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Special Teams Winning Edge (Part II)

by: Brett Hickman
Special Teams Coach, Gardner-Webb University
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In the December issue, we discussed the head coach setting the tone for special teams play, the importance of other assistant coaches being involved in areas of special teams, setting goals, and strategy for the punt unit, kickoff unit, kickoff return unit and punt return unit. In this article, we’ll discuss practice efficiency and key points to consider when game planning for your next opponent.
Spring Practice Plans

Each spring, we evaluate our performance from the previous season and begin laying the foundation for the next one. Typically, we practice special teams two or three times a week over the course of the month we are on the field. The majority of the work is focused on fundamental development for two reasons. One, we need our young men who contributed little the prior season or those that redshirted, to begin to establish themselves on the depth chart before our new crop of freshmen arrive in August. Secondly, having video from the previous spring is a huge asset as we incorporate special teams during the first practices of fall camp.

We give each of our special team units nicknames to instill confidence and establish identities. They include the punt unit – pride; the punt return unit – joy; the kickoff return unit – soul; and the kickoff unit – heart.

Preseason Camp

The team begins to take shape during preseason camp. We practice either one or two of the four units each practice. After practice, the staff will review the film and then we will have a special teams meeting on both the previous practice film and the installation for the unit(s) to be practiced the next day.
After the first week, we begin to focus heavily on our schemes. However, we never sacrifice fundamentals. For instance, the Sunday or Monday before the first game we have a thirty minute special teams period that focuses solely on the fundamentals learned during spring practice and the first week of preseason camp.


Our schedule for both our staff and our players is very detailed and consistent. This includes the expectations of our special teams’ staff. Our weekly schedule for special teams is clear and concise Sunday

2:00 –Staff Meeting
Film is graded beforehand. Coordinator gives brief summary to head coach and staff on game.

3:00- Special Teams Meeting with Team
Have film cutup beforehand to maximize time. Show both positives and negatives.

4:00 Practice (30 Minutes Allotted to Special Teams Play)
•    Pride (Punt) - Corrections from previous game, scout cards vs. next opponent.
•    Joy (Punt Return) - Corrections from previous game, walk through vs. next opponent.
•    Soul (Kickoff Return) - Corrections from previous game, fundamental leverage blocking drills for front line. Also, ball handling for ends, halfbacks, fullbacks, and returners (regular kick, sky kick, squib kick).
•    Heart (Kickoff) - Corrections from previous game, Butt and Press Unit Drill.


10:00- 11:30 Individual Coaches Meetings 
I meet with co-coordinators of each unit to finalize game plan. Make any adjustments before 3:00 pm staff meeting.

3:00 Staff Meeting
I meet with entire staff to watch a few cutups of opponent’s four special teams unit. Game plan is presented in this meeting.


2:30 Special Teams Meeting (Heart/Joy)
Scouting report developed on video software. Show both drawings of opponent’s scheme (Power Point) and then a video clip. Seven minutes allotted for Heart and Joy each.

4:00 Practice
Three periods allotted in the middle of practice. Both teams vs. opponent scout teams. Have it scripted and ready to roll. We shoot to cover six kicks (three with our 1’s, three with our 2’s) vs. three different cards in seven minutes and then an eight play script vs. opponent’s punt team. Always include a fake.


2:30 Special Teams Meeting (Pride/Soul)
Scouting report developed on video software. Show both drawings of opponent’s scheme (Power Point) and then a video clip. Seven minutes allotted for Heart and Joy each.

4:00 Practice
Both teams vs. opponent scout teams. Get off eight punts vs. scout team (4 different cards). Transition after 7 minutes. Return 4 to 6 kicks (two or three different returns). 


2:30 Special Teams Meeting (All Personnel)
Film review from Tuesday/Wednesday practices. Cut-up what needs to be shown.

4:00 Practice
30 Minutes allotted. Pride Team -Situational work (Backed-up, Pooch) and fakes. Heart Team -Two full covers plus a sky or squib kick. Soul Team -full returns plus a surprise onside kick. Joy Team -Four full returns plus covering their top fakes.
Plan 3 to 5 minutes for hands and onsides teams.


3:00 Special Teams Meeting

Deliver compiled scouting reports with video clips inserted behind them as we go. Go over keys to the game and expectations for each unit.
Walk through - Tie up all loose ends and check personnel and substitutions.

Game Planning Per Unit

Over the last five years, I have become more comfortable in the role of game planning. As you have seen, we have a detailed schedule for our staff and our players so that we are able to put forth a plan in an efficient manner with plenty of time for practice so that we can execute in a game. Perhaps the most important job a special teams coordinator can have over the course of a week is identifying the main characteristics of each opponent. Below are some principles that our staff tries to follow through both film study and practice in each of our units.

Game Planning - Pride (Punt)

The first object of game planning from a special teams standpoint is always the punt team.  I developed a checklist that I follow as soon as I am able to begin game preparation each Sunday afternoon.

•    Are they a block team, a return team or are they multiple? This seems rather simple but understanding who an opponent is or what they want to be is more important than each individual scheme. We like to identify who they feel is their best rusher, best hold-up player, best force athlete, etc.

•    Do they have field zone tendencies? The majority of teams we face are multiple on their punt return teams. Because of this, we need to be able to see when they go after the punt or when they set up a return. A lot of teams come after the punt when you are backed up between your own 20 and 35-yard line. They understand this is not a fake zone and feel they can get aggressive. When you are really backed up with the punter backed up in the end zone, do they come after it or are they content with getting the ball at the 40-yard line?

•    Front line recognition. Because we are a shield team, we use both zone and man principles for our protection, depending on the calls. In our man scheme, it is important for guards, tackles, and gunners to recognize the demeanor of the men they are blocking.

•    Hold Up Demeanor. Is your man in a 2-point squared stance or in a head up alignment? This typically tells us he will be in “HOLD UP” position. If you are in the protection and you recognize this you need to transition to cover man.

•    Rush Demeanor. Is your man in a 2-point sprinter stance (one foot up) or a 3-point stance? Is he in a gapped alignment? All of these signify that your man is either rushing the kick or is a force defender. We have to shock and lock him before release.

•    Identify the Fake(s) of the Week. Our scheme has four fakes that we use and practice regularly. We identify which two we like for the week and what field zone or defensive look that we like them in.

Game Planning – Joy (Punt Return)

•    Are they a shield, spread or multiple formation team?

•    COVER THE ELIGIBLES! This sounds routine but I do feel the way we name our positions helps us tremendously against teams that show multiple looks. We simply name our positions L1, L2, L3, R3, R2, R1. Each man counts from their sideline. For instance, R3 lines up and is responsible for the third man from the sideline. Our other men are called ‘force men.’ We identify them as Left Force, Middle Force or L4, Middle Force or R4, and Right Force.

•    FIND THE DUCK! Every punt team has one. Use film study to identify the one man who takes technique or detail for granted. If you find a hole in the scheme, attack it.

•    Are they a man or zone team? This is another major key for attacking. If zone, find a way to overload the most vulnerable section. If man, attack the weak personnel or create late movement before the snap.

•    Punt positioning. This is essential for your returners. I personally chart the distance and location of each punt and another coach lines up our returner on game day because of this. Hidden yardage is an enormous part of special teams play. Put your man in a position to catch the ball at all costs.

•    Cover a fake. Every day in practicing punt returns, we cover a fake. Outside of having one of your own punts blocked, I believe having a fake punt successfully run on you is the most deflating thing that can happen on special teams. Your “force men” need to see this!

Game Planning – Heart (Kickoff)

•    Find the frontline key. Coaches focus on backline keys for their kickoff team. I have found, especially for our lane guys (numbers 2-7) that having a front line key is essential for them in the “AVOID” zone. Sometimes the key is the man who normally blocks your position so it could be a different key for each spot. Sometimes it may be the center. It depends completely on the opponent. The initial angle tells a lot about the direction of the return. We like to put our guys in the best position to make a play once they are in the contact zone.

•    Find the backline key. Our“Fit-to-Fold”men are typically focused on what’s going on at or the “Contact Zone”. As we mentioned before, those positions play directly off one another and the scheme of the return team. If the key goes to one sideline, the “Fit-To-Fold” guy knows he will now be a ball-level defender and the other two know they must replace him on a string.

•    Identify how they will attack your “Fit-to-Fold” men. We put pressure on our lane guys if we face a team that is going to block our second level defenders. You can tell pretty early on film if a team uses multiple schemes or they try to get really good at another. We search for how they are attacking the other team’s designated second level defenders. If they are or are not blocking them, it probably won’t change against you.  

•    Kick the ball to where your kicker is comfortable. This sounds really simple but I see many coaches who try to fit a square peg in a round hole. Kick placement is sixty percent of kickoff coverage. If your kicker is more comfortable kicking deep left instead of deep right then kick the ball there. Base your coverage off the kicker. The only thing that may cause this to change are variables such as heavy wind.

•    Always practice sky or squib coverage. Personal pride has been the downfall of many coaches. Have a plan if your unit is struggling in a game. We try to cover at least two sky kicks during the week of practice. 

Game Planning- Soul (Kickoff Return)

•    Have a base plan. We can run right, left, or middle return without changing our blocking schemes. The only thing that changes is the leverage and angles of our frontline and backline players. This allows us to focus heavily on fundamentals and allow our players to dial in on the man they will be blocking through film study evaluation during the week. For instance, our right tackle knows that he will block the number three eighty percent of the time. He can focus on taking a flat angle to block him on right return and a steep angle to block him on left and middle return. He is heavily focused on this man during the special teams meetings all week.

•    Always practice ball handling. Each Sunday, our ends, halfbacks, fullbacks, and returners spend ten minutes fielding regular kicks, sky kicks, or squib kicks.  Ball security is paramount. 
•    Unleash a new return each week. Because there is significant carryover from our three base returns, we only ask our guys to remember one new return per week. We always call this return the nickname of our opponent. For instance, when we play Wofford, “Terrier” is a return that is only used against that team and is designed specifically for their kickoff scheme or their personnel.

•    Identify their safeties. Our base scheme tells our players who they block every week. The one variable will always be whether or not we want to block the safety. For example, on right or left return our left tackle will block #9 on the proper leverage. If #9 is a safety for the next opponent, we may double #8 with the left tackle and left guard. This changes weekly based on the ability of their safety and whether we feel we need to hit a home run (See Kickoff Return Left diagram).

In a game last season, we had decided not to block the safety during the week. However, we found ourselves down 10-9 with under a minute to play. We needed a big return. It was a small adjustment that can easily be made during a game to call off the double and climb to the safety with the original man that was responsible for him in our scheme. Fortunately, we returned the ball past the fifty yard line and kicked a field goal to win. 
About the Author: Brett Hickman recently completed his second season at Gardner-Webb University, serving as running backs coach and special teams coordinator. He previously coached for four seasons at North Greenville University. A graduate of East Carolina, Hickman spent two years coaching at ECU under Head Coach Skip Holtz.

About the Author: Brett Hickman recently completed his second season at Gardner-Webb University, serving as running backs coach and special teams coordinator. He previously coached for four seasons at North Greenville University. A graduate of East Carolina, Hickman spent two years coaching at ECU under Head Coach Skip Holtz.


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