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Winning the Key Ground with Kickoff Coverage - Each man in kickoff coverage has an assignment ...

by: Mike Mendenhall
Special Teams Coordinator, North Carolina Central University
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Each man in kickoff coverage has an assignment along with a kicker who must be skilled in directional kicking.

This is a game of field position and we talk a lot about “Winning the Key Ground.” Below is our philosophy and goals for our kickoff cover unit.

1.      Cover two-thirds of the field with directional         kicks.
2.      Inside and in front coverage – not lane.
3.      Win with speed and tackling.
4.     Identify keys to opponents’ returns.

1.     100% of all balls kicked in target zone.
2.     Opponent average less than 20 yards per return.
3.     Pin opponent inside the 20-yard line.
4.     Force a turnover.

We are a directional kickoff team, which allows our coverage unit to protect two-thirds of the field. You must have a kicker that is capable of directional kicking in order for this scheme to have success. We align five players on each side of the ball and count one through ten. Players one through five align to the kick side and players six through ten align away from the kick side (Diagram 1).

Diagram 1: Alignment

The “x” marks the ball and this alignment is for a “deep left” kick. Each man has a coverage responsibility, not a lane. Three, four, and five are “point men” and go directly to the ball. Six and seven must keep the ball “inside and in front” in order for this unit to have success. The nine is contain away and has the 21-man rule. That is, keeping all 21 players inside of him, being in ‘contain.’ One and eight are linebackers in this scheme and will fill gaps in coverage.

Kickers Target Zone

It is the kicker’s responsibility to hit the target zone every time (Diagram 2). The goal for the kicker is in the shaded box with a hang time greater than 3.8 seconds.  Balls outside the target zone will put pressure on our coverage unit.

Diagram 2: Kicking to the Target Zone

Fly Zones

We have three zones which are displayed in Diagram 3 and we break down our drill work accordingly to focus on each. In addition, we will do combination drills that will include all three zones. 

Diagram 3: Fly Zones

Each zone has key coaching points listed and we will emphasize each during drill work. This gives your players a visual of how to be successful while covering kicks.


A lot of our success is being able to identify players that will execute and understand their responsibilities in the coverage unit. For example, players one and two must be smart and aggressive for this unit to have success. Nine must be disciplined because he has “soft contain” and the 21-man rule.


We spend a lot of time doing drills in practice and constantly emphasizing fundamentals. Our kickoff coverage unit specifically works on a variety of drills. 
Speed, Avoid, and Angle Tackle
In Diagram 4, the drill starts on the sideline marked with an “X” and each line is split up based on position number. The first man in each line is the “rabbit” labeled “B” and the “R” is the ball carrier aligned in the middle of the field. A cone is set up three yards outside the hash labeled with a black dot.

On the whistle, the blocker will sprint to the cone and show his butt side. The cover man will sprint and close the distance on the blocker. Once the cover man closes, he will avoid the butt side of blocker and get back vertical to keep leverage on the ball carrier. All ball carriers will step to one side and the cover man will execute an angle tackle. This drill teaches speed, avoiding the reading blocker, and executing a proper angle tackle.

Two Gap and Shed

This drill also teaches players how to use their hands and shed blockers once they enter the two-gap fly zone. It’s important that the cover man uses the blocker as the brake and does not slow down before he makes contact. The players must bend, get pad level down, and strike physically down the “V” of the neck with inside hands. Once contact is made with the blocker, the cover man must maintain a shoulder-width base and keep his feet hot while identifying the ball carrier. This segment can also be included in the previous drill described in Diagram 4. You can add it in after the “avoid” zone and before the “angle tackle.”

Diagram 4: Speed, Avoid, and Angle Tackle Drill   

The success of our kickoff coverage team is based solely on the concepts described in this article and having a kicker with the ability to hit the target zone with good hang time.


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