The kickoff team (“SWAT” Team) can set the tone at the beginning of the game, or continue the momentum set by a score. Kickoff coverage requires players who play with reckless abandon. Additional characteristics of special teams’ players include unselfishness, team oriented, courageous and enthusiastic. As coaches, we must keep from confusing them with “technical sophistication”. The key components to kickoff coverage are speed and the ability to execute an open-field tackle. The kicker is a big part of the process and as such must be very precise and consistent in hang-time and location of the kick. Great plays and big hits are set-up by the kicker.
Our SWAT Team goals include:
- Keep or establish the momentum with a big hit on the ball carrier.
- Get the football back with a turnover – fumble, recovery of a directional kick, or recovery on an onside kick.
- Pin the opponent inside the 20-yard line or on a directional kick hold the returner to 5 yards.
Our basic philosophy is to make our opponents defend the entire field by using a variety of kicks, directions, and ball placements. This helps us avoid being predictable which can give our opponents an advantage. We will not kick it straight down the field hoping for hang-time and coverage. When you kick the ball in this manner, it allows your opponent to execute their kick return scheme. Why allow the opposing kick-return specialist to break into the clear and head for the end zone? We want to eliminate one-third of the field, create some indecision and force them to scramble. The following is a list of additional principles and thoughts about directional kicking:
- Always kick the ball with a purpose;
- Scouting should establish whether you would attack the scheme (alignments) or put the ball in the hands of a specific player; and
- Adapt your strategy to your personnel.
- Use weather conditions to your advantage;
- Use the sideline as the 12th defender;
- Use different kickoff alignments;
- This forces the opponent to add practice time, or simplify their return and quite possibly frustrates them to the extent that they do not have an answer for your directional kicks.
- Make the return man move to get the ball; and
- Kicking from a hash provides a better angle for the kicker and allows the coverage defenders to minimize a return.
We can only do what our players can do, and that starts with our kicker and speed of our coverage personnel. Therefore our keys include:
- High and deep is not as important as the type of kick and its direction
- Hang-time kicks, driving kicks, quail kicks, or squib, bouncing kicks
- Aggressive coverage personnel, with proper lane responsibilities
- Second effort, and
- Toughness, courage and hits
We will always meet on the sideline (fifty-yard line) to allow the coach to count players and give them reminders. The coach will make the kickoff alignment call (right hash, middle, left hash) and provide a preliminary directional call, but the kicker will give the final call once the referee has readied the ball for play.
A choirboy type huddle will be formed on the thirty-five yard-line (five yards behind the tee). The players will remain in the huddle until the ball is signaled “ready for play” and the kicker has returned to the huddle. The kicker will then make the kickoff call; say ready and “hit”. The players will clap as they say, “hit”, then sprint to their alignments. Remember, the ball must be kicked within twenty-five seconds of the ball being signaled “ready for play”.
We will always huddle, and be in the huddle as the ball is signaled “ready for play” by the referee. The kicker will stand next to the tee, with the kickoff team huddled five yards back; on the thirty-five (high school rules) or the thirty (college rules). Once the official hands the ball to the kicker, they will place it on the ground next to the tee. The kicker will then return to the huddle and make the call, identifying the kick, and coverage scheme. They will then the break the huddle, and approach the ball to tee-it-up. If the kick return team does not adjust their alignment to cover up the players in the huddle, we will evaluate an onside kick from the huddle alignment.
This is a very important process. Teams that huddle, but break the huddle before the officials signal the ball “ready for play” create NO stress or requirement for adjustments by the return team. The reason is the ball cannot be put into play until the referee signals “ready for play”. Therefore, the kick return team does not need to adjust their alignment because the kickoff team is in their spread formation when the ball is signaled “ready for play”; i.e., the kickoff team can only kick the ball once the referee signals “ready for play”. However, when a team is huddled when the ball is ready for play, it forces the return team to adjust their return alignment (compress it) in case of an onside kick, or a possible kick from the huddle formation. If the return team does not adjust, they can very easily be out-numbered with an easy recovery for the kickoff team.
Once the kicker has teed the ball, and the players are aligned in their kick position, the kicker will yell “ready”. On his ready command, he begins his approach to the ball. Each player must learn to time their approach so that they can take off out of their “form stance” alignment at full speed. This is typically a 1001, 1002 count. We do not want to be off sides, however we want to be in coverage at full speed. The kickers must not take false steps, and their approach must always be the same. A properly timed kick is when the coverage is one-step behind the “free-kick line” as the kicker is kicking the ball.
Traditional kickoff coverage schemes talk about lane responsibilities as the players work through the “run & read zone” and the “avoidance zone”, and then converge in the “contact zone”. Not only does this approach create a “technical sophistication” for the players, but also it presents a solid wave of defenders for the return team. If the return team breaks the wave, then the safety defenders come into play.
We designed a coverage scheme that has “Bullets”, “Alleys” and “Contain”. This creates efficiency in preparing our back-ups. We can get three back-ups for each position because a bullet is a bullet regardless of where they align. Therefore we do not need to have two complete SWAT Teams because the positions are interchangeable. As such, when injuries occur the back-ups have gotten plenty of repetitions, and there is no confusion in their mind as to their coverage responsibilities. In addition, this approach to coverage creates two distinct waves of defenders, which is discussed in greater detail below.
The players will utilize a “form start” and time their approach with the kicker. We align only five yards from the ball because we want immediate acceleration. This allows the coverage defenders to be at full speed as the ball is kicked. The
“form start” is discussed in greater detail below. The different level of defenders is created based upon the coverage responsibilities and the techniques that the Bullets and Alleys use in coverage; i.e., the distance they sprint before they converge on the football.
We will directional kick from either hash, as well as kicking off from the middle of the field. The sideline coach will designate the kickoff alignment when the SWAT Team huddles along the sideline. This determination is based upon the scouting report and the type of kicks to be used against the particular opponent. When the kicker breaks the huddle on the field, after the referee has signaled the ball “ready for play”, the SWAT Team will sprint to their appropriate alignment. The SWAT Team consists of:
- Two Contain Defenders
- Four Bullets
- Four Alleys, including one designated as “Wedge”
The basic alignment places the Contain Defenders four yards from the boundary, with the other players, whether an Alley or Bullet spaced at five yards apart. This alignment will be slightly adjusted based upon the types of kicks being used and the opponent’s return alignment. However, you must be careful when adjusting the SWAT Team’s alignment so that the directional kick is not given away based upon the alignment.
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.