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Punting: Improving Your Net – The most important punting stat – net yards – can be increased by using these successful coverage schemes.

by: Curt Block
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John Lilly has been an assistant to head coach Mark Richt at the University of Georgia for the last four seasons with responsibilities that include the punting unit. Lilly outlined this possible fourth down scenario:

“You’ve just been stopped,” Lilly proposed, “and you have to give up the thing you need to put points on the board. You have to sell  the team that the punt is our opportunity to make a huge play. When you see a punt returner put his hand up for a fair catch and know that if he muffs it, you have every right to recover the ball. It could be like you’ve just thrown a 50-yard completion.

“There’s a lot that can go wrong on the punt team – bad snap, poor protection, bad kick – and maybe a guy breaks it for a touchdown. But you also have games with two great defenses and often it’s the punting game that winds up making the difference by determining field position.”     

According to Lilly, players on the punt team need to be versatile. “You begin as an offensive player but during the course of the play you become a defensive player,” he observed. “If you look at punt teams across America you’ll find some very good players on that unit. You want your best players who are also well-disciplined on that team.”

Base alignment for players pre-snap is critical on Georgia’s punt unit. “Our base split at the line is six inches between center and guard and guard and tackle,” said Lilly. “We tell our guys that we want a consistent and constant split relationship between players so that your alignment before the snap looks exactly the same once you’ve dropped back and the battle lines are drawn. We don’t want one guy setting up deep and another taking one step and stopping. That creates seams in the protection. We want all the guys moving like one unit going backwards.”

Lilly’s interior linemen must seal the center of the line. “We ask our center to protect after snapping the ball. We’d like him to get out of the stance he’s in to snap and get his hands on somebody. We want our guards to help a little with whoever is in that gap by sometimes tightening the split between guard and center,” according to Lilly. His wing men are also aligned tight. “The wings take their inside foot and put it right behind the outside foot of the tackle but not so close that when the tackle sets back they might get piled up with each other.”

The punter’s personal protector is a key to the punt, before, during, and after the punt. “The personal protector is 4 ½-5 yards deep,” said Lilly. “He’s kind of the last line of defense but sometimes he can get out quick when no one is trying to block him. We often use a fullback or a linebacker who can run to fill that spot.”

Lilly feels the most important part of punt coverage is where the ball ends up. “If we kick from the middle of the field but the ball goes to the right, our guys have to adjust their lanes as if the ball was on the outside right hash,” he said. Everything is based on where the returner is. (See Diagrams 1-3 – Georgia punt coverage).

Diagram 1.

Diagram 2.

Diagram 3.

The personal protector and the snapper have the most options in coverage. “When we call ‘fit’ it means we think we’ve got the field covered with our other guys so the PP can go fit wherever there’s an open hole to cover it up,” said Lilly. “I generally tell the PP and the snapper to just go to the ball. If everyone else is where they should be in their lanes, we should have the lanes covered so they can go straight to the ball instead of hanging back.”

The positioning of the guards and tackles in coverage is also critical. “Guards should release and try to be on the uprights of the goal posts,” said Lilly. “The tackles have a landmark about two yards outside the hashes. When the wings (gunners) release they should be on top of the numbers. You never want to be following a light colored jersey (teammate). You don’t want a guard and tackle stacked up on top of each other. All the lanes must always be covered.”

Georgia’s coverage team goes by the motto ‘the ball can’t cross your face’ to the outside on their punt unit, according to Lilly. “The wider the ball gets punted, the less field you have to cover. The men on the side away from where the ball is punted must be disciplined, especially the wing, who must turn anything inside. The interior linemen may sometimes get squeezed but guys on the other side of the field need to keep that separation so they don’t get outflanked by a blocker and certainly not by the ball.”

Maximizing net punting is the result of limiting the opponents’ returns. “If your gunners are good,” Lilly continues, “and your punter gives you hang time, you’re going to have very few returns because the returner is going to have someone in his face or wind up on the ground. The gunners must be fast, elusive at the line of scrimmage, be smart in knowing how to beat people and then be good tacklers downfield.”

 Cowboys Shield

The Oklahoma State Cowboys, also among the nation’s best in net punting average, have adopted an entirely different approach for their punt unit – The Shield. “The shield formation gives us the ability to get more people into coverage quicker,” said Joe DeForest, an associate head coach and coach of special teams and safeties. “In the spread, players start retreating for protection first and you only have two guys who are getting downfield right away. This formation gives you the opportunity to get more players in coverage quicker and the ability to put more skill and more speed on the line.”

Where Georgia’s linemen are lined up tight, DeForest’s are spread wide. In the OSU punt team alignment, the snapper sets up over the ball with feet slightly wider than shoulder width with both hands on the ball, eyes on the punter, ready to deliver the ball. The inside feet of both the left and right guards are 2.5 yards from the near foot of the snapper. The guards toes are lined up on the center’s heels (See Diagrams 4 and 5 – Oklahoma State punt coverage). Their stance should be comfortable and balanced. Similarly, the inside feet of the left and right tackles should be 2.5 yards from the near foot of the guard.

The left and right side of the shield must have their helmets aligned in the center of the A gap, toes at 7.5 yards from the line of scrimmage. One member of the shield is responsible for alignment and one is responsible for a “GO” call when the ball is snapped. Once the ball has cleared the shield, they close ranks and protect. The middle shield must lock his shoulder to the shoulder pad of the right shield, leaving enough room for the snap to clear. Once the ball has cleared, he joins the left shield to create a solid, one piece wall. The punter has his toes lined up 14 ½ yards from the snapper ready to receive the ball.

“The cover lanes give us the ability to fan the field symmetrically until we find where the ball has been kicked and then we squeeze to the ball,” said DeForest. The Cowboys have specific assignments in their cover lanes. The ends have to get to the ball, attacking returners on their outside hip. The tackles provide contain, working to a point 15 yards outside the returner, keeping him inside and in front. The guards shoot up an alley heading to a position five yards outside the returner and then converge to make the tackle.

The snapper’s most important job is to execute the snap. After that he becomes a player trying to break down the defense to get to the returner and make a tackle. After protecting the kicker, the right side of the shield has downfield responsibility from the right hash to the sideline. The left shield has similar defensive responsibility on the left side. The middle shield protects and then has the middle of the field, from hash to hash, to cover. After punting the ball the kicker becomes a safety, using the sideline to help make the tackle.


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