The greatest amounts of field position change occur during special teams play. This becomes relevant when you realize that the farther your opponent must travel to score, the greater chance your defense has of stopping them. The importance of field position can be seen in the following table:
|Yard Line||Chance of Scoring|
|-20||1 out of 30 (3.3%)|
|-40||1 out of 8 (12.5%)|
|50||1 out of 5 (20%)|
|40||1 out of 3 (33.3%|
|20||1 out of 2 (50.0%)|
|10||3 out of 4 (75.0%)|
The most consistent way to gain the field position advantage is to be good in special teams play. Big plays usually happen when a team or player is unprepared for a situation. On the other hand, when a team is properly prepared, they have put themselves in position to create or capitalize on a break. Therefore understanding the scope of the kicking and return games and making them a priority are the foundation to solid special teams play.
Our football program philosophy is based upon “controlling the football” and “controlling field position”. Simply put, when we have the football, we want to keep it until we score, and when we don’t have the football we want to get it back. Special teams play is no different – error free execution will yield terrific results. As such, we must have SOUND SPECIAL TEAMS that create positive sudden changes. We define sudden changes, whether positive or negative as loss of possession (turnovers) or scores, whether by touchdown, field goal or safety.
We use an aggressive, physical approach to special teams play, yet require a high standard of execution from the players. This requires our coaches to use practice time efficiently preparing the players for every potential situation that may occur on game night. When the players are prepared, they can perform allowing the team to win the “hidden yardage”. The hidden yardage is the yardage gained by our kickoff and punt returns less the yardage gained by our opponent’s kickoff and punt returns.
We believe that special teams are no different from the offensive or defensive side of the ball – detailed and prepared. The approach includes:
- Use the best personnel;
- All coaches must have a stake in special teams;
- Use practice time efficiently; and
- Win the battle of field position.
Use the Best Personnel
Special-teams play requires exceptional athletes. As such, each coach must work at identifying players with unique talents such as the ability to catch punts, sure hands for holders, confidence for kickers, etc. The players must be athletic, with great hand-eye coordination, and an incredible desire to compete. Balance, agility and speed with the ability to play in space are qualities of a player that can contribute to special teams play. However, the most important characteristic is unselfishness – one heart beat with team.
The better the athletes you have on your special teams, the better your special teams will be. For example, average players with a great scheme will yield average special team results, but good players with an average scheme will yield good results. However, good players with good schemes will yield great results. An athlete is a player that knows what to do and how to do it. Put as many of those types of players as you can on your special teams.
All coaches talk about having their best eleven players on the field for special teams. However, when the cleats hit the field, especially for those programs that do not have the luxury of being two-platoon, every coach must make decisions. For us, we have fundamental requirements for each of our special teams’ positions. If a player can execute them, we will use that player over a two-way starter. However, we will not put a player on the field just to give him playing time. That is not fair to the team.
All Coaches Have a Stake
Staff assignments become a key indicator to your players about the importance of special teams. To reinforce the importance of special teams, every coach, including coordinators must have special teams’ responsibilities; the head coach being responsible should have a passion for it. It will rub off on the players and the coaches.
We have a coach assigned to work with punters and kickers each day. We will work our special teams into our practice schedule. If it is as important as offense and defense, then it needs to be part of practice, not an after thought. We do not ask our players to come early or stay late to work on specialties, however many will elect to work on their skills, individually or with a coach, if they did not get enough repetitions during practice.
Use Practice Time Efficiently
Our special teams practice time always includes fundamentals, skills and team. The fundamental period include, (1) blocking, (2) tackling, and (3) turnovers. We typically work on these as part of a special teams’ circuit, in which every player participates, including our kickers. The skills segment includes all of our group work and may be in the form of a circuit or specific skill period. Our team period is typically the shortest period and it always builds from the skills segment to our team session.
Many of us can remember the old 3-whistle drill. The head coach would blow three-quick whistles and everybody went to hit somebody. As we know, we can or should no longer be using this drill. However, we still incorporate the concepts of “hearing and reacting” each week. We work into our practice schedule, typically during a team session, a Surprise Special Team’s Drill, which we call the “SST”. The head coach will call out a special team and the unit needs to be lined-up ready to execute within 25-seconds. This drill has served us well so many times when we have run out our Field Goal Team with no time outs, or need to call on a special team after a sudden change. We always try to work a special circumstance; i.e., a kick after a safety, kick quick, a pooch kick from a field goal alignment, etc. We feel this helps prepare our players for when something unusual happens on game night.
Finally, as part of the design of the special teams’ schemes, we always plan to have back-up players. Do not just list players name to fill in a depth chart! The back-up players must get enough repetitions to not only know their assignments, but be contributors on game night if called upon. The outcome of the game may depend on one of those back-up players.
About the Author of this post:
Jerry Campbell has over 30 years of high school and college coaching experience. He has experience as a head coach, offensive coordinator, and various position coaches. He has written numerous football coaching articles in various publications, is the author of over 30 books on coaching football, and has produced 12 coaching video series. Additionally, he is a nationally sought after speaker on the coaching clinic circuit.