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Bill Walsh Defensive Backfield Coach Stanford University Palo Alto, Calif.
uch has been said concerning the kicking game. Certainly it has been stressed by the vast majority of the consis tently successful coaches across the nation. Articles are continually appearing in coaching periodicals, and kicking receives much attention at coaching clinics and in books written by established authorities. Kicking is universally acknowledged as of vital importance to winning football. Coaches at all levels of competition will elaborate on its tremendous effect on the game, and will state their belief in spending large allotments of time toward developing all portions of their kicking. Yet, with all of the information available on this phase of the game, the mistakes and inconsistencies of kicking probably decide more football contests than any other single factor. Possibly with the continual justification of a stress on it, kicking has sometimes resulted in over-compilation and considered with too much complexity. Although many times such maneuvers as a fake punt-pass, or run have been effective there are overriding aspects of kicking that bring about success or failure. Because modern football has to a large degree become a game of percentages, the consistency of the punt and its corresponding return far overshadow the many fringe factors. It is not difficult for one to become so concerned with this phase of football that they begin to read into it too many implications and lesser considerations. It is just as faulty to find need for multiple methods of returning a kick-off or punt as it is to install far more pass patterns than necessary. In attempting to utilize a number of returns, for instance, it is possible that none can be executed in practice enough to afford the consistency so vital in securing field position. And, of course, the same can be said of punting where application may be far more important than various innovations that may or may not prove satisfactory under the pressure of a close contest. When examining teams that have displayed a strong continuously effective kicking game, certain factors become self-evident. First, various systems are utilized and it is difficult to prove one superior to another. But, in each case the system employed has been utilized in a basic form for a number of years. The establishing of a “system” appears vital to a sound kicking game. Secondly, standard methods of drilling can be extremely advantageous. Practicing individual skills and drilling units or “teams”
in a prescribed form with a minimum of change from year to year, may bring about the consistency and dependability that is demanded. A third consideration which is quite evident is the discipline that is displayed. From the execution of the long snap to the individual coverage course, effective kicking teams call for specific skills and assignments that must be carried out exactly as taught and drilled. Details that are of practical importance are never overlooked. Everything is designated as specifically as possible in order to build into the system all of the safeguards so necessary for consistency and dependability. It might be said that more games are lost because of breakdowns in kicking than won on spectacular punts or returns. And, in most cases it is a detail that can be traced to the error. It also can be noted that flawless performances are made by the center and punter and that coverage timing is coordinated to the flight of the ball. When returning there is uniform consistent fielding and a disciplined blocking pattern timed with the route of the ball carrier. In this article I will attempt to bring attention to those factors involved in establishing a consistent, dependable punt and punt return game. Our approach at Stanford University is quite possibly patterned after that of known authorities, but since we are all products of our background and experiences it is difficult to relate our particular philosophy to any one individual. In that field position has become one of, if not the most important factor in football, the punt is now more than ever a vital instrument in success or failure. When two evenly matched, well coached teams meet the punting games can be won or lost by only a few decisive yards. And, of course, great importance has resulted in strategic punting since the rule change involved grounding the ball has come in effect. Two criteria are involved in judging a punt game. First, did your teams punt with typical effectiveness when the real pressure was on. And, second, in comparing your punt average minus yards returned, with that of your opponent. The components of the punt might be broken down into three areas: 1. Individual skills. 2. Team coordination 3 . The mechanical and strategic application. We believe that constant attention must be given to individual skills. The approach
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and methods employed in teaching and practicing are very important and sometimes taken for granted. Because it is virtually impossible to work on punting skills during a regular practice session it takes extra effort on the part of assigned coaches to see to it that practicing these skills is carried on exactly as defined and taught. It is important to have a coach assigned this job and that he have definite routines for pre-practice or post-practice work. Standard drills for centering, punting, and fielding can be set up and established. We have a daily schedule for this work, usually meeting on the field 15 minutes before practice. Our drills are as follows: Long Snap Drill: Centers work together, correcting each other. One acts as the punter, the other snaps. It is of vital importance that everything go as prescribed. They align themselves exactly at the 14 yard depth we desire. A target is made by the “punter” and the ball must be “there.” We want the ball right at the belt buckle. Our centers must take this drill seriously. At intervals use other centers as middle guards to pressure the center and test his poise, technique, and blocking ability. Center-Punter Drill: This is set up with the punter receiving the snap and going through his specific steps, punting to another center ten yards upfield. This is primarily designed for center-punting timing, and for the footwork of the punt itself. Concentration is made on a good snap and a flowing movement through the punt. We work heavily on bad snaps, with the center purposely snapping — high, low, right, left, etc. This is of value in that the punter must learn to maintain his rhythm even when forced to reach or jump for the snap. We even test him by dribbling the ball back of snapping it over his head. In each case poise is vital. We have added one or more rushers (other centers) to distract the punter during regular and bad snap work. They are told to time their rush to actual live conditions, but not to interfere with the punt. This is especially important in work with inexperienced punters. Punt Accuracy Drill: In that we feel it is vital to place our punt as close to mid-field as possible, we expect accuracy from our punter. This drill is set up to work on a consistent punt both in depth and width. We always use a center for punting in that timing and rhythm might be the most important single factor to the kicker. We place a man down field between the hash marks. Our
punter works to get the ball as closely as possible to him. We would like the distance among all our punters to be as uniform as possible. The more powerful kickers’ advantage should be in the height of their punts with a restriction on distance regulated by our ability to safely cover. The second phase of this drill is just as important in that a controlled punt is vital whenever the goal line is inside our punt range. We must give this situation considerable practice. We set up facing a goal line and change the distance from the 40 yard line in as far as the 30 yard line, feeling that any farther out we couldn’t reach the goal line (our punter 14 yards deep) and any closer we would probably be kicking a field goal or going for the first down. We refer to this type of punt as a “punch.” We would like it to land on the 15 yard line and roll in. In this way it is impossible to make a fair catch and extremely dangerous to pick it up. In that the ball is rolling we are given more time to touch it dead down close. It takes a lot of practice to “punch it in,” but it is something punters will spend time with if they appreciate its value. We believe it takes constant attention on the part of the coach. We will add the center and/or ends to this “Punch drill” and work on the timing in touching the ball dead. This is a great skill that must be mastered, and we get work on this all spring, summer, and fall. Fielding Work: In conjunction with these punting drills we work down-field with our return men. In that we must field every punt on the fly, this area of the kicking game receives our continual attention. We are convinced that we can improve both the fielding range and catching ability of return men through practice. We prepare these men by stressing different practical situations; and develop the coordination between our three deep through continual repetition. We operate with two deep safeties who field all normal punts; we have a middle man at a closer position to field shorter punts and to act as a blocker. This set up assures us of getting to the ball before it hits the ground. Coordination is vital, consequently we stress reaction from the split second the ball is punted until it is safely caught. Our left safety calls the receiver. A problem can develop if each deep man is hesitant to get under the ball because he thinks someone else may have it. This can occur even when a call is given if all three
do not attempt to get a “jump on the ball.” We do everything possible to overcome this by stressing as early a call as possible by our left safety and by having all three move to receive the punt until one is given the “call.” Our safety will call either “I’ve got, you take, or short.” The “you take” directs the other safety and the “short” directs the front man. The left safety will field any ball that does not distinctly fall to one of the other two. It takes continual practice to develop this coordination until it becomes totally dependable. We set up situations that force different calls to be made by throwing the ball downfield to specific areas. We make certain that the ball drops between them to force decisions. This skill is quite similar to that of an outfielder, the flight of the ball has to be determined immediately. Recognition such as this takes continual repetition. We position our center and punter in different lateral field positions and direct the punter to angle the ball into different areas. We believe that, if possible, a position should be gained directly under the ball and that it should be caught in the hands and absorbed into the chest. Of course, we must work continually on catching the ball on the run. We test our men by passing the ball high and very short, forcing them to sprint at top speed and catch it. The common error in this skill is not reaching far enough, consequently losing it off the finger tips. We also work over the shoulder for punts that get beyond us. We prefer to be facing the punter when catching a punt, but in some cases cannot get enough depth to do this. Again, it is vital to over-reach for the ball to get enough catching surface under it. Our progression on this work is to: Individual Skill: Two return men facing each other throwing high passes that test the other’s ability to field the ball. We position them twenty to thirty yards apart and stress the extra short or extra long ball. This is done as the men arrive at the practice field. We work to convince our return men of the value in this practice and of the importance in concentration of correct receiving fundamentals. Naturally, attention to this practice by a coach can do a lot to add to its value. We demand that whenever receiving a punt, our return men run 5 full yards up-field. We work on the fair catch by yelling “fair” to our return men as they are positioning themselves under the ball. This gives practice in making late deci-
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sions. To condition the return men to downfield pressure, we work individually with one man pressuring the receiver as the other prepares to catch the ball. He will either drive to within three yards of the receiver, forcing a fair catch, or pull up at 8 to 10 yards allowing a live reception with the receiver running up-field through him. Unit work vs. thrown ball. To teach the call coordination we set up our three deep group in their proper relationship but only ten yards apart. We then pass into them from twenty yards; this gives specific practice in calls. We throw high passes that drop much as a punt does. This does away with waiting for an accurate punt in order to get different calls and, of course, we can get in many more repetitions. We work into normal field alignment with passes thrown the distance of a normal punt. Unit work vs. Punt set up. As earlier stated, we work our return men in conjunction with punt practice. We stress practical situations for both the punter and receivers. We emphasize lateral and vertical field position. Of course, the value of these drills is heavily affected if a coach is not directing them. Football players tend to take lightly details involving the kicking game. Organizing Pre-Practice Punting Work Much can be accomplished through the organization of a daily pre-practice punting schedule. We ask our centers, punters, and return men to report between 15 and 20 minutes early, usually four practices a week. In that Monday and Friday are days that lend themselves to this type of work, we are able to utilize 20 full minutes. On Tuesdays and Thursdays we have 15 minutes. With a daily routine, our specialists get work in all of the aforementioned drills. We begin each pre-practice session with our centers working on individual skills. After five minutes of this, our punters have begun to work with the centers and kick to a downfield target. At the same time, our full return unit works together against a passer. After five minutes of this we get the entire group together and punt to our return unit. On Monday, we practice the regular punt, making sure that we move the ball across the field laterally as we work. We set aside part of the Tuesday pre-practice session for bad snap drills, and in testing our return men on extremely short or long punts versus a passer. On Thursday and Friday, we get a session in punting and receiving from the 40 yard line in.
Bill Walsh at a Glance
Experience: Assistant Coach, Stanford University, 1963-65; Offensive Backs Coach, Oakland Raiders, 1966; Offensive Coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals, 1968-1975; Offensive Coordinator, San Diego Chargers, 1976; Head Coach, Stanford University, 1977-78 (17-7); Head Coach San Francisco 49ers, 1979-88 (102-63-1); Head Coach, Stanford University, 1992-94 (17-17-1) Career Head Coaching Record: 34-34-1 in college; 102-63-1 in the NFL Super Bowl Titles: 1981, 1984, 1988 NFC Championships: 1981, 1984, 1988 NFC West Championships: 1981, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988 Notes: Won three Super Bowls with the 49ers and was voted the NFL Coach of the Decade for the 1980s ... Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. It is extremely important that all phases of the game are covered each week. By setting up a regular routine, these specialists move through it without specific direction. Vital Aspects of an Effective Punting Game The long snap by the center must be accurate and get to the punter as quickly as possible. It is vital that each center place the ball to the same spot with one hundred percent consistency. A good snap will take 7/10th of a second to reach the punter. There is no doubt that once a center has mastered the proper technique, he should practice continually to develop the dependability so vital in success. The Punt: It has been acknowledged that the most vital aspect of actually punting the ball is consistency and dependability, in distance, direction, and height. It is important to develop a rhythm from which the ball is punted without delay or breakdown in timing. Again continual repetition with a specific goal in mind is very important. It is difficult to completely adjust a coverage pattern once the ball has been punted; accuracy must be achieved. Punt Protection: The punter must be free to move through his kicking rhythm without pressure or distraction from rushing linemen. The protection itself is simply a means to an end as down-field coverage must play a major part in a lineman’s responsibilities. All that is necessary is a delay at the line of scrimmage that eliminates pressure on the punter. Coverage: We must cover the field in width and depth and arrive with first wave as the ball reaches the ground. It is extremely important that each covering man have a relationship on the ball and move through it in his approach. Pursuit Angle On Punt Return: Sometimes overlooked is the fact that if the ball does break up-field a proper pursuit angle can corral and restrict the ball carrier’s ability to break the coverage. Although the break-down in specific time allowance when punting is of common knowledge, it is important to continually remind ourselves of the specific discipline so necessary. We feel that 7/10 of a second can be allowed for the center snap, the ball must be punted within 1 and 3/10 of a second and should be in the air 4 seconds. This gives a total of 6 seconds from the time the ball is centered until it is in the hands of a return man. A lineman can cover the 42-45 yards necessary in 5.5 seconds, this gives an allowance of 5/10 of a second at the line of scrimmage in protecting the punter. If all of this can be achieved the punt game can take care of itself provided of course the ball is placed accurately on the field. Spread Punt Protection and Spacing We operate from a basic spread punt formation and utilize the accepted protection system. In that we cannot consider just blocking for the punter because of the importance of down-field coverage, we take a very aggressive approach to the pro-
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tection itself. We operate under the theory of releasing through our assigned rusher; actually combing blocking and getting started in down-field coverage. We believe it is important to eliminate possible pressure by releasing through the rusher and getting hips squared to him as contact is made. We do not set up and wait unless we get a stacked or overloaded set that forces us to pick up men as they enter our blocking area. We do not attempt to sustain contact with our opponent, but stress good balance and hit position as contact is made and then an immediate recovery into our release and coverage. Aside from the overall hustle factor, we believe that the difference between good coverage and inadequate coverage is the amount of time taken at the line of scrimmage in protecting and releasing. In analyzing film, it is not difficult to note when coverage is lost while a man is waiting for a rusher, spending too much time with him or hesitating too long before moving down-field. If we can count on an adequate center and good timing from our punter an instant of solid contact should be enough to give full protection. Versus an overload or a stack, we will hesitate as rushers declare, as this occurs we run through the rusher as he reaches the line of scrimmage. Our alignment calls for our halfbacks to line up on either side of the center, one yard deep. Our tackles are switched with our guards because of down-field coverage responsibilities and take a split from three to four feet from the center. Our guards will line up with a four to six foot split from the tackles, our ends will take a four to eight foot split from the guard. These splits will vary according to the defensive alignment, but we believe that we must be capable of taking care of normal rush situations from a spread set, if we are to get satisfactory down-field coverage. Our basic assignments are quite simple with our halfbacks protecting the gap between the center’s outside foot and the tackle’s inside foot. They must be in a good hit position as the ball is centered and ready to pick up alignment that will get a good start before contact is made. A picture block is not necessary. All they must do is get their body between the rusher and the punter, if two men are attempting to take the gap, that may call for the halfback to throw himself across both of them so that neither of them will have a clean shot at the ball. Our tackles keep their inside foot
planted so that the gap to the inside will not become too big for the halfback to handle. The tackles will block the man opposite or the first to the outside. Our guards and ends have a corresponding assignment, but both will block to the inside if there are two men between themselves and the adjacent inside offensive lineman. When the defense utilizes a standard set and does not make any changes in it before the ball is centered our assignments can be easily interpreted. When the opponents begin to move and stack just before the ball is snapped, we must be alert for changes. If there is doubt we give the first priority to our inside. We expect our linemen to talk to each other; when we get an overload in a gap the inside lineman will yell “help” to bring attention to the change in assignment. We place our fullbacks seven yards deep, directly behind the right halfback. It is his job to pick up the first dangerous rusher that breaks through the initial wall. He must do this aggressively and be decisive. He too works to get his hips squared to the opponent and must not be willing to lose ground after absorbing the initial shock of the rusher. (Diagram 1: Illustrates our combination zone man blocking principles. Diagram 2: Illustrates a typical blocking assignment and release situation.)
Downfield Coverage We release our ends through their protection assignment, directly down-field at the ball. They act as sprinters and work at top speed to obtain a position one yard outside and one yard in front of the ball. Through this position they attack the ball carrier coming under control just before
contact is made. It is their responsibility to be the first men at the ball, arriving before, or as it arrives. In releasing them we believe that we can get immediate pressure on the return man and force a fair catch if our punter has gotten off the punt that we depend upon. Our guards upon moving through their protection assignment release outside and work for an outside position acting as our contain men. They strive for a point five yards outside of the ball and two yards in front of it, through this point they attack the ball carrier making sure that their head is always outside of him when contact is made. It is vitally important that these men release and get upfield quickly, and that they obtain this position before the ball can begin moving laterally across the field. Their width will tighten or widen accordingly if the ball drops outside either hash mark. It is important that they are able to come under control and work outside in. If they do not gain width immediately as they release they can be cut off or be forced into a disadvantageous pursuit angle. Our tackles release through their protection assignment and work for a position 2 yards outside and one yard in front of the ball, we expect them to arrive slightly behind our sprinting ends working outside in. Their width on the ball will vary if it drops outside either hash mark. It is important that they cut-off the return man’s ability to get inside our tackle’s contained position. They must release without varying their down field course in order to get up field as quickly as possible. Although there is some disadvantage in giving specific approach angles because of the possibility of the ball dropping along either side line, we believe that we can compensate for this by developing a thorough understanding of cover responsibilities. In this way we are sure that if we get the accurate punt, we will have a good relationship on the ball. We continually stress never following someone else’s footsteps in covering and in never crossing the ball in anticipation of the ball carrier’s path. Of vital importance is never relaxing and feeling that teammates have everything under control. The proper pursuit angle is extremely important, once the return gets under way, this involves, more than anything else, a change of direction with maximum efficiency and an intelligent course to the ball. We also must stress not over running if a break is made down-field, allowing the ball carrier to cut-back through pursuit.
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(Diagram 3: Relates our approach positions on the ball. Diagram 4: Illustrates our approach positions on a ball that drops on either hash mark.)
punter have a good relationship to each other and take a solid line of pursuit to the ball, if it does break up the field. (Diagram 5: Indicates our vertical position as the ball is received, indicating three different waves of coverage.)
We work the same pattern with situations in which we are attempting to ground the ball. We expect that our ends and possibly the center can get to the ball before it crosses the goal line. We practice converging on the ball in the same manner as we would a punt return man. We are continually reminding our men that it can take a crazy bounce and that they must not pull up expecting the man closest to the ball to ground it. We attempt to work across the path of the ball between it and the goal line, so that they can get across it before it bounds into the end zone area. We make sure that our men understand that a fair catch signal by a return man in this area is of no importance unless he moves directly under the ball. We must continue to work for an angle on the ball rather than pull up as the return man makes his fair catch signal. Team Punt Drills It is in this area that we demand a discipline so necessary in obtaining consistency and dependability. We are as exacting as possible and demand that our linemen give us 100% effort and complete their assignments as they are fundamentally taught. Our coaches are assigned to individual positions and all of us are continually striving to maintain the understanding, determination and enthusiasm that are so vital. We utilize three forms of team punting work: We believe the coverage pattern is of vital importance, consequently we will take a single team at a time, punting the ball and covering. A single return man will be down field and we strive to attain the proper relationship to the ball. In this drill we concentrate on down field movement, looking for the ball at 15 yards then striving to get into the proper position. As the ball is caught
All of our down-field people will steal a look at the ball between 10 and 15 yards depth. It is our feeling that they must know in which direction the ball is traveling and whether or not it is a typical high punt or possibly one that has gotten off the punter’s foot badly. We feel that in this zone there is little down-field blocking. Our center, if covered will protect and move straight to the ball. If uncovered he will act as a third sprinter and get to the ball as quickly as possible, otherwise he comes under control and will move laterally with the ball working inside out. Our halfbacks upon securing their area sprint laterally to the sidelines and then work up-field acting as outside contain men. It is their job to meet any return man that has gotten outside our tackles. We tell our halfbacks to get their width quickly and begin working up field at the hash marks. They then split the sideline and hash mark taking a path directly upfield, working outside in to the ball. It is extremely important that these men get under way as soon as possible and that they do not relax their attention on the ball and begin to feel safe because it is moving in the opposite direction. Our punter and fullback act as safeties, the fullback working to his right and the punter to his left, they maintain a cushion on the ball and are ready at all times to back up our immediate coverage men and to get to the ball carrier if he does break between people. It is important that our halfbacks, fullbacks and
the runner moves up field and we take a pursuit angle to it until the whistle blows. If coaches do not concentrate their efforts in this drill, the players naturally will begin to cut corners. We set up a defensive rush group that will either pressure the punter or hold up our down field coverage. We will set up an 8 man front in every possible alignment and let them go to the ball. This tests our protection system and the fundamental of blocking and gaining immediate release. We will begin with a basic defensive set, then as we master our assignments and responsibilities move into the more complex stacks and overloads. It is important to stress continual movement and effort to get up field as quickly as possible. In this situation we are able to emphasize the amount of time spent at the line of scrimmage before getting into the coverage pattern itself. We will set up an entire defensive team against a punting team and have each work on their particular phase of the game. We move through passively and then get to some live work. We spend time on lateral and vertical field positions and kicking into our opponent’s goal line. It is very important to offer all the practical situations that can occur, rather than setting up the drill in the middle of the field and spending the entire time period at that spot. Receiving the Punt The most vital factor in regard to returning or blocking a punt is getting as much yardage back from the opponent as possible with maximum consistency and dependability. As much can be lost as gained when comparing a long return against a ball that gets by the return unit; or through a blocked punt compared with a fumbled reception. Again it is extremely important to attain an errorless, fundamentally sound and functional return-game. Constant attention to detail and a complete system are vital. By employing a standard return game and utilizing it year after year the discipline so necessary can be achieved. We believe that three devices must be available: The Block, The Holdup, The Team Return. Each has a definite value. The Block Naturally, we will attempt to block a punt if we find a specific reason for doing so. Occasionally it is necessary to make a
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block attempt in order to delay an opponent’s down field coverage. An inconsistent center, an unsound punting rhythm or an inconsistent punter can be strong reason for the rush. Many times the actual blocking of the punt may not come about, but the coordination between the punter and the coverage can be disrupted. Consistency in distance and direction of the punt, if effected, can get our return men free with the ball or can actually shorten the distance the ball travels. Generally, if there aren’t specific circumstances, attempted blocking is called for in extreme situations. If we have our opponent cornered and a block would be decisive or a poor punt could get us the ball down deep a rush may be called for, although many times opponents must concentrate on protection in these areas and a return can be set up. If our opponent is punting inside our forty and rolling the ball dead, he probably would be unable to set up a return and be forced to fair catch. With this in mind a rush can force an early kick, restrict the coverage and possibly destroy the punter’s accuracy. The Hold Up This can be extremely valuable as a method of assuring the ball carrier an opportunity to make a live reception and possibly in getting consistent, but short returns. If a team is getting to return men before the ball gets there either a fair catch must be satisfactory or a hold up at the line must slow up the coverage. We believe this may be the best method of playing an opponent with an exceptional punting game. In that every yard is vital in a situation such as this, short but consistent returns can make the difference. If sprinters are grounding the ball inside our 10 yard line the holdup technique can at least force a change in coverage responsibilities, and possibly destroy their ability to get to it. The Team Return Advantage can best be taken of an opponent with a poor kicking game through the use of a complete team return that utilizes a blocking pattern down field. With the stress that is universally made on down field coverage, it is important to be aware of the fact that a delayed down-field blocking pattern may result only in a “fair catch.” On the other hand, if a team is able to set up the return before the coverage arrives and has outstanding return men, it can become the biggest factor of the game. It is our feel-
ing that by intelligently combining a deep down field pattern in conjunction with a hold up and occasional rush, the opponent will be unable to emphasize his coverage pattern through the immediate down-field release of linemen. If the opponent is competent it is difficult to visualize a return that sets up perfectly according to its basic pattern. Often a punt return that results in a long touchdown run is the fault of an inaccurate or low deep punt, consequently it is extremely important to analyze the opponent’s consistency and overall coverage ability when deciding upon the use of a deep punt return. If, however, a team can be successful with this type of return, the opponent’s entire punt game is broken down and he is either forced to punt very high and short, or out of bounds. In either case a tremendous advantage has been developed for the return team and they become masters of field position. A deep return can be extremely effective if the opponent is highly concerned with a block attempt or finds itself deep at the line to fully protect the punter. Return Alignment We believe it is important to set up a defensive alignment that gives us the flexibility to execute any of our return maneuvers. Minor changes are necessary in each case but our intentions can be hidden at least until the last possible moment. Each of our front 8 is given an opportunity to slightly change his lineup position within certain confines. This gives us freedom to work on the opponent’s protection assignments and to attack different men in our hold up return. Tackles: Position themselves from the head of the halfback to the outside foot of the guard position. Ends: Must take position with head outside of the offensive end, unless he takes a maximum split, can set up from the head of the end to a point one yard to his outside. Linebackers: Line up on some part of the offensive guard position from 2 to 6 yards deep. The Three Deep: Our front man should be extremely poised in that he will do most of the fair catching, in many situations, being completely surrounded by covering linemen. He should also be a substantial blocker in picking up down-field sprinters as the ball moves over his head. All three should be able to diagnose the situation as it arises. If a live reception is going to be
made the front man will pick up any first down-field cover, and the other safety man will attempt to get across the receiver and block the first man that arrives. If a “fair catch” is going to be made, both remaining men should move toward the return man and watch the ball be caught. They should be extremely alert for any fumble and be able to get it before covering linemen. We put most of the responsibility in fielding a ball to our safety men with the front man “fair catching” anything that lands in front or to either side of him. We do not allow him to retreat to field the football. We station our front man between 25-30 yards deep directly opposite the ball, favoring the middle of the field if the ball is located on either has mark. Our safety men are located 40 to 45 yards deep, normally a step inside the hash marks. We do not field a ball inside our ten yard line, unless a “fair catch” is mandatory because the opponent has gotten down-field before the ball arrives. We never attempt to field a ball inside our five yard line but make sure that we stand our ground and signal for a catch in hopes that the covering linemen will pull up or at least go around us in attempting to ground the ball. (Diagram 6: Illustrates our receiving responsibilities with the sectioned-in areas being zones in which we can have problems unless a call is made and all three return men are moving toward the ball as it leaves the punter’s foot.)
Punt-Block: We will either completely overload one area or another, in attempting to break down individual positions or set up specific charges in an attempt to break down blocking assignments. We work on an inside rush, feeling that we can get to the ball more quickly and force the punter to take an irregular step if he bobbles the ball or the snap is poor. Diagrams 7 and 8 are two examples of our punt-rush. Diagram 7 is set up to break down blocking assignments and to mislead the opponents into thinking they can make an immediate release. Diagram 8 is simply an overload attempt to break through weaker personnel.
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to the ball as quickly as possible, working inside the contain man and up field. We will block the off side contain man with our far linebacker and rush both our end and tackle on the offside to force the punter to get rid of the ball quickly. It is important that our ball gets width before it begins to move up field and that we have the proper relationship as the return sets up.
Diagram 11 Diagram 8
Holdup Return: We must give first priority to the opponent’s down field sprinters and last priority to men assigned as lateral safety or contain men. This way we are able to take care of all 8 front men, and in many cases have one or more men rush the punter to make sure that he gets the ball off quickly.
(Diagram 11: Is our side line return, the on side backer and safety kick out the con tain men with the halfback that is not receiving the ball picking up the center.) Drilling: Punt Block or Return It is extremely difficult to drill blocking a punt. If we believe this is necessary, we will set it up against a live punting team, usually our scout or service group, then work live toward getting to the punter. We give thorough instruction in blocking a punt and continually remind our men that they must, if they are going to get a piece of the ball block it. We also continually remind them of the point from which the punt can be blocked, they must work for a spot two yards in front of the punter. We believe it is important in designing a punt block that we do not engulf the punter with people that quite easily can get into each other’s way and ruin our chances of actually blocking it. Consequently, our progress in drilling a punt block is to examine it carefully on the blackboard. Discuss it individually with men involved and then practice it live. We believe it is extremely important to continually drill our hold-up method of returning a punt. We use a cross body block at the line of scrimmage and continually strive not to indicate our intentions before the ball is centered. We work individually on this cross body technique. We put our head inside and throw our hips across the man as he breaks to outfield. This can be attempted too early, giving the covering linemen a chance to get over or around the cross body, or too late in which the hold up man does not get extended before the lineman begins down field. Although it is difficult to get individual skill work in this area accomplished during a reg-
Diagram 9 is an illustration of this. In this situation the opponent’s halfbacks are their lateral safety men. Diagram 10 is an illustration of a hold up with the opponent’s contain men being their ends and the halfbacks their sprinters.
Sideline Return: We utilize a side line return set up inside the opponent’s contain man. Our onside linebacker and middle safety will block the contain man out. The wall will set up inside of him and the halfback will get
ular practice session, we do attempt to allow for it in early fall work and stress it in prepractice work whenever we believe it is necessary. Again we work this drill more with complete teams and stress staying with our man as long as possible. In the case of both the block and the hold up return, we have a secondary blocking pattern that we develop downfield anticipating our return man getting through the initial coverage and breaking to the side line so that we can give assistance. We practice our deep return pattern in a skeleton situation in which we work against an offensive alignment without down field coverage. We practice this to develop the exact pattern that we desire and spend considerable time on detail in the timing of setting up the wall and in committing ourselves to down field blocks. Our basic drill is to place a blocking dummy on a hash mark and have our return wall move around it and up field. We stress that they move directly to the side line around the dummy, then straight up field following our lead man. He is striving to reach a point 5 yards outside the ball. The rest of the men in our wall maintain a position 5 yards behind each other in a straight line and as the lead man initiates his block they turn inside and pick up men approaching the wall. If no one approaches, they turn and move down field with the ball carrier as he passes them. With this in mind we drill setting up the wall and moving inside as the ball carrier passes, then up field with him. Along with continual skeleton practice we will work against an opponent that is covering at top speed, but not tackling. We will do this to pick up blocking assignments and learn to make decisions as our blocks should be committed. Though it is difficult to continually practice a punt return all out with live blocking, we do allow for this especially in pre-season practice. The most vital aspect of the coordinated down field return is timing. It must develop as the ball carrier makes a live reception and moves to the blocking pattern. We believe that the lead man setting up the pattern must be extremely disciplined and take a course that will get him to the ball allowing the ball carrier to get outside the blocking wall. We believe it is important to spend time on practical situations in blocking or returning a punt. This is especially true when considering the punt that the opponent will be attempting to ground. In most cases, we will utilize a hold up return and spend a lot of time with our deep three fair catching and handling the ball down close.
• AFCA Summer Manual — 2001 •
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