zone shield punt. The first reason is its simplicity. The rules and responsibilities are made simple for the players. Next, this system maximizes the ability to move the personnel around. You can rotate players around at different positions and incorporate new special teams players as the season progresses. Additionally, there is a great deal of flexibility surrounding the formations within this system. You can create multiple formations while using the same protection principles across the board. Another key feature is the speed and tempo of the unit. This system is quick and allows for the players to play at a fast pace while understanding their responsibilities. Finally, the number count system slows players down. Eliminating the number count system allows players to execute at a higher level and play with more speed and confidence.
Personnel and Body Types
The front line consists of guards, tackles, and ends.
The guards typically have a tight end or linebacker body build. The nature of the guards’ responsibilities requires a bigger body type with a physical mindset. The guards must also be able to process a minimal amount, so football acumen will be necessary. In our system, length and toughness comprise a solid guard.
The tackles are typically your running back or strong safety body types. There will still be challenges in protection, so they need to have some physicality and toughness to them. This position will be critical in coverage as well, so the tackles must have speed coupled with the ability to make open space tackles.
The ends are usually your best athletes and players. We use our ends as gunner types. You want your best athletes that can make a play on the returner at these positions. They must fully buy-in and understand the criticality of their assignment to experience success as a unit. Both of our ends this season were seniors that started for us at the safety position.
This position is typically your offensive and defensive line type bodies. I don’t want to make this complicated. We want the biggest shield on the planet. Try to get 1000 pounds in the shield and make it an absolute brick wall.
The long snapper has one job in our system, which is to get the ball to the punter on time and on target. We don’t include him in the protection for that very reason. We can ask him to help in certain scenarios, but if you feel that your snapper doesn’t do both well, then make sure he can at least get the snap to the punter.
It is important to find an all-conference punter. Then make sure you protect him, and build his confidence through the roof. We have a solid punter at NIU, and plan to keep that tradition going.
Alignments, Rules, and Techniques
We take a 2-yard split across the board on the front line. We have one major rule that cannot be broken by any player on our punt unit: Align for success. You must be aware of who you are blocking and the amount of stress he is putting on you and your technique. As a coach, you must have flexibility to allow players to adjust based on their responsibilities. We have a great coaching staff that helps the players understand what type of split they should take based on the alignment of the return unit.
Front Line Stance and Alignments
Alignments and stance are determined by the side you line up on, which is either the cutoff or attack side. The cutoff side is the end, tackle, and guard lined up away from the protection call. The attack side is the guard, tackle, and end lined up on the side toward the protection call. We must be able to read the demeanor of the return unit ( i.e. is he bringing heat or holding me up?). This will help understand what type of split I take, and the time needed in protection.
The cutoff side must take an open stance (toe to heel). An open stance allows the hips to be open toward our stress. This eliminates what we call the false step, and keeps all the weight on planted foot. It is also important to play with anticipation of the cadence, giving us a step advantage on the return unit. If I am lined up on the cutoff side, depth is my friend. Take some depth in your split by breaking the plane of the snapper’s butt. Check with the ref to make sure you are onside. My goal is to cutoff my gap from getting to the block point, hence the cutoff name. If necessary, and I feel pressure in my gap, I can cut my split, which allows me to align for blocking success.
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The attack side, on the other hand, will take a square stance (toe to toe). I have a much more aggressive mindset when I am aligned to the attack side. I can widen my split if necessary, knowing that if the return unit is adjusting based on me, this will widen my gap away from the block point. My goal is to attack my gap aggressively and widen it from the block point. I can also take all the ball knowing that the more ground I cover early on, the more success I will have late in coverage.
Shield Stance and Alignments
The shield aligns with their heels at 7-yards from the ball. There is an imaginary cliff behind them, and it is critical for them to understand that under no circumstance can they get knocked back into the punter. Here, the responsibilities are based on position. Our shield has a brick wall mentality and must leave absolutely no air between them. They will create a wedge for the punter.
The joker aligns away from the call. He is responsible for most dangerous man and any leakage coming from the cutoff side. This position should protect inside out and should not chase anything that flashes across your face.
Fullback and Personal Protector
The fullback and personal protector align to the call. They are responsible for the front side A-Gap. The fullback will get inside hat placement on the nearest threat and the personal protector will get inside hat placement on the next threat. Whatever comes free must run through both of them. The fullback and personal protector do not chase and do not move. (See Diagram 1)
It is imperative that you create rules that are simple and easy to execute for your players.
In our system each player is assigned one gap based on the call. You are responsible for the man or men in your gap. Whatever is in your gap cannot get to the shield. We take pride in keeping our shield clean.
Players must comprehend their rules are based on being a cutoff or attack player. Our ultimate goal is to get our outside hand on the inside number of the most dangerous man in our gap. How we get to our assignment changes based on the call and alignment of the return unit.
The rules for the cutoff side are described. My head must get across the most dangerous man in my gap (furthest away from me). Once my head is across, I should punch vertically, and shed my block away from the shield. Next, if I cannot get my head across my man, I will take him and wash him flat past the shield. This is a critical step that must be implemented in any punt system to the cutoff side. Do not allow the shield players’ vision to be influenced by allowing the cutoff side to release early from their block.
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The rules for the attack side are described. It is imperative to attack the inside number of the most dangerous man in my gap (closest to me). Once I am engaged, I must hold my block for a full count and release him away from the shield. Next, if I step to my gap and I see a hold up read I must instantly release into coverage. Attack players must understand that they are more aggressive and should take their blocks with them into coverage.
We do not overload the punter with rules. His only rule is he must kick down the crack of the fullback. This ensures that our launch point is at the strongest area of the shield and unlikely to get blocked. Just a reminder that this is different based on the punter, and he has control to move the shield based on where he feels his launch point is.
Protections and Coverage
Our protection is based on zone principles. One man is responsible for one gap across the board. This allows us to move our protection in the direction of the punt, which makes us a directional punting team. Our punter understands that if we call a right, left, or middle protection then he must place the ball in that direction. Keep in mind that we want to be a boundary pin style punt team, which means our punter pins the returner into the boundary.
The punter’s direction and placement of the punt is critical in these situations. We like to have the punter pin the returner between the boundary numbers and boundary sideline. We have found that this maximizes our coverage ability because we eliminate the returner’s ability to manipulate us via a count system. For example, if you utilize a count system you can be manipulated to protect exactly where the return unit wants. It does not matter to us, not even in an overload situation. We will always keep the protection on.
We operate our entire punt system out of four calls.
Right: (See Diagram 2)
Our right protection tells each player on the front line that they are responsible for the gap to their right. It tells our fullback and personal protector that they are responsible for the right A-Gap and our Joker he is responsible for any leakage coming from the left. The left side (LE, LT, LG) is the cutoff side and the right side (RE, RT, RG) is the attack side. The punter understands that in a right call his job is to pin the returner to our right. The operation time will be quick enough to take care of a threat coming from the left D-Gap.
Left: (See Diagram 3)
Our left protection call tells each player on the front line that they are responsible for the gap to their left. It tells our fullback and personal protector that they are responsible for the left A-Gap and our Joker he is responsible for any leakage coming from the right. The right side (RE, RT, RG) becomes the cutoff side and the left side (LE, LT, LG) become the attack side. The punter understands that in a left call his job is to pin the returner to our left. The operation time will be quick enough to take care of a threat coming from the right D-Gap.
Out: (See Diagram 4)
Our out protection call tells each player on the front line they are responsible for the gap outside of them. The entire front line will become the “attack side” and block out. The fullback and personal protector will still align to the punter’s foot and be responsible for the near A-Gap. The Joker will align away from the punter’s foot and be responsible for the near A-gap.
This protection is best utilized when there is heavy pressure coming from the B-Gaps and out. I do not advise using this protection against heavy A-Gap pressure, especially in a situation when you have four players in the A-Gap. The punter must understand that with the protection moving out and fanning the field, he should kick the ball down the middle. This protection compliments coverage very well if you know when a team is consistently “holding you up.” When this occurs, it is a good idea to transition to an out protection.
Pinch: (See Diagram 5)
Our pinch protection call tells each player on the front line that they are responsible for the gap inside of them. The entire front line will become the “cutoff side” and cutoff the gap inside of them. The fullback and personal protector will align to the punter’s foot and be responsible for any leakage coming from their side. The Joker will align away from the punter’s foot and be responsible for any leakage coming from his side.
This protection is best used when heavy middle pressure is expected. When you are in a “backed up” situation and you expect heavy interior pressure for a block attempt, I would advise to pinch your protection. The punter must understand that with a pinch protection, coverage will be limited. He must kick the ball in the middle of the field, while emphasizing hang time to allow the front line to recover the time lost in protection. We do not use this protection in open field or return situations. The front line must understand that after they cutoff their gap they must rake out and cover the middle of the field.
There is an infinite number of ways to call the protection using other forms of communication. For example, using mascots may help you disguise your protection calls (Bears = Right, Lions = Left, Browns = Out, Dolphins = Pinch).
Coverage is fluid in our system. It is not based on position or specific players. It is based on a player’s relation to his teammates and the returner. To help everyone understand this we give coverage rules in our system. The rules help a player understand his assignment based on where he and his teammates are on the field.
The first group of players down the field are called the spill players. Their ultimate job is to prevent the returner from having the ability to get vertical penetration in the coverage. They have the freedom to “take a shot” to try and disrupt the returner’s ability to hit the hole vertically. You do not want to over coach these players. Let them play fast and violent as there are exchange players behind them that will cover and clean up anything that gets through.
The second group of players down the field become the exchange players. This means they must exchange off of the spill players. If the spill player does his job and the ball spills to me, I must attack it maintaining near-pec leverage. If the ball splits the coverage, then I must now fit inside and exchange responsibilities with the spill player. This responsibility aligns 2×2 off of the spill player and read his intention.
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The third group of players down the field become the fold players. They will fold to the football wherever it hits. They must also understand they are the ultimate contain players. The ball cannot cross their face. Their job is to align 2×2 off of the exchange player, while reading and fitting off of where the return hits.
As we are covering down the field it should look like we are creating a “V” and spilling the ball outside. (See Diagram 6). It will be difficult for the returner to hit the ball vertically if we are able to create this “V” in coverage. A cardinal-rule that every coach should implement states no player can “stack the same color jersey.” This means you cannot play on top of your teammate. If a teammate is in front of you gets in a 2×2 alignment or relation with him, then you should make your read based off of his fit.
Since our protection has zone principles, we can get into unlimited formations while keeping the protection principles attached. We utilize three base formations that we feel help us protect when we want to and cover when we need to. Although I plan to experiment with other formations and shield configurations, this will be our base starting point as we install this punt.
Base: (See Diagram 7)
Our base formation is a 3×3 alignment with a 3-man shield. This tells the front line that everyone is attached at the line of scrimmage. This formation will primarily be utilized as our starting point. In other terms, it is our bread and butter. We should be able to block any pressure and cover any return that is schemed against us. I would encourage everyone to create this as their starting point. If you feel that your players are lacking confidence or having trouble picking up pressure, during a game, you should always feel confident in returning to this formation.
Split: (See Diagram 8)
Our split formation tells the play-side end to split out to the numbers. For example, if we call split right the right end would split out to the numbers. This formation is utilized when we feel that we have a one-on-one advantage with our athlete. If you have the flexibility to do it, take your best end and make him the “split out” guy. This allows you to have the best possible coverage down the field.
Flex: (See Diagram 9)
Our flex formation tells the play-side end and tackle to flex out. The base alignment principles will be the top of the numbers for the tackle while the end splits the numbers and the sideline. For example, if we call flex right, then the right end and right tackle would flex out to their split rules. We utilize this formation for a variety of reasons.
The number one reason we use the flex coverage is to put more speed and coverage emphasis against a dangerous returner. If we feel your returner is a game changer, we will be in a flexed formation most of the game. The other benefit to a flex formation is the opportunity to create rub and pick situations with opposing corners who play press coverage. This allows for you to gain easy advantages in down-field coverage.
When the shield punt first came to popularity, it was a revolutionary way to create so many advantages in field coverage and space. Over the years, I believe people have been able to manipulate the number count systems to create return and pressure advantages. Take it from the early days I spent as a special teams quality control coach; I would spend hours on film breakdown to figure out exactly how people used their count systems, so we could take advantage of it.
I am a firm believer in the formations, alignments, and protections of our punt system. It is simple and cannot be manipulated. Like any system, it does have its weaknesses, but our coaches and players understand what those are. When your players understand the weaknesses of your system, they can help protect it and compensate for it.
I must give credit where credit is due. We have a phenomenal coaching staff at NIU. When I took over our punt unit in Week 4, they all saw the vision of the unit and coached their tails off. It was not a system that I created by any stretch, but it was a system that we implemented and refined as the season continued. Great coaches can adjust and adapt, and they did just that at NIU. All the credit belongs to those men, and I am forever grateful for them.
Aaron Wilkins joined the Northern Illinois University football coaching staff as cornerbacks coach in February 2019. Since then, he has transitioned to coaching tight ends as well as serving as a co-special teams coordinator.
Prior to joining the Huskies’ staff, Wilkins served as a member of the Liberty University defensive staff for five seasons. He advanced from a volunteer coach working with the Flames’ special teams, to a defensive quality control position (2015-16), defensive line coach and defensive recruiting coordinator (2017), and defensive backs coach (2018).
Wilkins went to Liberty after three seasons (2011-13) on the defensive staff at Reedley College, where he also played junior college football. There, he coached inside linebackers, worked with the secondary, and served as recruiting and placement coordinator.