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AFM Magazine

Preparing Your Punt Teams

by: JohnAllen Snyder
Offensive Coordinator Pequea Valley High School (PA)
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Getting your punting and pressure/return special team units prepared to meet the challenges they’ll face on game day can be the difference between a win and a loss.

Successful coaching requires attention to detail. This is never truer than in special teams, especially in preparing your punt and punt pressure/return units. Punts and punt returns hold opportunities for positive, momentum-changing outcomes but they also have the potential for disaster. Of all the plays in football, the punt requires players to execute on the most levels, using multiple skills. Members of the punt team need to block rushers, but also pursue downfield and execute tackles. Members of the punt pressure/return team must be competent rushers at the line of scrimmage but they also must be solid enough blockers to open up return lanes.

AFM spoke to seven special teams coaches and asked them what is the toughest task they face in preparing the punting and the punt pressure/return units for the challenges they’ll face on game day.

Tim Salem • Illinois
Tim Salem is in his first year at the University of Illinois, serving as the Special Teams Coordinator and Running Backs Coach. Previously, he coached at Central Florida, Eastern Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Colorado State, and Phoenix College.

AFM: What makes the punt team so important a unit and how has the punting game changed in recent years?   

Salem: The punt is a huge play. If you get a punt blocked, it changes the game. Or, if you can’t tackle well on your coverage, the game can get broken way open with one play.

In the last few years, formations have become the big things. People want to get into different stuff, move around and trade, shift, motion, etc. Also, punters have become so exact along with the coverage teams being so fast that there are fewer returns per game. Last year, FBS schools averaged two returns per game. The rest were either out of bounds, fair caught or tackled immediately. That makes it even more important to execute well. The fewer times an opponent gets to return the ball, the better chance we have to be successful.

AFM: How do you prepare your punt unit for the variety of situations they will face?

Salem: First off, we need to talk about how you approach special teams. Everyone says special teams are one third of the game. Realistically though, it’s actually less. It’s about 18-20% of the game, and that makes it even more important to be disciplined and be able to execute correctly.

We choose to look at this unit along with all of our other special teams units as responsible for a one-play series. That’s our attitude toward it - we have one play to do our job and do it better than the opponent trying to stop us. Second, we want to ensure our athletes have a great understanding of game situations and field positions. Are we punting from our 36 yard line, backed up in our end zone, or faking it on the 42 yard line? All of those are very different situations based on where you are on the field. Finally, it comes down to execution by each of the 11 guys on the field.

AFM: What about your return unit? Are there any special drills you utilize to prepare them?

Salem: In order to ensure that high level of execution, we have a number of drills that we employ during practice. One of the biggest areas for hidden yards in a game takes place in the return game of special teams. Making blocks in open space is critical to field position. Technique, fundamentals, angles, and field awareness must be emphasized to be successful. With the motto “every yard counts”, players must understand that working to be at the correct landmark can be the difference between a game-changing return and a penalty. In order to practice this and get our returners used to running off of those blocks, we have a drill called the Illini Return Drill. This can be used in either the punt return game or kickoff return game. It’s important enough to devote a big chunk of practice to it.

The QB throws the ball to the return man at about 35 yards. The defender starts at the two-yard line on the hash. He will try to beat the blocker and tag off on the runner. The blocker starts on the 10-yard line and drops to the 15. When the ball is halfway to the returner, the coach will give a ‘go’ command and send the defenders/blockers. The ball carrier runs between the cones and up the hash. This drill simulates the blocker working to his ground as the return runner runs off his block. The spacing is realistic to a kickoff/punt return without extending the distance (See Diagram 1).

Diagram 1. Illini Return Drill

Mike Cieri • Montclair State
Mike Cieri enters his 4lst year of coaching this fall and his 12th year at Montclair State. He is both the Special Teams Coordinator and Defensive Line Coach. Cieri also coached at Farleigh Dickinson University-Florham.

AFM: What is the most difficult challenge you face when preparing players involved in the punting game ?

Cieri: Our biggest challenge is preparing our punt pressure/return team vs. an opponent’s punt team. There are a lot of challenges with multiple punt formations, shifts, motions, blocking schemes, coverage lanes, not to mention the number of fakes that can be run off of the punt unit. After that, you have to factor in the types of punts you could see – sky, directional, rugby and where the punter kicks it. You must take into account the operation time of the center’s snap, punter’s approach time and the overall operational time. Finally, we have to look at the punter himself. Where is the block point? Is it consistent or erratic? Does he punt the ball straight or does he come across his body when he punts the ball?

AFM: How do you prepare your punt pressure/return team for all the variables they will face in game situations?

Cieri: We take an offensive approach to the punt pressure/return unit. By that I mean we discuss at our meetings and instill during practice the importance of field position and gaining real estate for our offense and defensive units to our players. On any given game day, our special team goal is to outscore our offense and defense.

Our preparation begins weeks before the game. It begins in the film room with a concentrated film study of at least 2-4 games of the opponent. We want to build a database on a team and on a particular coach we will see over the years. In our film study we chart all formations, blocking schemes, coverage lanes, and essential personnel. Speaking of personnel, we also examine in detail the long snapper, punter, gunners and blockers.

As for our coaches, we have a staff approach that includes all assistant coaches helping to put the best personnel on the field to be successful. Assistant coaches are responsible for developing particular skills at practice and also analyzing film to bring their knowledge and recommendations to me to build the game plan and practice drills.

AFM: What drills do you rely on the most?

Cieri: One of the best things that we do in practice throughout our weekly schedule is something we call our two-tiered circuits to teach the individual skills needed for the punt pressure/return unit. During the first tier, the players are in small groups performing the same skill. Each station of the introductory tier is run for five minutes, each on two early fall camp days. When entering our spring practice or fall camp, we utilize our six station punt pressure circuit. The six stations are:

1.       Get-off and bend.
2.       Maintain low pad level.
3.       Run the hoop/ block technique.
4.       Drive/ come to balance (inside and outside force).
5.       Trail and retrace.
6.       Punt returners.

Once these skills are instilled in the entire unit, we move to tier two skills. These skills are more advanced and used when installing overall schemes. The drills include:

1.       Block the punt.
2.       Punt Pressure Evaluation Drill - create the tunnel (See Diagram 2).
3.       PODS along with the wall and mirror.

Diagram 2. Punt Pressure Evaluation Drill - Create the Tunnel

Bernie McQuown • Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Bernie McQuown has been on the staff at IUP for 25 years. Prior to that, he was the head coach at Indiana High School (PA) for 21 years. He was also the head coach of both East Brady and Kane High School in Pennsylvania.

AFM:  What are the most important personnel/skills issues you face when assembling your punt team?

McQuown: There are so many elements to the punt team. Let’s talk positionally first. We can start up front with the long snapper and the upfront guys. Can the long snapper snap? Is he erratic or spot on? Is he part of the blocking scheme or is he another gunner going straight for the ball? In regards to the blocking unit, do they kick slide or are they in gap protection to the inside or outside? Next, you have the gunners - how fast are they? Can they break down and tackle or do they tend to be out of control? Coverage lanes and tackling are next. How do they cover? Are they disciplined and, most importantly, can they tackle? Are containing returners an issue that we can use to our advantage? Finally, you have the punters themselves. What type of punter is he? How does he like to punt, what steps does he take, what about his directional approach? There are so many things that go into preparing a punt team before we even set foot on a practice field (See Diagram 3).

Diagram 3. Punt Return - Questions to ask when breaking down
an opponent’s punt team.

AFM: What are your keys to working with your punt unit during practice?

McQuown: We are in the business of getting the best players on the field at all times whether it’s in the punt return unit or the scout team. For this reason we don’t use “scout” players or the token freshmen. You never know the effort you’re going to get from those kids. They are too unpredictable. In order to amend this problem we have our first punt team going against our punt pressure/ return unit. We feel this gives them the best look in order to prepare for Saturday.

Some coaches like to practice special teams at the beginning of practice because they say they are fresh, others at the end because they have to get so much in on offense and defense. We take a different approach because we feel at the beginning of practice kids aren’t always dialed in. We want nothing to do with it at the end because we emphasize special teams in a big way. Our special teams practice occurs in the middle of the overall practice. In doing so, we feel we get the best out of all the players on the first unit, second unit and the “scout” team.

Erik Ieuter - Michigan Tech
Erik Ieuter enters his seventh season this fall at Michigan Tech and serves as both Offensive Coordinator and Special Teams Coordinator. He previously coached at both Adams State and Grand Valley State.

AFM:  How would you rate the importance of punting?

Ieuter: The biggest thing to understand with the punt team and the punt pressure/return teams is that they are true game-changers. Get a punt blocked and you’re in a bad spot. Shank a punt and the opponent gets a great return and they are set up with great field position for their offense. It’s so critical to practice the different situations that teams have shown on film and things that you anticipate them doing as well. 

AFM: What is your practice strategy for your punt team?

Ieuter: First, we treat our special teams units just like the offense and the defense. The team gets full blown scouting reports, tendencies, and film time is critical. We try to impart the importance of the punt team unit on our guys. Each day before practice we have a 5-6 minute walk through with our essential personnel and what we hope to accomplish is to show them what they will see in the game. That way, when we get into actual practice time, we aren’t wasting time showing it to them. At least prior to practice they have seen it. Then, in the actual special teams practice we focus on protection first on our punt team. Without that, coverage lanes and tackling don’t really matter. After we are confident in our protection rules, we will move to our coverage lanes, breaking it down and ensuring we execute there as well.

Shannon Moore • South Dakota State
Shannon Moore has been on the staff at South Dakota State in a variety of roles, including Special Teams Coach, for the past six seasons. Prior to that, he was the Head Coach of the Wyoming Calvary of the National Indoor Football League.

AFM: What is the biggest challenge your punt pressure/return team faces?

Moore: The shield punt is the biggest challenge to overcome in the special teams game (See Diagram 4).

Diagram 4. Shield Punt

When I first came here, there weren’t a lot of teams using that type of a punt. Now, seven out of nine of our conference opponents utilize it. When I took over special teams we weren’t good at lining up for it. Now we are very proficient at it. It’s a weekly battle to handle all the different things that it presents to us as a staff as well as our punt return unit.

There are a ton of variations to this play. We have to be sure we can line up to all of them. We also have to account for each individual player on the field in all those different alignments. Then, if they like to shift and motion around, we have to be prepared for that. So, as you can see, there are a lot of different things that the shield punt can do to us as a return/block team.

AFM: What are the key coaching points in preparing for the shield punt?

Moore: We do a couple of things. Probably the most basic and simplest is we come up with concrete black and white rules for our kids. Very simply put “If your man does this, you align with him and he’s still your responsibility.” This helps to alleviate all of their motioning and shifting around. Our rules stay the same whether they remain in the base shield formation or they move around. In that case we just move with them.

Another thing we have done and I think this has helped us defensively as well is we have certain people that are assigned to the punt pressure/return team. Many teams elect to use the defense that’s out there already. We went the other direction for a couple reasons. First, we felt it was more that we had to teach the defense. They have enough to worry about in first through third downs. We didn’t want them thinking about this as well. Second, it allows us to have players get really good at just our punt return.

Tim Tobin - Tusculum College
Tim Tobin recently joined the staff at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee and is both the Linebackers Coach and Special Teams Coach. He previously coached at Kutztown State as the Defensive Line Coach, Kickers Coach and Strength and Conditioning Coach.

AFM: What are the key factors in putting together a successful punt pressure/return team?

Tobin: The punt return is the most difficult play in special teams. With this unit there are a lot of things on the punt side of the ball. There are a bunch of questions you have to answer in order to be successful. What type of punter is he? Does he use the rugby or directional kick? Is he good or bad? What type of punt do they run - spread, or shield, or some other variation? It can become quite difficult to keep the logistics flowing and keep it organized so that we can be successful in a return.

AFM: What is your approach in practice?

Tobin: We do some things a little bit differently in order to ensure we are ready come game time. First, from a staff perspective, our punt return unit is run by our defensive coordinator. We consider fourth down a defensive down anyways so why not keep it that way in the staff room. A lot of teams don’t do that. The DC oversees and installs all of our punt return material.

Secondly, we don’t have a “scout” punt team. The worst part about special teams is that it’s hard to breed competition in it because of the likelihood of injuries and lack of excitement in practicing it. We came up with a scenario in which we encourage competition and remain at full speed where fewer injuries occur. Our second team defense runs our opponent’s punt team. We do this because all of the guys on that second unit want someone’s job on the punt return unit. They seem to go harder when the opportunity to make the player ahead of them look bad presents itself.

To add to this unique setup we run two huddles, one immediately after the other. This saves time and reps. How it works is simple – our defense goes against our punt look/second team defense, and then, as soon as the reps are complete, we flip it. Now our starting defense is the punt look for the second team defense. It’s a great set-up. We are getting quality reps, and saving time all in one. Plus, we are creating a high level team of back-ups on special teams (See Diagram 5).

Diagram 5. Punt Return Practice Format

Finally, as a sort of reward for being on special teams, we often do special teams practice during our conditioning sets. While the rest of the team is doing sprints or some other form of conditioning, the special team players are practicing at full speed. This again saves practice time and gives our special teams a bit of a reward and incentive.

Wendell Smith - Ottawa University
Wendell Smith is in his seventh season as Special Teams Coordinator
for Ottawa University and also serves as the Defensive Line Coach.

AFM: What is you biggest challenge you face in the punting game?

Smith: Without a doubt, the punt team is the most difficult for us to prepare for because there are so many different looks a team can give us. Let’s start with the personnel. We must know who is who and what they can do. Each player is on that punt team for a reason. We must find out why and be able to neutralize them.

Next, there are punt looks as a whole. That is, they can come out in one look on film in one week, and then have a totally different look the next week. Formationally, there used to be just tight and spread punts. Now there are versions of those two formations. Plus you have the shield punt, offensive formations that the opponent will punt from, and so on. We also look at what types of punts does the punter execute? Are they straight punts, directional, squib, high and short, rugby, etc. Essentially, each week we are drawing up different schemes vs. each opponent. Our philosophy is not to get locked into one punt return because that only works against certain punt units. This is realistic today with all the different things you see in the course of a season as well as in just one game.

AFM: How do you prepare your punt pressure/return team for what they will face against an upcoming opponent?

Smith: We have a very clearcut and organized schedule for getting our guys prepared. It starts immediately after gameday, which for us is Saturday, but this can be adapted to the high school level as well. Here is our weekly routine:

SUNDAY - We have a short specials team practice/walk through with some conditioning and we discuss some new special teams adjustments we will have to make for the next opponent.

MONDAY - This is our light day. For high school, this is primarily on Sunday. If we do anything, the team lifts and then they are off.

TUESDAY - This is one of two special teams practices we will have within the course of the week. We start off with a special teams meeting where we outline the game plan for the players and talk on the board about adjustments we need to do to be successful. Then we have throughout the course of practice a 15-20 minute special teams practice where we usually do punt/kickoff returns.

WEDNESDAY - We have another meeting and 15-20 minute practices like Tuesday. Here we work on punt return/kickoff return. This is a very big practice for us as we are concentrating on our opponent’s punt team.

THURSDAY - We have a 15-20 minute practice in which we will go through all four special teams. We then have a 30-minute special meeting where we clear up any issues and make sure our guys are ready to go. Next, we watch film of the opponent as a special teams unit.

FRIDAY - We have another meeting for special teams to go over depth charts and we complete a final walk through (See Diagram 6).

  Diagram 6. Special Teams Weekly Practice Outline


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