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BE SPECIAL By committing to better special team practice organization, your units will create more explosive plays.

by: Mark Ribaudo
Special Teams Coach Abilene Christian University
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Special teams are an important part of any football game. They are the first play of every game, and many times the last and decisive play in a game. During every special teams play, one of these situations occurs – a large field position exchange, a change of possession, or a scoring opportunity. Frequently, two of these situations take place on the same special teams play. By their very nature, special teams plays are “special” and have a big impact on the outcome of the game.

All football teams strive to win the turnover battle and have more explosive plays than their opponent. Explosive plays usually involve large sections of field position, changes of possession, or scores. These elements are the essence of special teams. Special teams enable you to get the ball to your best offensive weapon in the open field with no defender within 20 yards. Not many plays in football can create that situation. 

Abilene Christian University averaged 33 special teams plays per game during the 2013 season. Every special teams play had the potential to be explosive. Each play was defined as a success or failure, and all of the special teams plays had an impact on the outcome of each game. During every game, we had 33 chances to explosively change the game. We look at every return as the first play of our offensive series and all coverage plays as the first play of our defensive series.

When developing a special teams program, there are four important elements:  1. commitment from the head coach, assistant coaches and the players; 2. organization; 3. a sound scheme and time to practice the fundamentals of that scheme through drills and 4. motivation.

A major component of our organization is the amount of coaches available to work each special team and their assignments. Our head coach is committed to special teams. He allows all coaches except our OC to work with special teams. Our OC works with the rest of our offensive players during specials periods. Most of our defensive players are on special teams so our DC  works on every special team. As a Special Teams Coordinator, you can’t ask for more. Commitment starts at the top and trickles down. The coaching assignments for our special teams are as follows:

Kickoff Coverage    Kickoff Return
1 & 8    DC    C, LG, LT    DB Coach
2 & 3    TE Coach    RG, RT    DC
4 & 5    WR Coach    RE, LE    TE Coach
6 & 7    DB Coach    HB, QB, FB    LB Coach
9        DL Coach    R        WR Coach
10 & K    LB Coach

Punt        Punt Return
RTE    DB Coach    2, 3        DC
RG, RT    DL Coach    4,5,6,7        LB Coach       
LTE    WR Coach    8, 9        TE Coach
LG, LT    TE Coach    1, 10        DB Coach
C, P, S    LB Coach    R        WR Coach
M, W    DC

PAT/FG        FG Block
LT, LG, RT, RG    OL Coach    DLs        DL Coach
LW, LTE    TE Coach    CBs        DC
RW, RTE    WR Coach    LBs        LB Coach
C, H, K    LB Coach    FS, R        DB Coach
In most cases the PAT/FG Team and the FG Block Team work together so we have almost the entire staff working the drill.

We strive to have two players per coach. This allows for feedback to each player on every rep. On the rare occasion where there are more than two players per coach, it’s O-Line and D-Line with their position coach. This makes it manageable. We don’t run many schemes, so our players can focus on mastering the techniques of their position. For example, on KOR, we think it’s more important to teach our players how to block versus who to block.

We have organized the teaching of each special team into a 3-step progression (fundamentals, teaching points, and details). We have divided our KOR to two major fundamentals – running fast and shimmy blocking. We have three teaching points to the shimmy block: 1. stay square as long as possible; 2. get the proper leverage on your man; 3. run your feet on contact. There are also three details for each of those teaching points: 1. feet should be armpit width; 2. shimmy toward your man; 3. hands go up and through your man. We have drills to work this progression. Having one coach per two players helps maximize teaching.

The next component is meeting organization. We have a 15 or 20 minute special teams meeting before every practice and a 45-50 minute meeting on game day. Each day we meet with two or three teams. If we meet with two teams, both meetings last seven minutes. If we meet with three teams, all meetings last six minutes. If we meet with four teams, all meetings last five minutes. 

Five minutes is not much time. However, you can cover ground if you prepare your presentation and cut ups, don’t waste time, and have only a few key points for each meeting. In order to get all of the information to the players, each group sits huddled around their assigned coach. Whether we are watching film, inserting schemes, or teaching techniques, each coach works with his group. The coach ends up with about five or six players to instruct. The staff spends 30 to 45 minutes a day preparing for this meeting and practice.

This setup allows each player to get one-on-one film time with his position coach. Moreover, the other players at that position are also hearing the instruction. No players are hiding in the back or falling asleep. In this way, you can have a short meeting but cover a large amount of information.

The next organizational component is drill work. We feel that a drill circuit is an efficient way to practice several techniques with a large group in a short period of time. During the early part of every week, we do our drill work. Later in the week, we practice team situations. An example of one of our drill circuits is our KOC circuit. On Tuesdays, we work this circuit for 10 minutes. This is the specific breakdown:

•  Dodge and restack drill        WR Coach
•  Sled and slingshot on the sled      DC
•  Open field tackle            DL Coach
•  Decision drill            TE Coach
•  Sled and slingshot vs. a blocker    DB Coach
•  Safety leverage drill        LB Coach

Each group works for two minutes, then rotates. The safeties don’t rotate. They work with me for five minutes. These drills teach the players how to run down the field, what to do early in the play, what to do late in the play, how to take on a blocker, and what decisions to make covering and tackling. Ten minutes a week adds up over the course of a season. When you add spring practice and keep the system for a couple of years, you start to build consistent improvement in your program. We have drill circuits to practice all of the techniques required for every special team. These circuits, in conjunction with our “Opportunity Period”, help us cover the fundamentals, teaching points, and details involved with each special team.

The Opportunity Period at Abilene Christian University may be the most important thing we do for our special teams. We call it the opportunity period because, during this time, we have the opportunity to make our team better. The period is divided up into two five-minute segments (periods A and B) before team stretch. During every opportunity period our snappers snap, our holders hold, punters punt, kickers kick, and returners catch. In addition, we do group or team work with different teams on different days. For example, on Tuesdays during period A, we work a punt protection drill. During period B on Tuesdays, the PAT/FG team works “Air Sets.” On Wednesday during period A, offensive players tackle. During period B, our punt block team walks through the block of the week. Every coach is working with some group of players. These two periods allow us to work on details and prevent problems before they happen in the game. To the left is a detailed summary of our weekly Opportunity Period.

The last component of our special teams organization is to tie all of this together into a weekly practice and meeting schedule that will allow working all of the essential elements of special teams in the time allotted. Above is our Weekly Schedule at ACU.

We have a good amount of time for meetings and practice, but even under the best circumstances special teams time is limited. We hope that having our meetings and practice organized helps us to efficiently use the time allotted. Special teams organization is just one component of effective special teams; however, we feel that it is critically important.  

About the Author: Mark Ribaudo has completed two seasons on the staff at Abilene Christian University, coaching linebackers and directing all special teams units. He previously was the head coach at Eastern New Mexico University for seven seasons and an assistant on the staff of ENMU for eight years. Ribaudo started his coaching career at Sabino High School in Arizona and then coached at Amphitheatre High School, also in Arizona. Ribaudo played both cornerback and running back at Hastings College (NE).


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