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AFM Magazine

Drills Report: Complete Special Teams Drills

by: Tom Watts - Head Coach, Ohio Wesleyan University
and Matt Brown, Assistant Coach, Franklin College
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Kickoff, kick return, punt return, field goal, and field goal block teams all need specific drills.

Special teams is the most overlooked facet of the game. Drastic improvements can be made if you are willing to put the time into improving your kicking game. There are plenty of drills out there and you may already use some of them that are not mentioned here. The most important thing is that you set aside time for practice and film study.

Kickoff Drills  

We teach our players to avoid contact for the first 40 yards. The first 20 yards we call the “read zone” and the next 20 yards we call the “avoid zone.” We tell our players to read the man that is responsible for blocking them and make sure they are in position to go ”butt-side” or behind the block to avoid contact. The drill you can use to help teach your players to go “butt-side” is to line up both the kickoff and kick return unit as they would in a game. Tell the kick return unit that when the ball is kicked, sprint back 20 yards and wait to frame up the kickoff team. Blow the whistle and have your kicker kickoff. 

The kick off unit will sprint through the “read zone” and work on identifying which man is going to be responsible for blocking them. Once the player on the kickoff team identifies who is trying to block them, they should work on trying to set them up. That is, they should also read which way they are trying to return the ball. They should squeeze in that direction until they are about a yard away from the blocker then switch course and go “butt-side.” This drill is not full contact and we have our kick return team allow the kickoff team to go butt-side. We like to have our players sprint back to their spots and run the drill again so we can also use this as a conditioning drill (Diagram 1).

Another kickoff drill you can practice to ensure that your kickoff team is timing the kickoff well is to line up  balls on  kicking tees starting at the goal line and setting them 20 yards apart. We will line two coaches up on either side of the field to make sure none of our players run off-sides. The special teams coordinator will simulate the referees whistle and the kicker will run up and kick off (you can have him fake a kick if you believe that will be more functional). The kickoff team will time the kick and sprint the rest of the way to the next ball. They will then line up and repeat the drill. We will have the players line up at the goal line, the minus twenty, the minus forty, and the plus forty before the second unit does the drill. We like this drill because it works on the timing of the kick off while also serving as a conditioning drill. This is valuable to us because a lot of our players are full time starters on offense and defense so they will be gassed when they are on the field. 

One of our most popular drills is what we call the “two-whistle” drill. We work the two-whistle drill for both the kick off and kick return teams. We understand that kick offs and returns tend to create some of the most violent situations during a game and we want to limit injuries while also getting in valuable reps. We will draw scout cards for the scout team so they understand their responsibilities within our opponents’ scheme. Our Special Teams Coordinator will give a call to the kicker (right or left) and he will kick the ball, trying to place it inside the five-yard line between the hash and the numbers to the call side. The kicking team will sprint 10 yards and fulfill their responsibilities (twisting if the scheme calls for it) and the kick return unit will drop to their spot on the field.  Once they reach those points we will blow the whistle and stop the drill. We will then identify the kicking team by a number, starting with the outside player playside as number one and so forth. Our special teams coordinator will call out “One, Two, Three,” to those players on the kicking squad who will then fill their lane at three quarter speed and the kick return team will fit up their blocks accordingly. The special teams coordinator will continue to count until the ten players on the kicking team have filled their lanes and the kick return team fits up on their blocks. We will use this drill to work with our starters on both the kickoff and kick return units.

Kick Return Drills

We really like the two-whistle drill for our kick return unit as well because we are able to control how many violent collisions our players take. The beauty of the two-whistle drill on a kick return is that you can work all of the different kick return schemes (left return, right return, middle return, cutback, reverse, etc.) you may have with this drill.  It is an easy drill to do and it helps your players recognize who they’re responsible for blocking.

The players on the kick return team have the toughest responsibility of all special teams players. We ask these guys to sprint backwards on an angle, then turn around and try to block an athlete in space who is running full speed. One of the best teaching tools is to work a one-on-one drill. Have five guys line up with five guys across from them at ten yards. Identify which group is the kickoff and kick return units. Tell the players the direction of the return and which kickoff player is going to be doing the drill. Blow the whistle and the man responsible for blocking him on the kick return unit will drop to his spot, flip his hips, and block the player trying to cover the kick. Cycle through this drill until everyone has had the same amount of reps. Once your players start to get good at this drill, stand behind the return team and point to which kickoff player you want to be live.  Blow the whistle and all five players on the return team will spot drop and the player who is responsible for blocking the kickoff player will block him one-on-one (Diagram 2).

Punt Drills

Jim Tressel once said that the punt is the most important play in a football game because of its effect on field position. We do not use many individual drills when practicing with our punt unit. We prefer to practice different punting situations in a live drill format. We will start with our punter pinned back inside our own 5-yard line. Then we will move into the open field where we will work on most of our situations, including shifts, motions, and fakes. We will then move into our opponents’ territory and practice the “Coffin Corner” punt. We will work all of these situations from both hashes and the middle of the field. We teach our blockers to stop the initial charge of the rush team and then release into their coverage lanes. 

In the past, we have been fortunate to have a long snapping specialist on the team. If you are in a similar situation, you can have your punter and long snapper work on taking snaps and kicking the ball when the offensive and defensive players are practicing their individual drills.

Punt Return Drills

The punt return is probably our most game-planned unit. We play teams who run a variety of punt schemes and we change our punt return strategy to give us the best chance at blocking the kick as well as getting the most return yards. As a result, we work on a lot of live drills with the punt return unit as well. We want to make sure all of our players understand who is responsible for blocking the kick and who is responsible for blocking the coverage players. We spend a lot of time watching film and give our players a lot of different fakes, motions, and shifts that they need to be ready for when they are on the field.  We preach to our returner that it is important to catch every kick that is not inside the five yard line. We do not want to lose valuable yardage because our returner let the ball go over his head. 

A specialized drill is blocking the punt. Too many players just throw their arms in the air and dive at the ball. We teach all of our guys that their aiming point pre-snap is 6 yards in front of the punter (after he takes his steps which is about two yards away from him) to avoid getting any running into or roughing the kicker penalties. 

We also teach our players that they should put their arms out, one hand over the other, keep their feet, and take the ball off of the punter’s foot. We want to create a good surface. By putting one hand on top of the other we believe that we have a better chance at knocking the punt down instead of just tipping it and the ball will not be able to go between the blocker’s hands/arms. When players dive at the ball, they create two problems – a) they lose an extra step that typically would lead to a blocked punt, and b) they lose control of their bodies and increase their chances of running into the punter. 

Also, if we do block the punt, we do not want to just fall on the ball. If the ball is blocked, the punt team is in a very dangerous situation in that the only player in position to fall on the loose ball is the punter. Therefore, we teach our punt return team that in the case of a block, pick the ball up and score. A drill we will use is to have two players line up on opposite sides of the long snapper. Once the ball is snapped, they will run after the ball. One will block the punt and the other will scoop and score (Diagram 3).

Field Goal Drills

We spend a lot of time going against air when practicing field goals. The biggest key to a successful field goal is closing down the inside gap with the right timing. We want the snap-to-kick time to be 1.2 seconds because no player is going to be able move off the edge and block a field goal in that amount of time. We use a stopwatch to make sure that the kick is on time. We will also drill our speed field goal at least twice a practice because running your field goal team onto the field and making the kick is the most pressurized play in a football game. We believe that we can run our field goal team out, get them aligned, and get the kick off in eleven seconds. We will use a stopwatch to ensure that our field goal unit can accomplish this goal. 

At the end of practice on Thursdays, we send out our field goal block team to work on live drills. I recommend making only half of the line live at a time. It is easier to watch one side of the ball and then work to correct any mistakes that are made. You have to work full line drills at times to make sure everything is timed correctly and going smoothly but the half-line drills are easier to coach on the field.

Field Goal Block Drills

When working with the field goal unit, make sure that you are gap sound and can account for any eligible players who could be involved in a fake. Put your most explosive athletes in the A and B gaps to try to get penetration. It also gives you the best chance at blocking the kick. You should also work a similar drill as the punt return drill. That is, block the kick and then scoop-and-score.

About the Authors: Tom Watts recently completed his second season as head coach at Ohio Wesleyan University. He previously was the special teams coordinator, defensive backs coach, and recruiting coordinator at Baldwin Wallace University. Watts also coached at Westminster College, Wisconsin-Platteville, and Waynesburg College. He is a 2002 graduate of Hanover College.


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