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Point Counterpoint: Defending the Kickoff vs. Maximizing your Kickoff Returnby: David Purdum
© July 2006
But now ask yourself how often do you emphasize the importance of winning the field-position battle? Only every time a reporter asks what this week’s keys to the game are.
Minnesota-Duluth Head Coach Kyle Schweigert admits to having been one of those guys. The former North Dakota defensive coordinator has mended his ways, though. “I’ve kind of changed my feelings about that [philosophy],” said Schweigert, whose Bulldogs averaged 26.8 yards per kickoff return last year, tops in the Division II.
“[Kickoff return] is the first play of your offensive possession, and it sets the tone,” he continued. “We were in a lot of high-scoring games last season, so we got pretty good at it. But even if you’re in a low-scoring game, it could be a big kickoff return that sets up the one drive that wins the football game. We're not going to ignore it, we’re going to practice it enough to be very good at it.”
New Georgetown head coach Kevin Kelly feels the same way about his kickoff coverage unit. “From a coverage standpoint, that’s the first defensive play in a particular series,” the former Navy special teams coach said. “Starting from inside the 20 as opposed to the 40 is a big deal. We made it a big deal at Navy and we'll make it a big deal here at Georgetown. “It’s a field position game, and kickoff coverage is huge in that area.”
Here’s how Kelly would have his Hoyas cover Schweigert's Bulldogs:
Both coaches emphasize how critical personnel is to both the kickoff return unit and coverage unit. “We’re going to put our best football players on the field,” said Schweigert. But even then, a solid coverage unit without a good kicker isn’t a solid coverage unit.
“He’s the engineer that makes the whole thing run smoothly,” said Kelly, who prefers his kicker angles kickoffs toward the left corner of the field. “How he kicks dictates the success of your coverage. Without a good, high, deep kick to the corner, it’s very unlikely you’re going to have successful coverage.”
Schweigert agrees and says directional kicks cause multiple problems for return teams. “When you have a guy that can put it between the numbers and the sideline, it makes it very difficult to return kicks,” said Schweigert, who will check out the opposing kicker in warm-ups and on film to try to determine his strongest kicking direction. Having an idea of where the kick is headed, he says, is key not only for the positioning of his returners, but also for the players who will be building the wedges in the Bulldogs’ 5-2-2-2, double-wedge scheme.
The front wedge is set by and around the center approximately 25 yards in front of the catch point. Before the kickoff, the UMD staff will give the center an estimated yard line to set the first wedge in case he has trouble picking up the catch point. When in doubt, the 35-yard line is used. The two ends and fullbacks build the second wedge 10 yards in front of the catch point. It’s imperative, Schweigert says, that the second wedge is set directly in front of the ball. “We don’t want to be outside the hash,” he explained. “That’s where you see the challenges when the ball’s kicked outside of the numbers. If it’s in the left corner, the right end has to come all the way across the field to set the wedge. That’s a long run for the guys up front.”
When facing any return scheme, but especially the double wedge, Kelly says the players’ take-off and ability to get down the field unimpeded are key. Each member of his coverage unit, other than the kicker, is assigned a number. It begins with the outside corners who are 1s and ends with the guards next to the kicker who are 5s. “The double-wedge is a great play because it’s difficult to find the perfect fit,” Kelly said. “The first thing is we have to avoid their first wave of blockers. We can’t have anybody get clipped by their front line.”
Once the coverage arrives at the second wedge, each player attacks his assigned man mark: The 5s are asked to fill what Kelly terms the “A Gap” between the center and guards of the wedge. The 4s’ mark is directly over the guards, the 3s the inside leg of the tackles, 2s outside leg of the tackles and the corners are to bend off the edge. The kicker trails the unit.
“In a perfect world, our 5s are right at the apex of wedge,” said Kelly. “The 4s are your second level-type of players like linebackers; the back five are going to be inside the outside the man of the wedge. We want to spill anything outside [of the wedge]. We don’t want them to go north and south. The double-wedge is a great play because it’s difficult to find the perfect fit.”
If all goes as planned and the ball carrier bounces to the outside, Kelly’s kicker and backside corner rotate based on which way the returner heads. For example, if the returner goes left, the kicker will rotate over the top and the backside corner will keep everything inside and in front of him. If the ball goes inside the wedge, the Hoyas will still have a three-pronged attack with the kicker nosing the ball up and the corners folding inside.
The Pooch Kick
Not only can a directional kick avoid a team’s top returner, but also, and more importantly, it shrinks the amount of field to be covered. A kicker that has the ability to place the ball in either corner of the field is an extreme weapon, but also extremely rare. When a team does continually kick away from Schweigert’s best return guy, he’ll stack his two backs before the kick and split them out late.
When facing a dangerous return specialist, Kelly points to the pooch or sky kick as another option to keeping the ball out his hands. The extra-hang time and medium depth also often forces a fair catch by the return team, which is exactly what Kelly is hoping. “We’re hoping that a tight end or fullback is going to have catch it, taking the ball out of the hands of their best athlete,” he said.
If a team has displayed the pooch kick in film or already in a game, Schweigert will substitute players with better hands for some of the fullback-type players that he uses to form the second wedge of his return team.
“Pooch kicks are something that are very popular right now and something that we have to prepare for,” Schweigert said. “But if we can fair catch a pooch kick out at the 30, we think we’re doing all right.
“The problem and the challenge that it presents is that our best fullback-types are not always the guys with the best hands. We may have to give up a few of those guys that set the second wedge and go with some guys that are decent there but also have good enough hands to come up and catch the pooch kick. If we knew teams were going to kick deep every time, we wouldn’t worry about the hands of the fullback, but that’s not the case with any of the teams we’re facing right now.”
Here’s the Situation
With 30 seconds to play, Georgetown has just scored to cut Minnesota-Duluth's lead to 23-20. The whole stadium knows the on-side kick is coming, including Schweigert. He sends out his hands team in a 5-5-1 alignment, with the first line set 10 yards off the ball and the second 15. The front line is approximately 12 yards off the ball and looking for any kind of read on the upcoming kick. The second line is 15 yards off the line of scrimmage and looking through the gaps of their front line to identify where the kick will be coming from.
“We start our guys a little bit deeper than some people,” Schweigert noted. “I think if you’re up there at 10 (yards off the ball), then when those good, hard kicks come at you, it’s harder to make that decision. So we start a little bit deeper.”
He positions his deep back close enough to the front lines to prevent the kicker from popping it over their head to create a loose ball situation, but deep enough where he could retreat to catch a normal kick. He is instructed to simply fair catch or fall on the ground once he receives the kick.
“With the lead,” he says, “possession is the most important thing. When in doubt, we’ll put our hands team on the field.”
Kelly counters by putting his best six athletes on the left side of the field and hopes his kicker can deliver a high-bouncing kick, one that will be hard to field and could create a ricochet.
That’s exactly what Schweigert wants to prevent. “Once you make the decision to catch the ball, go get it,” Schweigert added. “There can’t be any indecision. You need to move to the ball, don’t let it come to you.”
Earlier in the game, Georgetown had executed one of Kelly’s favorite surprise on-sides. Through film, Kelly noticed that the right tackle of the coverage unit was rotating early in an effort to get down the field to set the wedge and get leverage on his blocking assignment.
“If he’s cheating early,” Kelly explained, “what we do with our right 2 will basically high screen. We’ll pop the ball over that tackle’s head and the R1 will catch the ball at that point.”
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