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Maximizing Special Teams Practice Time – Circuit drills for both kickoffs and punt units can help improve special teams play.

by: Bill Russell
Special Teams Coordinator and Inside Linebackers Coach, Norwich University
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Anyone who has coached special teams knows that there never seems to be enough time to teach the proper techniques as well as implement your systems. Even at a school like Norwich, we end up trying to get more done, in less time.

A strategy we’ve used, which has benefitted us greatly, is to set up a circuit of drills for each individual special teams unit and have all of our players rotate through this circuit. This allows us to get a lot of quality, technique-specific work done, and gives our players a chance to work each part of the progression needed to excel on any given aspect of the kicking game. All members of our staff contribute to our special teams practice. This allows me to assign each coach a position-specific drill, and allows all of our coaches to work with all the members of our program.


Kickoff is a crucial part of a football game, as it can instantly swing momentum in either direction. A great kick and cover can set a team up with the upper hand in field position, and a big return can do the same for your opponent.

We have four stations in our kickoff circuit: a timing/get-off station, a “block avoid” station, a “block attack” station, and an open field tackle/rabbit drill station. Each station has a coach working the individual skill used in that particular part of the unit.

TIMING/GET OFF: This drill is fairly simple and straight forward. We have the kickers stationed here. A coach will set up five individual lines, and one kicker. The kicker will approach the football, and feign a kick. The first player in each line will work his timing, making sure that he is as close to top speed as possible when the ball is struck. It is critical here that we focus on not being offside. The players will sprint 10 yards through the “coverage” (Diagram 1).

Diagram 1. Timing Get Off

BLOCK AVOID: When we set this drill up, we only utilize three lines, so we can closely monitor each player and their reps. Each line has a “blocker” 10-15 yards downfield. The coach starts the drill with a whistle. As the kickoff cover man approaches, the blocker will provide a simulation of a return block, and our cover man will avoid the block properly, using the techniques he has been taught. Upon successful avoidance, he must re-stack the blocker and squeeze to the return man (Diagram 2).

Diagam 2.  Block Avoid

BLOCK ATTACK: We teach our coverage players that there is a time to avoid and a time to attack. Attempting to avoid a block in close proximity to the ball creates seams, and seams are the death of any quality coverage. We simulate the same initial read of the “Avoid Drill”, but place another blocker approximately 10 yards beyond the first. Upon reaching this secondary blocker, we work on getting to the football “through” our blocker, using both bodies to close down return lanes (Diagram 3).

Diagram 3. Block Attack

OPEN FIELD/RABBIT DRILL: This is the final station of our kickoff circuit. We simulate a scenario where our coverage unit has defeated the return team’s blocks, and is now converging on the return man. We like to have a “rabbit” (ball carrier) 20-25 yards away to start the drill, and three coverage players, equally spaced, in pursuit. As the drill begins, the ball carrier will start his return. Our three coverage men squeeze to the football, while working to maintain square shoulders/open hips. Keeping our hips open allows us to change direction and keep the football hemmed in. This is a terrific drill for teaching when to fold in, when to turn and run, and how to come to balance in the open field. We can use the principles taught in this drill in almost every other aspect of our practice (Diagram 4).

Diagram 4. Rabbit Drill

PUNT RETURN/BLOCK CIRCUIT: A huge punt return can be another tremendous momentum swing in the course of a game, and there might be nothing more crushing than allowing a punt to be blocked. This circuit affords us the opportunity to work on the skills utilized in both parts of the punt return game.

Our Punt Return/Block Circuit has three individual stations: a Get Off station, a Block Station, and a station for working on the blocking techniques used in the return game.

GET OFF: In this drill, we place a football in the middle with two lines on each side. We pay a lot of attention to stances prior to the start of the rep. I believe that a punt cannot be blocked without a terrific get off. The stance, like that of a sprinter, is key. When the proper stance has been achieved, the coach will get over the football and snap it. We do not use a cadence. We want our players focused solely on the movement of the ball so they can get a terrific jump on the snap. The players will then sprint through five yards before returning to the end of the line (Diagram 5).

Diagram 5. Punt Block Get Off

BLOCK STATION: For this drill, we have a coach acting as a punter. We go with a “double barreled” approach, having two lines facing the coach and getting rapid-fire reps (right, then left, then right, etc.). With this station, we can reinforce both the stance/get off, as well as being ready to explode off the ball on movement. We use cones to simulate the proper approach as well as the block point. We want our players to explode off the ball, bend across the block point, and take the ball off the punter’s foot. We never leave our feet to block a punt. Our coaching point is that punts are blocked with your eyes, and not your hands. If you put your eyes on the block point, and simply put your hands where your eyes are, you will be successful. If a player shuts his eyes, he cannot be on that unit (Diagram 6).

Diagram 6. Punt Block Drill

RETURN: In this final station, we have a punt coverage player (either a gunner, or an interior cover man) lined up across from one of our punt return players. Different return schemes will utilize different techniques, but we like to have a return man 20-25 yards from our coverage player to begin. When the rep starts, the coverage player will attempt to get downfield to cover the kick, while our punt return player will use whatever technique we’re using to keep himself between the tackler and ball carrier. Our main coaching point is that we must never throw a block if we cannot “bite” the front number on the jersey. It can be devastating to a team to have a big return brought back because of a penalty (Diagram 7).

Diagram 7. Punt Return Drill

These are two specific units. We utilize the “circuit approach” in every aspect of our kicking game. Typically, each station lasts 3-4 minutes, and we rotate quickly. It’s become a very valuable part of our special team practice, especially in pre-season camp, when we are working to identify which players are candidates for each unit.

About the Author: Bill Russell just completed his fifth season on the staff of Norwich University, serving as both Special Teams Coordinator and Inside Linebackers Coach. He previously coached for four seasons at his alma mater, Mount Ida College. Russell played for four seasons at Mount Ida and served as team captain in 2004.

Coach Russell  answers your questions on Facebook - just go

More articles on this subject:

Preparing Your Punt Teams – October, 2012

Expanded Special Teams – Kickoff and Punt Returns – August, 2012

7 Keys to Kick-Starting Your Special Teams – December, 2006


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