This article will take the reader through the Albion College football kickoff return unit. The philosophy, strategy, goals, installation, fundamentals, and drills will be presented to give an in-depth look into how we are a top 5 return team in the country. We are successful because our approach to the kicking game first exposes the player who can execute what is needed. We believe in thinking player, not play. Once the proper personnel have emerged we as coaches provide them with the additional skills necessary to be successful. The core philosophy of our special teams at Albion College is imbedded in being fundamentally and technically sound. Our goal is simple; to play football and build quality overall football players better than the opposition. We do this by winning with great techniques in the kicking game and having schemes complement our style of play.
It is important to understand kickoff return as an offensive play. We are trying to score a touchdown. The main points of emphasis are, sound in scheme, winning at the point of attack, timing and spacing, and ball security. The attitude of this unit needs to be clearly defined. We use the saying “fight fire with fire.” This attitude conditions the unit with the correct mindset to exceed the attitude of the opponent’s kickoff cover team. All or most kickoff cover units in the country are trained to be some version of an aggressive and tough group. Therefore, with that in mind, our mental approach on kickoff return is the mindset prepared to use aggression to beat aggression.
The approach we take with kickoff return is the same with all other units of the kicking game. We create the buy-in we want as coaches by giving the player a stage to display their level of commitment. As a first-year special teams coordinator, plus never actually been involved with this philosophy on installation, it could not have worked out better. Instead of using a narrow vision of evaluation we opened the opportunity for finding the right personnel by letting the performance in the drills do the talking. On the first day of install for kickoff return there was no depth chart set. Rather, we used a circuit of four drills to determine personnel selection. Every position group besides quarterbacks, offensive-line and defensive-line were involved with the drills. Once the players were identified as the correct personnel for kickoff return the depth chart was set. We then moved forward with teaching those individuals the fundamentals needed to be an elite return team.
- 100% Possession
- Penalty Free
- Average drive starts past the 30-yard line
Scheme and Strategy
We are a multiple return team with an emphasis on timing, spacing, and landmarks. We utilize various combinations of schemes to create ever changing pictures and key breakers for our opponents. Within these variables, our fundamental timing and techniques will remain consistent so we can continually improve and develop our own ability to execute effectively.
The foundation of our play calling system in the return game is based on our landmark principle. Our landmark principle is categorized in three types of areas on the field which are middle, alley, and sideline. The middle landmark is located between the middle hash marks. The alley landmarks are located between the hash marks and top of the numbers on both sides. The sideline landmarks are located between the bottom of the numbers and the sideline on both sides. These landmarks identify the area of the field a certain return is designed to go. These are the areas we are attacking. The landmarks are important because it keeps everyone on the same page with where we are taking the return. It forces everyone on the unit to respect the path of the ball. For example, the return man needs to take the ball to the correct landmark and trust all blocks are being set up to clear the landmark. The blockers need to trust their blocking techniques and responsibilities because the return man is trusting the blocks.
Our scheme at Albion College is based on a few types of returns. We use trap blocking returns, counter returns, and middle returns. Directionally we communicate middle, left or right, and each return is designed to attack a specific landmark as mentioned. In our program we use a 5-3-3 formation alignment. We like the 5-man front because it gives us more blockers for the back-end. Our front-line personnel are labelled in relation to how a offensive line is labelled, Left Tackle, Left Guard, Center, Right Guard, Right Tackle. Our back-end is labelled with skilled position names; Left End, Right End, Middle Fullback, Left Halfback, Right Halfback, and Main Returner. We can adjust our vertical and horizontal alignments based on kicker ability, kick location, and cover unit alignment. Below is the base alignment.
- Front Line: Front foot is at +48-yard line
- Tackles: Apex 1 & 2 – Favor 2
- Guards Apex 3 & 4 – Favor 4
- Center: Off-set to kick side of ball
- Ends: 30-yard line, shade on the guards
- Middle Fullback: 20-yard line, align on ball
- Halfbacks: 15-yard line, shade on the ends
- Returner: Goal – 5-yard line; based on kicker or situations
Each return is labelled with technique names on the types of blocks we need to execute the return. Similar to most return units, we separate the blocking techniques between front-line blocks and back-end blocks. The detailed diagrams to follow will show the blocking techniques and coaching points. We use these exact pictures for installation with the players and coaches. First, the front-line blocking techniques.
Front Line Blocking Fundamentals
- Sprint (lateral run) to your drop spot
- Come to balance with head up and feet moving
- Attack through the return side number (his quarter)
- Keep your hands inside, elbows tight, never “hug” the man
- Maintain leverage and force your man opposite the return
- Finish! Take away the “over the top” angle
- Square Shoulders
- Staggered feet, outside foot up
- Eyes on kicker
- Take the ball off the tee with your eyes (heavy emphasis here)
Start – “Clear Cleats”
- Kick slide with both feet in a vertical direction backwards as kicker approaches tee
- Allows for a quicker and deeper drop in the beginning of the return
- Eyes on the ball, stay square until ball is kicked
- Plant and drive on any onside kick
Dot Matrix – Coaching Points
We use a drill to teach the clear-cleats exit, this diagram gives a visual of drill set up. We put the drill at mid-field around the 40-30-yard lines. We space everyone out within 5×5 boxes of each other. On the first command the player will slide back to replicate clearing their cleats and on the second command they plant the outside (front) foot, open 180 degrees inside, turn and run for about 3-4 steps. After players get a feel of the fundamentals we transition to the next phase in the drill progression which is our drops on cones.
Drops on Cones – Coaching Points
- Sprint to leverage spot (cone)
- Locate the returner or cone with eyes and drop accordingly
- Turn and backpedal to the 25 yard line
- Stay on your threats inside half. Remember, cushion beats speed.
We transition from dot matrix to drops on cones all in one practice session. Therefore, we keep it in the same location on the field and it moves quickly so we get a bunch of quality reps. You can also take out the drop cone landmarks and add a live returner with a ball in hand to have the front-line players drop on his location and/or movement. This is a great way to train the front-line on keying the returner and flight of the ball.
Front Line Blocking Principles
The most important principle is to key the flight of the ball. There are two types of leverage you must maintain, horizontal and vertical. Both of these leverage advantages are based on the location of the kick. Your horizontal leverage (sideline to sideline) is affected by the angle of the kick. The angle of the kick changes the defender which then changes the drop angle. Having the proper drop angle is how you gain leverage. Your vertical leverage (goal line to goal line) is affected by the depth of the kick. The depth of the kick changes the defender’s relationship to the ball which then changes the drop depth. Having proper drop depth creates the correct spacing needed. Again, this is why keying the flight of the ball, seeing the ball off the tee, and locating the returner is the #1 principle to front-line play.
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Front Line Blocking Techniques
There are three types of blocks we focus on with our front-line players and within these three blocks we use two techniques to execute the blocks. As we approach the drop spot the front-line uses what we call “Pedal, Settle.” Pedal-Settle is a technique getting the player in the proper position to perform a block. Once the front-line sprints and gets to the designed landmark the objective is to flip around into a backpedal and pedal giving a bit of ground to create spacing and time to react.
Pedal-Settle – Coaching Points
- Sprint to leverage 15 yards quickly (locate returner using your eyes and drop accordingly)
- Turn and Backpedal to the 25-yard line
- Stay on your threats inside half (based on leverage)
- You are setting the formation based on the kick
- Cushion beats speed
Once Pedal-Settle technique is performed the front-line transitions to the point of attack technique we use called “Close.” This technique is the contact and finish part. The #1 fundamental is staying under control and keeping your feet hot. The drill we use to rep Pedal-Settle is called “3 vs. 3 No hands.”
Drill: 3 vs. 3 No Hands
The drill set up requires about 10-15 yards. This drill is effective because it does not exhaust the players legs with running long distances allowing them to get a multitude of quality reps. The drop spot in the drill has been shortened to get the player to the pedal-settle part. The emphasis of the drill is the Pedal-Settle, not the drop. This diagram shows drill set up and execution.
- Within the first 5 yards the front-line blocker will clear their cleats on the first command and then open up to simulate getting to the drop spot.
- Once the front-line player has opened up, the cover man (scout player) goes and trails or chases the front-line player.
- When the front-line player gets about 5 yards from the cone (drop spot) they will turn and perform the Pedal-Settle technique, however in this drill we take away the hands by putting them on the lower back. We are adding emphasis on keeping the feet hot by taking away the hands.
Close – Coaching Points
- Attack the inside half of the man, stay square as long as possible
- 2-hand palm strike up and through
- Keep feet hot
- Keep leverage between the returner and the cover man
- Always finish with a rip if cover man tries to cross face (take away over the top angle)
Drill: Box Drill
The drill used to rep “Close” technique is called Box Drill. This drill focused on executing the block at the point of attack. Using the coaching points of the technique we start the drill by buzzing the feet to further emphasize hot feet. The next command has the player engage the cover man entering the boxed area. The drill ends with finishing the block outside the box.
We also teach the “Close” technique with our back-end blockers. To do this, we use another variation of Box Drill by having it simulate a back-end set up. This drill is called V-Drill and it does not have the element of the “Pedal-Settle”. Again, this is focused on back-end style of play.
- Sprint to leverage
- Mimicking BE set-up, align on returner
- Take angle of cut-off, no over the top
- 2-hand palm strike, hands inside
Once the techniques of executing a block is learned we transition the teaching progression to introducing the types of blocks our scheme requires.
This is the most basic block in our scheme and frontal for us means square. We are favoring a certain side of leverage on our man, forcing him opposite the return.
- Our crotch is on the return side leg of the cover man
- Eyes on target = return side jersey # of cover man
- Hands inside
- Vs. over the top angle = work your return side arm and leg up the field
- Vs. back door angle = strike through the target, quarter and widen the man, and run him past the ball
This block is designed to strike with power at a 45-degree angle. Timing is critical on all angle blocks. It is important to start fast with a proper drop and get width to gain leverage and vision on your man. If you do not have enough depth it makes it difficult to execute the angle block. Additional coaching points are as follows.
- Gauge the speed of your man to help set up for contact
- Strike through return side jersey # (quarter)
- Make contact with same foot, same shoulder on a 45-degree angle
- Keep hands inside and eyes up
- Keep feet hot
The look-off block is a combination of the frontal block and the angle block. This is where it all comes together for the front-line blockers. The look-off technique is a compilation of the techniques and fundamentals discussed previously. The player will use Pedal-Settle, Close, Frontal, and Angle block all in one block. This block is designed to influence the adjacent man who you are not blocking in order to execute an angle block on another man. The front-line blocker will show “Frontal block” on a decoy man and then angle block the actual responsibility. The coaching points for the “Look-off” block are as follows.
- Show frontal, finish angle
- Influence adjacent man with a loose frontal set
- Cushion beats speed, gives you time to react and adjust
- Strike through return side jersey # (quarter) of man
- Strike with same foot, same shoulder on a 45-degree angle
- Keep hands inside, eyes up
- Keep feet hot
These fundamentals and techniques are how we train and teach our front-line personnel to execute our scheme. We believe in giving them enough tools to get the job done without overwhelming them with a multitude of blocks. We execute three blocks with one block being a combination of two in order to simplify teaching.
The most important fundamental other than ball security with the back-end of the kickoff return unit is timing and spacing. The next most important factor is having a back-end with fast reaction and decision making. Every position in our back-end has their own role in the communication chain. Communication is critical and we clearly define which player must say based on the situation. The main returner is responsible for identifying who is receiving the ball with a “you,” “me” call. In the event of a shorter than expected kick the returner will add a “short” call to the you, me communication. Halfbacks are responsible for communicating a “stay” call for letting the ball carrier know not to take the ball out of the endzone. The Middle Fullback is responsible for alerting the front-line of squib kicks and pop-ups. In addition to the fundamentals of back-end play, this is also where having the “fight fire with fire” mentally is imperative. We must be physical at the point of attack and finish blocks with proper technique and fundamentals.
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Back-end set up and spacing for us is very simple and eliminates indicators on where the return is trying to go. We set up in the back-end by not giving our players a spot or yard line to run to. Instead of giving them a landmark they have man-marks. They set up and work off one another. The best method of explaining the set up is to start with the main returner.
- Main Returner runs to the spot, receives the kick.
- The left and right Halfbacks sprint to set up a 5×2 alignment on the returner. (5 yards in-front and 2 yards outside).
- The Middle Fullback also sets up on the returner, alignment being 10-12 yards in-front of the returner.
- The left and right Ends sprint to set up a 5×2 alignment on the Middle Fullback. (same alignment the Halfbacks have on the Main Returner)
The alignments on our back-end set up are not always exact in measurement and we do not coach them to be. We do not chase perfection with the set-up. The alignments serve as a fundamental measurement. We allow it to happen naturally based on the kick. However, it gives us a sound formation with multiple lead blockers.
When practicing our back-end alignments, we prefer to do them verse air first. Once the personnel understand the alignments we move forward in adding scout team cover men so the blockers can get a feel for attacking leverage responsibilities. Having scout cover men also gives a feel for the returner on how lead blocks are setting up in front of him. This diagram is an example of how we organize our back-end set up on air.
In addition to the “Close” technique on finishing blocks, we emphasis with the back-end personnel a “Fit and Finish” technique as well. The main factor with finishing blocks is maintaining leverage and countering the cover man’s escape from the block. If the cover man decides to rip around by going back door on the block the coaching point is to simply maintain your leverage and run him past the returner. If the cover man attempts to cross face by going over the top of the block you are trained to send him back-door by ripping across his face. The action of sending the cover man back-door and ripping across his face is what we call “Fit and Finish”. We will finish the block based on how he is trying to escape. We want to strain to finish on all blocks. This diagram shows how we drill “Fit and Finish.”
Drill: Fit and Finish – Coaching Points
- Leverage is already attained; starting in a locked-up position
- Get knock back on cover man, Pop – Press – Drive Feet
- Rip with your trailing arm, send the man back-door
We take great pride in being dominant with special teams at Albion College. As the special teams’ coordinator, I am grateful to have a head coach who believes in the importance of special teams. In our program the mission statement is to transcend. We do not want “standards” in our program. Standards set limitations or an end point.
Transcending is about going beyond the range or limits. We cannot be a program of transcendence if we are not maximizing our potential in all areas. Therefore, in the kicking game, the mentality is no different. Our players excelled with buying into special teams, having the correct attitude, and understanding the importance. How did we create buy-in? By giving the opportunity to commit. The stage was set on day one to expose their commitment to special teams. This is why we experienced success on all units during the 2019 season, not just kickoff return. It starts with establishing an attitude, finding those who fit the attitude, and then providing the tools necessary to perform at a high level.
This article was written by Justin Sweeney, Assistant Coach/Recruiting Coordinator, Special Teams Coordinator, Defensive Backs Coach, Albion College.