Kickoff Coverages the Penn State Way
n behalf of Joe Paterno and Pennsylvania State University coaching staff and players, it is truly an honor and privilege to have this opportunity to contribute to the AFCA Summer Manual. Penn State’s approach to winning is we believe there are three departments of play: offense, defense and kicking. It is our feeling that we must win the kicking game. Players and coaches must believe and give attention to the kicking game because it is one third of the football game. More big breaks occur in the kicking game than anywhere else. Breaks occur where a team or player is not prepared for a situation. Kicking situations should be practiced over and over so that we make these breaks ourselves. It is our belief that most close games are won by the team with the best kicking game. We will win two more games a year if we have a good kicking game. Special Team Philosophy Great teams don’t merely have adequate special teams. They have special teams that can break games open, score touchdowns, force turnovers, give their offense and defense good field position as often as possible. We want to be attack-oriented. We want to be very competitive. We want to break it down into little battles that are fought on every play. We want them fighting until the whistle blows. Once you get those little battles going on, it becomes very intimidating for the other team. Elements of a Successful Kicking Game Elimination of Mistakes: Concentrate on assignments. Learn vital rules to take full advantage of them. Be aware of the situation. Be aware of what your opponent is trying to accomplish. Intensity: Refer to every little detail in the kicking game. Must be all out Pride-HustleDesire. Fundamentals: Precise skills are involved. Punters, snappers, holders, placekickers, must work many extra hours at their skills. They must concentrate. Distances at which holders and kickers must locate themselves, timing and getting kicks away must be worked on tirelessly. The above needs precise and constant attention. Personnel Selection The success of any special team unit is the selection of the players. We believe that we must play our best players to be successful. When we say the best players,
we truly mean players who are first team defense and offense. We want our best 11 on the field at all times. We want a special team player who is pure and can play with reckless abandon and not feel restrained by technical sophistication. Of all the ingredients that are considered in the selection of special teams personnel, the most important ingredients a player must possess are personal character, unselfishness, team oriented, courageous and an enthusiastic winner. These things will make our special teams successful. Our kickoff coverage team consist of linebackers and defensive backs that are good open-field tacklers and that have outstanding speed. Kickoff Coverage and General Information The kickoff team can set the tone for an entire game or half by making a great play or an exceptional big hit. Remember, the kicker must be a big part of setting the tone, being precise and consistent in hangtime and location of the kick. The only statistic that has real significance in kickoff coverage is the yard line. Our goal on the kickoff team is not to allow a return past the 20-yard line. Each member of the kickoff team plays a major role in keeping the yard lines as low as possible. We can have great kickoff coverage only by having: • High, deep kicks. • Proper (directional) kick placement with appropriate distance. • Aggressive, fast reckless coverage personnel. • Proper lane distribution. • Proper positioning of safeties and contain men at all times. • Speed, speed, speed and more speed • Great second effort. • Toughness and hitting. Our major points of emphasis in developing our teams: • Kick placement (location). • Get off. • Speed. • Adjustments to the ball. • Beat blocks. • Close and tackle. Mechanics Stance • All turn and face the kicker with your hands on your knees bent and able to see the kicker and the ball.
Larry Johnson Defensive Line and Special Teams Coach Pennsylvania State University State College, Pa.
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Start • The referee will signal the ball ready for play. • The kicker will check both sides to see that we are ready. • He will lower his hand to signal the coverage team members the start of his approach. From this point on, everyone must time their approach so that we are at full stride at the time of the kick (one step behind the kicker running full speed). • It is imperative that no one is ever offside. One and eight are responsible for reminding everyone once we line up to be on side. • Wait until the kicker starts. See him -as the kicker starts his cross-over step, roll into your speed. Do not take a false step. Your approach is the same as the kicker. Time it up. As he hits the ball, you must be at full speed with your eyes up. • The whole unit should hit the line together like a “steel rod” driven through the unit.
Diagram 1: Base Alignment
We always align the ball two and a half to three yards off the left hash. We do this for two reasons: 1. we want to limit the field space and 2. we want to limit the number of returns a team can run against us and in most cases, we see the same return each week. You should never let your alignment interfere with the kicker’s ability to approach or see the ball. We ask our kicker to directional kick aiming for the bottom of the numbers at the five yard line. Coaching Point: When we directional kick from the hash, number three and four must be aware of this alignment and everyone else for timing. From our
base alignment, we will make individual adjustments all designed to time up kick one yard behind kicker as he kicks the ball, running almost full speed. Once you learn your proper alignment, study the place-kicker’s step and approach. Align the same place every time. T h e key to our success is great timing and speed. Huddle A. We will always first, huddle on the sideline with the coach. Players will be checked and reminders given. B. On the field huddle: This will take place on the 25 yard line. C. The kicker will give the call and say ready, call, clap and everyone will sprint to their spot for that call. D. We have 25 seconds to kick the ball off. Alignment and Assignment Base 1: Five yards from sideline. Straight down, maintain outside leverage, do not let them kick you out. 2: Five yards from sideline. Straight down, find the ball, do not let them split you. 9: Five yards from outside of hash, Straight down, find the ball. Make the ball carrier commit in one direction. 3: On the hash. Straight down the hash, you own it, then get to the ball. 4: Four yards inside the hash. Straight down, proceed to the ball , wedge breaker. 5: Four yards apart, straight down, proceed to the ball, wedge breaker. 6: On the hash, straight down the hash, you own it, then get to the ball. 7: Three yards outside of the hash. Straight down, find the ball. 10: Three yards apart, straight down the field, find the ball. Make the ball carrier commit in one direction. Rover. 8: Three yards from the sideline, full sprint 20 yards, fold behind 6, 7, no further than hash unless ball is committed away from you (maintain leverage). Kicker: Kick the ball to the left boundary. Become the safety on the left, hash,
keep leverage on the ball. There are three zones that you must be concerned about. Speed and Read Zone: Sprint down the field while reading your return key to see which return the opponent is using, as well as the direction of the return. Avoid Zone: Avoid all blocks to the tail of the opponent, then get back into your lane except for contain persons; never avoid blocks to the inside. Contact Zone: Attack and play through all blocks and defeat blocks; cannot get caught on a side of a blocker in the contact zone. We want to see every player of the opponents knocked down on the kickoff. Hit the Line like a Steel Rod Now let’s be more specific and divide the actual coverage down into the physical components of kickoff coverage. Kickoff coverage has four distinct phases. Each has a skill that we try to develop and improve through drills and work in fundamental techniques. These skills are: Get Off: This must be timed with the approach of the kicker. It includes stance, alignment, proper vision of the ball and immediate acceleration to maximum speed. A. Stance and Alignment: We have already described this. We must have proper spacing and see the kicker. Utilize a twopoint stance with the weight up on balls of the feet. As the kicker passes, begin your takeoff. Remember we want full speed on the take off. B. Proper Vision: Never lose sight of the kicker. Poor vision and timing will result in an offside penalty. Let the kicker pass before we take off. C. Acceleration: This is as the coverage men cross the 35 yard line. Accelerate to maximum speed. Keep your eyes down field. A maximum burst will allow us to cover the next 45 yards in the shortest time. Sprint and Ball Adjustment: This is the important skill of running down field and making a decision on when to adjust the course of the run. This decision should be based on the following factors, game plan and individual techniques will dictate priority. A. Flight of the Ball: It is important that we look early above our head to see (or feel) the ball. B. Location and Direction of Return Men: Find the return specialists. As they proceed to where the ball is caught
Diagram 2: Kickoff Coverage Huddle
Diagram 3: Zone Chart
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(Left/middle/right), they will tell us where the ball is located. C. Set up Back Blocks: This will give a strong indication as to the type of return developing. D. Front Line Blocks Set-Up: The direction indicated by the first wave (line) of blocks. At times, this can be inaccurate, due to a misleading path or technique of the blocker. Study them on tape. Know the opponent. Note: Proper adjustment will take us to the correct side of the field in which to stop a return. As we adjust, it is critical that we begin to manipulate the block in front of us. Keep our eyes on a swivel so we can react to all circumstances. Beat The Blocker: As the cover team closes the distance as fast as they can between themselves and the first wave of blocks or first blockers (or a blocker approaches him), they must begin to “manipulate” them. Manipulate the blocker by swerving or weaving using head fakes in the run, cause the blocker to stop his feet, adjust his course, crossover or create an imbalance in his base as he attempts to block the cover persons. On the approach, using these techniques, slightly widen the base. This will allow us to go to either side of him. Contact is necessary. A. Run past Him: Avoid, get him off balance by waving, swerving, head fakes, etc. Begin these seven to eight yards from the blocker. If he appears off balance, run right past him without any moves. B. Employ a Shoulder Dip: Avoid contact if possible. Freeze him with a weave and utilize an arm to the side of the blocker. Try to go around to the side of the kick. Dip and rip as you accelerate by him. If he makes contact, keep the feet moving. Do not try to shoulder rip if he has latched on. C. Hand Shiver: If a blocker makes contact, attack him and get the hands on the inside of his hands in the number area. Then grab and shrug him aside. Use an “arm over” or “rip by,” drive him back in to the return and react to the ball. Come to Balance and play off him. He will be off balance when he attacked. D. Shoulder Drive: This technique is used against the wedge or double team. Drive your shoulder through the designated man and force the ball by driving the blocker back. Eliminate forward progress. Use up two blocks. E. Change up: Start to come to balance and then explode by him, stutter step as
fast as possible. F. If You Get Blocked: You must not stay blocked! Close: Close is the movement after we have beaten the blockers. Take the most direct course to the ball. We must make the tackle (or force the direction of the ball). Your distance from the ball will determine this action. Never get past the ball or deeper than the ball. Coverage The technique utilized in coverage will be determined by the assignment for that particular coverage called. We must have an understanding of the following terms as they apply to each position and what the responsibility is, especially if we move the rovers around (No. 9 and No. 10). The following is an explanation of the key points of coverage as we tell members of the Penn State coverage team: Shoulder Men: As you “sprint” down field, make your adjustments. Once this is established, maintain designated shoulder leverage on the ball carrier (Diagram 4). Attack the blocker if he tries to block you based on your distance from the ball carrier. Anything too far away, beat him with speed, moves, then get back in your lane.
A. As soon as the ball is kicked, sneak a peek at the tackle to your side for an “indication” of the type of return. Do not slow down! B. Beat the first line of blockers (speed). C. “Avoid” them if you get blocked immediately. D. Keep your head up, eyes on a swivel. E. If you are getting blocked, “squeeze” by leaning into the blocker. Don’t carelessly create a lane. Use your hands to drive the opponent back. F. Go make the play! G. By game plan or poor kick, you could become a shoulder man. H. You must become very efficient at adjustment technique. Ball men have this happen all the time. Contain Men: (No. 1 or No. 8) You have an extremely important job. On base kicks, No. 8 is the contain man (Diagram 6).
A. Keep your heap up -- vision. B. Proper shoulder on the ball. C. If you are getting blocked, “squeeze” back into your lane. Do not create a seam. Use your hands. D. If you get knocked out of your shoulder leverage, recover and regain it. Second effort offsets everything else. E. Come to Balance (CTB). Get under control, find the ball and fight off the block to the ball maintaining proper leverage. F. You have to have an aggressive mentality and be responsible. Ball Men: They will be our designated “hit” man. They are expected to make the play or force it as quickly as possible (Diagram 5). As you sprint down field, make your adjustment. You will usually run into an immediate encounter.
A. Keep the ball on your inside shoulder. B. Never be deeper than the ball. C. Do not open up a running lane. Be physical and squeeze, but be ready for a cross-field return. Turn everything inside. Use your hands. Stay square. D. If you are on the backside of a directional kick, still squeeze but be ready for a cross-field return. Turn everything inside. Use your hands. Stay square. Safety: (kicker and possibly others) A. Kick ball high and deep. B. Follow behind the wave of defenders to the ball. If the return is inside the numbers, mirror the ball. If the return is outside the numbers, you become the safety to that side. If the returner breaks out, buy time by forcing him back to your
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help. If he gets sidelined, use it for proper leverage. Coverage Versus Wedge Returns Versus Middle Wedge: The front line will set up and block to a designated side (Diagram 7). The back line will set up in front of the returner, very close together. When we beat our blocker and get to the wedge, we must see how far we are from the ball.
Versus a Side Wedge: (Diagram 8) The base aiming points are: No. 1 still play safety; come down and be ready to fold and contain. No. 2 attack and squeeze the outside shoulder. No. 9 attack the middle of the chest of No. 1 blocker. No. 3 attack the inside shoulder of the No. 2 blocker and No. 4 attack the outside shoulder. Use them both up. The key is to attack and penetrate. Use them both up.
team (drive man) if you can, always to the sideline side. Get back in the lane fast (Diagram 9). B. Attack the double team (Diagram 10). If we have time and there is space, split the double team. “Freeze” one of them, usually the drive man when this is executed.
Diagram 10: Attack
Diagram 7: Versus Middle Wedge
Diagram 8: Versus Side Wedge
A. If we are more than far enough away, avoid or bet the wedge and make the tackle. B. If we are close enough to the ball carrier, take on the wedge. Stop the progress of two of the blockers. Know by coverage/alignment and type of wedge where we “fit.” Attack any split, pads down, knock them backwards. Use up two blockers. Force the ball to go laterally. The base aiming points on the middle wedge return are: • Fives attack inside of the inside man of the wedge • Fours attack on the inside eye of the outside man of the wedge • Threes attack the outside eye of the outside man of the wedge • Twos attack the outside edge of wedge (wings). Utilize a knife technique to make this play. If this is not possible then fold.
Counteracting the Double Team A double-team is used to create a soft spot in the coverage. Any combination of players, front-line, back-line or wedge can execute a double-team block on us. Game plan and scouting reports will alert us to a double-team. As we feel or see a double-team block begin to happen, remember the following: A. Go around it to the side of the double
C. The key versus double-team is to never slow down, always get our pads under theirs, accelerate through and do not be eliminated (Diagram 11).
Diagram 11: Wedge Double
Diagram 9: Avoid
It has been an honor an a pleasure to write this article for the AFCA Summer Manual. We tell our player’s that special teams is attitude in meeting, attitude in practice and an attitude in games. If we can be of any assistance in the near future, please feel free to call. Thank you.
Adopt Safety-First Coaching Techniques
According to legal experts, “failure to warn” usually is one of the primary accusations made against those in the coaching profession in litigation which involves catastrophic injury to a player. To help prevent what could result in the destruction of a coaching career, as well as massive financial loss, adopt “safety first” coaching techniques: 1. Have a clear and complete understanding of the intent and correct application of safety rules. 2. Make graphically clear to players the risk of violating these rules and use the available printed material as a constant authoritative reminder to them of the importance of correct techniques. 3. Point out in exact terms the risk of accidental catastrophic injury in athletics before the first practice begins. • AFCA Summer Manual — 2000 •