\u201cachilles\u2019 heel\u201d for many different teams throughout the evolution of college football. Effective and efficient special teams play can be the difference between winning a championship or a basement fin- ish. I am constantly amazed at how often we, as coaches, agree on the importance of the kicking game and yet do not seem to successfully follow through with the effort this aspect of the game requires. How many times have we watched a game on Saturday or a bowl game on television, and see the difference in the game come down to a blocked punt, a big return or failure to execute a field goal? We all have those haunting memories of missed opportunities easily recalled. Why? I am not going to pro- fess that I have the answer, but, I do have some thoughts that may help in our quest to win the kicking game.
In the last three years, two major points of emphasis have come to the forefront in my philosophy of special teams play. First and foremost, the head coach must dictate the attitude toward the kicking game to both the coaching staff and to the players. The commitment of the head coach through action, verbalization and practice time, is the single most important factor in special teams success. At Western Michigan, we are very lucky to have Gary Darnell as our head coach. Coach Darnell spent many years as a special teams coor- dinator himself and consequently has an enthusiastic approach to the importance of the kicking game. From the day our coach- es\u2019 pre-season meetings begin, and throughout the year, Coach Darnell com- mits a great deal of time and effort to the kicking game. I feel this is the primary rea- son we have enjoyed success in the kick- ing game over the past three seasons. The second point of emphasis is my feeling that special teams is one area of the game in which you can legitimately out-coach oppo- nents. This takes a great deal of time and effort, as well as commitment, but the rewards to be reaped are second to none.
These four points enable us to commu- nicate and implement our philosophy of the kicking game:
When designing the coverage of a cross-country kick, I think there are three basic premises under which I like to oper- ate. First is simplicity. Do one thing very well and communicate to coaches and players that this is what, \u201cwe will hang our hat on,\u201d and then have a few change-ups or wrinkles. This enables players to play and coaches to coach, with confidence and enthusiasm. The second basic premise is to understand your player's strengths and weaknesses. What are your player\u2019s capa- ble of handling and executing successfully in the time you have available? Some of the greatest ideas in football are doomed to failure simply because of a failure or inabil- ity to devote enough time to their develop- ment. The last thing is the importance of communication. My father spent 30 years as a history professor and quite possibly the most important lesson he taught me was the value and necessity of effective communication. As coaches, we must pre- sent techniques and ideas in a manner in which they can be processed by players. We must listen and be able to answer questions as well as provide feedback on performance in a manner that is easily viewed as acceptable or unacceptable.
Kickoff coverage requires aggressive- ness, discipline and courage. Downing the ball inside the opponent\u2019s 20-yard line cre- ates field position that sometimes takes longer than a quarter to reverse. Big plays in kickoff coverage can distort game strate- gies of the opponent and enhance our opportunity to win. The three key elements of effective kickoff coverage are as follows:
Tough enough to perform, disciplined enough to perform, disciplined enough to perform correctly.
I must communicate these elements before any practice of kickoff coverage takes place. I must constantly reinforce these ideas throughout the season.
We have been a hash kick team for the past three seasons. I believe that we are capa- ble of covering kicks more efficiently when we can reduce the size of the field by one-third. To be a hash-kick team, you must first have the first element of an effective kickoff.
We are a directional-kick team. We will kick the ball between the hash and the numbers to either side and design our cov- erage accordingly. Our kicker must be able to place the ball in the designated area. We ask our kicker to achieve a hang-time of 4.0 seconds or more on each deep kick. This enables our coverage to effectively cover a kick without giving the return team a chance to develop their return. We ask our kicker to place the ball within three yards of the goal line. We want the opponent to return the ball from deep to enhance our chances at making them start inside their own 20-yard line.
Because we challenge the opponent to return most kicks, we must exert great effort in covering the kicks. The eight men we use to cover the kick must work togeth- er as a \u201cnet.\u201d If there is a hole in the \u201cnet\u201d due to lack of effort, we cannot tackle the target in the desired area.
Lane integrity is of the utmost impor- tance. Coverage personnel must maintain this integrity throughout the play. The group works as a unit and must have all members disciplined, yet aggressive, to ensure prop- er coverage.
I have labeled six fundamentals of kick- off coverage and designed drills to rein- force each fundamental.
speed at the exact movement the ball is kicked. Continue full speed down the field. (Diagram 1, Take Off Drill) The coach must line up his kick-off team and stand on the sideline at the 35-yard line. Work the timing of the kickers approach and the coverage personnel, hitting the 35-yard line at full speed at the exact moment the ball is kicked.
and in front of the coverage at all times. Do not allow the ball outside of you, or pass you, at any time during coverage. (Diagram 2, Left hash/left kick) To practice this, cover kicks vs. air. (No blockers, only a return man). Points of emphasis are lane integrity and keeping the ball inside and in front.
teach the defeat of front-line blockers. We use a rip move much as a linebacker would use in chasing a sweep or a tight end would use releasing off the ball. Always cross-face to the side of the kick. If you can beat a block with speed, do so. If a blocker approaches, rip and defeat (without losing speed) to the side of the kick. For example on a left hash, left kick, everyone must cross-face front line block- ers to the left (Diagram 3 and 4 cross-face drill).
returned and our ability to prevent the ball from getting outside of us or getting past us.
the art of timing. We must have our body under control and run through the tackle. We continue to keep the ball inside and in front. We will attack the near number and drive our feet through the tackle. We must maintain leverage on the ball and trust our teammates to do the same.
same level as the returner if the ball is being returned away from our lane. Folding means taking the proper angle when the return shows opposite you. You must redi- rect at an angle that will intersect the ball from where you are. If the ball shows to you, attack it. If the ball shows away, fold. (Diagram 5, cross face and fold)
With these fundamentals in mind, we employ two basic kicks each game and always have a change-up. The two basic kicks we have used are a traditional hash-kick and a kangaroo or pooch kick to the opposite side. The basic funda- mentals of a kangaroo kick are the same as a deep kick. This kick is designed to force a fair-catch on approximately the 25-yard line. The kicker must achieve a hang time of 4.0 seconds or more and place the ball on the 25-yard line at the numbers. This will enable our coverage to be very close to the ball at the time it is being fielded. This kick limits any return and forces someone not used to fielding the ball to field it. It can be used to negate a dangerous return man or when weather conditions are not favor- able for deep kicks.
The element of surprise is very impor- tant to the success of the kick. We have been able to recover seven turnovers on this kick alone, in three years. All the basic coverage principles apply with the excep- tion of the cone. When executing this kick, you have shortened the field and conse- quently, must cone the ball immediately.
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