about the University of Arizona special teams and to add some of my own thoughts after almost 30 years of coaching.
To be truly successful in this area, it all starts at the top. If your head coach is not supportive in this area, the chances for consistent success are not good. I believe there are three areas where the head coach must be supportive. These three areas are the commitment of practice and meeting time, generous use of starters on special teams and the commitment of scholarships to specialists.
While on my football sabbatical a couple years ago (I visited a couple dozen pro and college teams in season), I came across a couple situations where the head coach was on record as being very committed to special teams but when you watched practice, you sensed that the actual com- mitment was much less than professed. I really believe that in many cases, there is much more lip service given to special teams being a third of the game than an actual commitment as a head coach. I felt that I committed time and felt even better when coaches turn down the opportunity for extra practice time for their teams.
Another important area concerns the use of personnel. From the time I first worked for our head coach, Dick Tomey, more than 20 years ago, no one has sold the importance of the best players playing on special teams and backed it up more than he has. During my first year at Arizona in 1998, we had a great defensive back in Chris McAlister, a high first-round pick, who was assigned man-to-man coverage each week against our opponent\u2019s best receiver. He also returned the opening kickoff of the season for a touchdown. He returned two punts for touchdowns and he also blocked three punts. In critical situations, he was a great gunner on our punt team, member of the kickoff team and he also came off the edge on our PAT/FG block. We really gave Chris a chance to impact the game on spe- cial teams as well as on defense.
The past season, Dennis Northcutt lead the nation in punt returns. He also returned kickoffs. Our starting tailback was used fre- quently as a punt blocker and provided some outstanding blocks for Northcutt. Our all-conference linebacker, Marcus Bell, started on four special teams units while being a starter on defense the last three years. We use our best players on special teams and our players are happy to play on
The third area is the commitment of scholarships to specialists. In the NFL, their active rosters consist of 47 players and on average, four are specialists. This means that 8.5 percent of their game day players are specialists. How many people on the college level would commit 8.5 per- cent of their roster or scholarships to spe- cialists? You might say that we have the same individual game needs as the NFL and our return specialists are usually a position player and sometimes, the long snapper also fits in that area. Well, a big difference is if they get an injury, they can go out and replace that player. We don't have that luxury. This past year at Arizona, our kickoff specialist and backup place- kicker suffered a severe hip injury during two-a-days and was lost for the season. Our starting placekicker suffered a severe slump going one for ten. Behind him was a walk-on freshman with an average leg who converted only about 60 percent of his field goals in practice. Our starter was a senior and great in practice, that is why he got the chance to miss so many! We would have loved to have had another quality kicker on our team!
When situations like these arise, its amazing to think that we think nothing of being four or five deep at many positions, yet most coaches want an absolute mini- mum of specialists on scholarship. I think that if you look back over time, very few punters and place kickers were great their first year. Like most other players, they get better with time.
At this point, I want to visit on one last general philosophy of the kicking game. In doing so, I can't get away from the impor- tance of specialists. I feel the three most important elements of outstanding kickoff coverage are;1.) the kicker2.) the kicker and3.) the kicker. In punt coverage, I feel the three most important elements are;1.) the punter2.) the punter and3.) the punter. While certainly schemes and individual techniques are important to your coverage teams, outstanding kicking makes every- thing much more effective.
Let's now visit about our punt return game. Our punt return team is known as the \u201craiders\u201d team. We have nicknames for most of our individual special teams. Our philosophy to being successful in the punt return game is to pressure the punter. We want to lead our league in blocked punts
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