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Onside Every Time - Sam Nichols Turns the Tables by Making His Kickoff Team an Offensive Unit

by: John Gallup
Editor and Publisher
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In last November’s Michigan Division 4 district title game, underdog South Haven, trailing 7-3, began the second half with an onside kick. What seemed like a very risky strategy paid off, as the Rams recovered the kick, scored on the ensuing possession and held on for a 16-7 victory. It was the first playoff win and first district title in school history.

Some in the media called Head Coach Sam Nichols’ decision to onside kick a big gamble. But was it?

To most coaches, onside kicks are either last-ditch attempts to gain another possession when losing late in the 4th quarter or rarely-used elements of surprise that might catch an opponent off guard and change momentum.

Not to Nichols. In last year’s championship season, South Haven’s first-year head coach used an onside kick, or a variation of it, every time his team kicked off. That’s right, every time.

Nichols has created an “offensive” version of a kickoff team: so much so that he’s brashly adopted a new name for his squad – the “kick recovery” team. In his system, the kicking team doesn’t simply try to stop the receiving team from getting a big return. They go after the receiving team “Full Throttle” – forcing big hits that create opportunities for recoveries and, at the very least, inflict psychological trauma on their opponents.

Long kicks to deep backs are replaced by dribblers, pooches, squibs and knuckleballs that are kicked directly at….well, that’s the beauty of the system. Only his players and coaches know where the kicks will go. The receiving team has no idea, since South Haven lines up in the same formation for every kick in the system – short, medium or long. There are no overloads that would give away the kicker’s intentions.

As unorthodox as Nichols’ kick recovery system sounds, it produced some eye-opening results last season. Seven out of 63 kicks were recovered with six leading to touchdowns. Ram players got their hands on the ball 27% of the time and nearly half of all kickoffs resulted in big hits on the opposition.

With so many short and medium-length kicks, you might assume that South Haven sacrificed field position on kicks that they didn’t recover. The numbers say otherwise. “We found that, statistically, our opponents’ average starting position didn’t change at all,” according to Nichols. “Only three kicks all season were returned across midfield. Two of them barely made it to the 45 and the third was called back on a penalty.”
Statistics aside, what really makes the kick recovery system so effective is that it forces the opponent to devote practice time to prepare for it at the expense of honing their offense or defense. “Every time we can get the other team to spend time prepping for kickoffs or making adjustments at halftime, we’ve accomplished one of our goals,” said Nichols.

Necessity Breeds Invention

In 2007, Nichols, who was an assistant at rival Holland Christian, faced an emergency. The week before the season, his strong-legged kicker left the team to concentrate on soccer. “We didn’t have anybody who could kick it past the 15,” he recalled. “Since we didn’t have a deep kicker, I wondered if we could create an advantage by not kicking deep. Why should we, after all, just kick it to their stud returners every time?” That’s how the idea of kicking short and to specific zones got started.

While the plan met with some resistance at Holland Christian, when Nichols was named head coach at South Haven he was able to refine the system and install it from day one. “The kids bought into it, which was very important,” he said.
One key to the kick recovery system is spreading the field. “Just like the spread offense philosophy, we want the kick return team to defend 53 X 60 yards without knowing where the ball is going,” said Nichols.

Kickoffs are directed to one of nine zones – left, right or middle for short, medium and deep kicks. Short kicks are traditional onside kicks, medium kicks are pooch and deep kicks are squibs or knuckleballs. Nichols decides which zone to kick to just prior to kickoff and relays the call to the team, which is already on the field in formation. “We use a code word that tells the team exactly what zone the kick is going to be directed to,” he said.

Zones 1, 2 and 3 are standard onside kicks where the kicker aims at the top stripe of the ball and sends it to a zone just over midfield. Zones 4, 5 and 6 are pooch kicks designed to exploit a weak area in medium coverage. Kicked at the bottom stripe of the ball, pooch kicks ideally go high with lots of spin and force a player unaccustomed to handling the ball to move and make a play or fair catch. Zones 7, 8 and 9 are deeper squib kicks that force returners to field a ball that is bouncing erratically on the turf. The kicker aims at the center of the ball and tries to create a knuckleball effect.

Nichols’ decisions on which zone to kick to are based on the receiving teams’ weaknesses, particularly holes in coverage. “I think of the field as a tic-tac-toe board,” he commented. “We kick it to where they have the fewest pieces on the board.” Also, if he or his staff identifies a weak player that might have a hard time handling the ball, odds are a kick will be coming his way. It’s normal for South Haven to mix up their kicks by targeting different zones during a game, but if the other team has weaknesses that aren’t adjusted, they are likely to see second or even third kicks going to those weak zones.

After the kick, Nichols’ “Full Throttle” attack scheme is unleashed. The front line “Hitters” are responsible for “seeking and destroying” the receiving teams’ front line blockers, who are usually offensive linemen. Hitters are usually linebackers and defensive ends that can move well and hit targets on the run. The “Ball Hawks” attack and punish the ball carrier, create opportunities for recovery through big hits and provide sound coverage and sure tackling. Ball Hawks are defensive backs and sometimes even receivers that can make big hits and handle loose balls.

Personnel Matters

Since the kick recovery system presents unique opportunities to gain possession and influence momentum, Nichols has made a unique personnel decision. He uses his defensive starters as the recovery team instead of second-stringers. Not only does this ensure that he has his biggest hitters on the field, it can create mismatches against teams that use 2nd team personnel on their receiving units.

Of course, a key individual in the system is the kicker. Nichols says it’s important for the kicker to be smart, reasonably accurate and a self-starter. “We’ve developed a very simple set of drills for our kicker, putting cones in each zone in our system,” he said. Most of the time, the kicker is on his own trying to direct the variety of kicks to the different cones, so Nichols prefers to have a player who can motivate himself to practice and perfect each kick in the system. “I love special teams, but I don’t want to spend an hour every day working on them,” he noted. With this system, we only need to have the entire unit together for ten minutes to go over assignments.”

Even though he considers the 2008 kick recovery system a success, Nichols sees room for improvement. “We’ll be spending more time handling loose balls,” he revealed. “We think we can increase our recovery percentage if we do a better job picking up the loose balls that are forced by our big hits. And we’ll spend more time making sure our kids know the rules for kickoffs, especially what they can and can’t do in a fair catch situation.”

Is South Haven’s daring kickoff system here to stay? When asked if he would abandon it if he had a kicker who could consistently boom it into the endzone, Nichols was candid. “Any coach who could force the other team to start on the 20 every time would take that option,” he admitted. “I would, however, mix in some zone kicks, since they’ve proven to be such a great way to exploit weaknesses, change momentum and, most importantly, force the other team spend practice time preparing for them.”

Whether South Haven recovers more kickoffs this year remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is Sam Nichols’ commitment to special team play. Expect to see “Full Throttle” elements find their way into other special team units. “The philosophy of what we’re doing is to build different types of special teams that allow us to have the most impact with the least practice – and force the opposition to prepare and protect themselves. We want them to play defensively, so we play offensively. We’re committed to having great special teams because they influence momentum and momentum wins games.”


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