Desert Storm -- Raiders Punt Return and Miscellaneous Special Team Thoughts

Bob Wagner Special Team’s Coordinator University of Arizona Tuscon, Ariz.

welcome the opportunity to visit with you 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 commitment 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’s 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 special 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 frequently 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


them, because they understand their importance. 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 percent of their roster or scholarships to specialists? 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 placekicker 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 minimum 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 importance of specialists. I feel the three most important elements of outstanding kickoff coverage are; 1.) the kicker 2.) the kicker and 3.) the kicker. In punt coverage, I feel the three most important elements are; 1.) the punter 2.) the punter and 3.) the punter. While certainly schemes and individual techniques are important to your coverage teams, outstanding kicking makes everything much more effective. Let's now visit about our punt return game. Our punt return team is known as the “raiders” 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

• AFCA Summer Manual — 2000 •

and punt returns. In my first year, we did exactly that. We blocked six punts, partially blocked another and lead our league in punt return average. This past year, we did not block a punt and faced a lot more total zone protection, but we had the nation's leading punt returner. Dennis Northcutt average 19 yards per return. As a team, we averaged 17.6 yards on 29 returns. I had coordinated special teams for Coach Tomey over 20 years ago and we have always been very aggressive with our “raiders” team. By pressuring the punter, if we do not block the punt, we want the ball gone as soon as possible. This gives their coverage team less time to cover. Also, we will get some shanks (which aren't returnable), but we will also get more line drive punts (less hang time), which are very returnable! For over 20 years, we have used three basic returns. They are block right/return left, block left/return right and middle return. We have experimented with a concept that Virginia Tech has used, that is setting the return to the same side as the block. For example, block right/return right, but it has not been successful. We are going to have 10 men on the line of scrimmage (unless in a safe punt situation), because we want the punter to know we are coming. Diagrams 1 and 2 show our basic returns. Flip Diagram 1 and you will have

Diagram 1: Block Right/Return Left

Diagram 2: Middle Return

our block left/return right. Some of our coaching points are as follows: 1. If the punt team uses gunners, it is critical for the corners to block or shield (get in the way) of the gunners to get the returner started. 2. We work on getting off quick and want both sides to come off hard to make the punt team think both sides are rushing. 3. On the block side, we will go hard to the block point (if the offense gets a good piece of the blocker, he should only think getting to the wall). If the punt is not

blocked, go hard and take the wall past the ball (the returner). 4. On the return side after the initial get off (two steps for the threes an fours and three steps for the twos), grab the blocker in front of you and try to turn his shoulders away from the line of scrimmage. Once you feel your losing him, run down the field with him and block or shield him away from the return, outside in on right and left returns and inside-out on middle return. 5. The fives will rush hard through the gaps. If not blocked, go to the block point and block the punt. Whichever five is blocked by the center goes on and is responsible for the punter. The other five, if he can not block the punt, is responsible for the fullback on the return. 6. We want our returner to run the return called if possible, if he can't get to his help, we would like to try to get a first down. 7. On middle return only, the fives actually attempt to rush the punter. 8. At least half of the time, our fours align in the guard-tackle gaps, we move our people around quite a bit. It is important that, just like on offense and defense, time is spent on the individual techniques for each position before the whole return is put together. Again it has been an honor to represent the University of Arizona in the AFCA Summer Manual.

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• AFCA Summer Manual — 2000 •

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