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Using Zones for Kickoff Coverage – recognizing where you are on kickoff coverage allows your players..by: Dustin Hass
Special Teams Coordinator, Carthage College
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Recognizing where you are on kickoff coverage allows your players to play fast and make plays.
We pride ourselves on elite special teams play. This past fall our kickoff coverage unit was one of the best in our league and the nation. Over the course of 10 games, our unit only allowed an average of 16.39 yards per return and no return touchdowns. These results are attributable to a great group of players that embraced their kickoff role every week.
When we teach our kickoff coverage, we start by breaking down the field into zones. Each player must recognize the zone they are in and understand the techniques needed to play in that zone. This allows our players to play fast and make plays.
The first zone we call the “Return Recognition Zone”. This zone is from the 35-45 yard line and is where we must understand what return we are going to see. The most important rule in this zone is to sprint full speed and to “catch” the first row of blockers. Our goal is to get to them before they can turn and get into position to block. Next, we key the returner. It is important that we physically see him catch the ball and do not just assume he has it. Lastly, each player will look at his key to see what kind of block he is going to get. This will give our players an idea of what the return team is trying to do based off scouting reports and film study from prior games.
The next zone that the coverage team will enter is the “Avoid Zone.” This begins as soon as we have recognized what return we are getting and ends when we are within 18 yards of the returner. In this zone, we must run full speed and beat the blocker to his butt side. We teach our athletes that they must go over the top of the block to the return side. We want to beat the block by dipping, ripping, and maintaining our speed.
An important part to the avoid zone is having players understand that, after they avoid the block, they must get back to their lane responsibilities so as to prevent opening seams for the returner. We also talk about maintaining leverage on the returner; that is, we must keep him in front and inside.
As our players continue down the field, they will enter the “Two Gap Zone”. The two gap zone declares itself when the ball is now less than 18 yards away. The players will now engage with the blockers in front of them and play a two gap technique. Players will use long strides through the blocks while keeping the returner in front and inside. Once our special teams unit realizes which direction the returner is going, they will rip in front of the blockers toward the ball side and make the tackle.
The last zone, “The Make-a-Play Zone” is the most important of the four. Our players should now be in great position to tackle the returner. All of the members of the unit need to come to balance and maintain leverage with the returner. They should also understand where all teammates are in relation to each other and “cup” to the returner. We emphasize gang tackling and knocking the ball loose.
When we teach our kickoff coverage, we start with our “Down the Line Drill” (See Diagram). The drill consists of three single file lines of players beginning at one sideline. In front of them are two players with hand shields, one on each hash. On the opposite sideline is a single ball carrier (the returner). The drill begins with a whistle and the players will be in a full sprint as if they are covering a kickoff. Once the coverage team is five yards from the first hash, the player on the hash with the hand shield will turn one direction. The coverage player will then dip and rip to the hand shield side of the player.
For the purpose of the drill, we tell our players that the hand shield is the butt side of the blocker. The coverage team must then get back in their lane and continue sprinting to the next hand shield. Once the coverage team reaches the next player with a hand shield, the returner is released and begins to run. The coverage team must long stride and two gap the hand shield keeping the runner in front and inside. Once the returner declares where he is headed, the coverage players must defeat the block and cup the returner. It is important that our players rip over the top of the blocker in order to maintain proper leverage and position. Lastly, we teach the players to attack the outside hip of the returner and keep inside leverage on him.
Our goals are to average 20 yards or less per return, make a game changing play, and to have no SIWs (self-inflicting wounds). If we accomplish these goals every week, we will again have a very successful kickoff coverage team.
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