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Special Teams Winning Edge (Part I)

by: Brett Hickman
Special Teams Coach, Gardner-Webb University
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I am a believer in our special teams philosophy because we have seen great success in every major category  at two different universities – North Greenville University and Gardner-Webb – at two different levels of college football.

My first few years as a special teams coordinator was trial by fire. But what I did learn is that you have to completely embrace the role because all great programs are sound and explosive in the kicking game and you have a chance to create a culture of toughness that can quickly spread to an entire team.

At Gardner-Webb, we inherited a very difficult situation. The 2012 GWU team finished in the bottom third of four major FCS categories including rankings of 110th in punt coverage and 119th in kickoff coverage. The program’s attitude toward special teams needed a complete overhaul and our staff was excited about the challenge.

The results in the first season were surprising to many of our players and supporters. A complete buy-in was experienced and we saw our program jump to # 6 in punt coverage, #35 in net punting, #30 in kickoff coverage, and #35 in kickoff returns. We were especially pleased in the jump in punt coverage and kickoff coverage as we increased our ranking nearly one hundred spots in each.

Here are some details I believe are non-negotiable if you want your program to succeed in the kicking game:

 The Head Coach Sets the Tone

I have had the pleasure of working for three outstanding head coaches in my nine years in college football – Skip Holtz at East Carolina, Jamey Chadwell at North Greenville, and Carroll McCray at North Greenville and Gardner-Webb. Each found success at those stops for multiple reasons – recruiting, program and staff management, player development, and special teams excellence. Special teams was seen as a key cog in competing for bowl or playoff berths.

Our head coach at Gardner-Webb, Carroll McCray, has been a complete supporter of the philosophy that was developed at North Greenville University. He saw the success we had in the kicking game prior to his arrival and wanted as little change as possible. As familiarity with our players has increased at GWU, Coach McCray has given me and our other assistant coaches freedom to expand our overall playbook and we have now entered a stage where we can become more explosive in the process. 

Engagement From Other Assistant Coaches

Multiple minds are better than one. This is the hardest part of special teams program growth because many coaches see special teams differently and each coach may have a different philosophy toward special teams.

All of our coaches watch film during our weekly staff special teams meetings. All of our position coaches, excluding the line coaches and our offensive coordinator, coach a position on each unit. If they do not, they are responsible for aiding our graduate assistants with the scout team during practice. 

Chart 1 shows our staff responsibility table. Before spring practice each season, we evaluate and reassess what each coach is responsible for and we try to keep these assignments through the next season.   

Additionally, our offensive line coach is the PAT/FG coordinator and our defensive line coach is the PAT/FG block coordinator.

By looking at our coaching assignments table, you will notice that most of our staff is involved in the coaching of either the unit being practiced or the scout team in which they are going against. This includes our defensive coordinator because his position group (OLBs) is typically involved in special teams. You will also notice little inclusion of both the offensive and defensive line coach because we feel those are 15 minutes that most of their players can use for additional individual work. The exception to that is our defensive line coach. He does coach the scout punt return team because most of our defensive linemen are involved with our “Pride” team as members of the shield. 

Under my name you will also see an additional coach that is seen as a co-coordinator of each unit. This coach aids me in game planning, drawing scout cards, scouting report development, and keeping another set of eyes on the unit during game day. It is also a huge help because other members of our staff have been coordinators or at least led a unit on a staff that has split up the responsibilities. 

Our special teams meetings with our players are also valued by our staff. When our emphasis is punt team, the specific coach sits with the left side and another coach sits with the shield. They have full autonomy to speak and coach while the film is rolling. It helps our guys to hear both the coordinator and the position coaches in these meetings.

Setting Goals

At North Greenville and Gardner-Webb, both groups of players had a losing mentality before the arrival of the new head coach. Special teams was seen as a small part of the game that only the third and fourth team guys needed to focus on. For the greater good of the program, both teams eventually saw it as a way for us to climb into the national rankings and a way to ultimately put ourselves in playoff contention.

We create a table three times a year of where we stand in the five major categories of special teams play. We show our guys this list in the preseason (of the previous year’s stats), the middle of the season, and the postseason. Listed is our rank in the nation in each category and our stats  and where we rank in the conference. Our goals are simply to be in the Top 25 nationally in each phase and in the top two in our own league.

Chart 2 shows where we were at Week 7 during the 2013 season. This report would have been shown to the team after Sunday film review in which we have everyone on our team present for the special teams meeting.

Our staff takes two approaches to these reports. First, there is obvious improvement in four of the major categories from 2012 to the 2013 season. This showed a commitment from our guys to their new staff in the kicking game. The culture had begun to change around our special teams units. However, we also had a chance to show them that our punt coverage was “playoff caliber” and there was room for even more improvement in net punting, kickoff coverage, and kickoff return.

Additionally, we were disappointed in the production of our Joy (punt return) team.  This also gave us a chance to reevaluate whether it was our personnel or our schemes that had caused such a dramatic drop-off. This is especially true after we had finished in the top 20 in punt return all three years at North Greenville.
Personnel Philosophy

Half the battle is in the depth chart. Somewhere on your roster there are five to fifteen kids who will spill their guts on special teams. Every year, our staff has evaluated practice tape, game tape, and drill work from the previous season, spring, or practice week to see who can be a member of our “Dirty Dozen”. We do not always get to twelve, but we strive to get as many guys on three on more units as we can. This is not always reality. In our first year at Gardner-Webb we did have fifteen different individuals that started on two or more units,   seven of which started on three or more. We were ecstatic about that for our first year because we did not consider ourselves to be a deep football team. In addition, of those seven, six were in our two deep on offense or defense. When starters and other significant contributors on offense and defense want to be a part of the kicking game, then you are witnessing a culture shift.

You cannot sacrifice your desire to find a “Dirty Dozen” if you do not have it. Simply put, you evaluate your scheme and put the best players on your roster at each position.

“Pride” (Punt) Personnel Unit
(Diagram 1)

The ultimate sign of trust from our coaching staff is if you earn a spot on our punt team. We search for detailed oriented players who will accept the challenge of both protecting and relentlessly pursing the football. Ultimately, this team has been compromised of cornerbacks at our gunner positions, bigger bodied safeties or wide receivers at our tackle positions, and fast linebackers or tight ends at our guard positions. Because we are a shield punt team that rugby kicks about twenty percent of the time, we look for our most dependable and agile combination of defensive linemen, offensive tackles, and bigger tight ends on our shield unit.

“Heart” (Kickoff) Personnel Unit
(Diagram 2)

We call kickoff personnel “Heart” for a reason. This team is about speed, physicality, and desire and our choices of personnel reflect this. 

Our scheme is everything in determining who plays what position. We call our second level men “Fit-to-Fold” men. This means that based off a scheme or another one of his teammates being rooted out of their lane, he becomes a first-level defender if the ball is in his zone. Our #1, for example, becomes a first-level player off the block of our ultimate contain #2 if the ball comes to his sideline. Consequently, the other “Fit-To-Fold” players are now on a string and the #8 (the middle “Fit-to-Fold” guy) replaces the #1 and the #10 (opposite the sideline Fit-to-Fold guy) now replaces the #8 in the middle and then to deep pursuit on the near sideline of the kick.  It works like this on a middle return or a field return to the opposite sideline players. 

Those “Fit-to-Fold” guys have to be your most dependable thinkers and tacklers. It requires a little savvy and scheme understanding for the ultimate contain men and the lane guys. Like everyone else, we want guys who understand leverage, keeping their outside pad free, and the ability to run a play down if they lose leverage at those contain spots (#2 and #9). 

Numbers 3-7 in our Heart scheme are very similar to what most people desire in members of their kickoff team. These guys must understand three things: (1) Avoid zone. This means avoid to the butt side of leverage unless the ball is noticeably out of phase with the return scheme.  (2) Contact zone. Within 10 to 12 yards of the ball there are no leverage assignments. You become a two gap-player. Deliver contact on the blocker and put yourself in a position to perform the goal. (3) Make the tackle. We practice open field tackling religiously with our kickoff team in the spring and fall camp.

“Soul” Personnel (Kickoff Return) Unit
(Diagram 3)

Kickoff return may be the easiest team to select personnel because most of it is dependent on athletic ability. For example, our front line men (tackles, guards, and centers) have to be capable of sprinting back thirty yards on a proper angle, flipping their hips, and have enough pop to block their man on the proper leverage without giving too much ground. Our front line has mainly been comprised of defensive backs, wide receivers and running backs. Our ends, which are also responsible for man blocking on leverage must only sprint back five to ten yards. However, they must also possess the ability to field a pooch kick. Because of this we have found our tight ends to be the best personnel groupings for this position.

Our fullback is typically a two man wedge setter who we are also comfortable with fielding a squib kick. Because we will check our return based on variables (hash placement of ball, etc.) he also must have some basic football knowledge and be willing to study film on the opponents kickoff team.

The two halfback positions vary based on the ability of the kicker to move the ball around. We place these guys between the hash and numbers on the fifteen yard line (varies five to ten yards on the ability of the kicker) and they must be able to handle directional kicks. On a traditional deep kick in which our returner fields the ball, the kick side halfback must be able to set a two man wedge with the fullback. This requires a physical safety / corner/ wide receiver or running back. 

Everyone wants the same thing with their returner. Place your most dynamic difference maker back deep and let him go to work.

“Joy” Personnel (Punt Return) Unit
(Diagram 4)

Punt return personnel varies based on the type of punt team you are facing each week and whether you desire to be a “return team” or a “block team”.

Typically, we look for guys with outstanding length and speed to stay engaged on the punt team as they pursue the football. We also want good decision makers who have a knack for either blocking kicks or whether or not to attempt the downfield block that so many players block in the back and are penalized for it. Our drill work reflects both of these circumstances substantially.

Additionally, we have “Force” men who are responsible to see the kick off the foot. There is nothing more deflating then having a punt faked on your team. Our middle force men are typically linebackers while our outside force men are defensive backs or receiver types who will not be outflanked by a rugby style kick/fake.

In Part Two, I will detail our plan for practice efficiency and provide some key points that our staff looks for when game planning for the next opponent.
About the Author: Brett Hickman recently completed his second season at Gardner-Webb University, serving as running backs coach and special teams coordinator. He previously coached for four seasons at North Greenville University. A graduate of East Carolina, Hickman spent two years coaching at ECU under Head Coach Skip Holtz.


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