Working with Return Specialists

Return specialists come in a variety of styles, from speed and quickness, to having great balance and the ability to make players miss. However, regardless of the style, a return specialist must have good peripheral vision, unusual ability to read blocks, good hands to catch and hold onto the ball, excellent judgment, courage, and the ability to block. However the common thread is that great return specialist make tacklers miss while running full speed. Whenever a return man slows down for a cut, the defenders are closing, which amounts to losing yardage for the returner.

The kickoff return specialist must catch all kickoffs in the air, running forward. If the ball hits the ground, charge it. Do not field a ball that is rolling toward the sideline, within one yard of the boundary. If the ball is rolling up field, along (parallel) to the sideline then field it.

When there is only one returner deep, try to get a read as to what direction the placekicker is going to kick by watching his approach. The coaches will provide a pre-game update as to what yard line to stand on. If the ball is kicked to one side or the other, use a circular path to put you behind the ball. If possible, field all kicks (unless squibbed) in the air moving forward.

Since the kickoff return specialist is catching the ball on the move, the elbows should be tight to the hips, with the forearms parallel to one another. This creates a funnel for the ball to be trapped against the mid-section, just below the shoulder pads. If the ball is bouncing, catch it on the bounce with both hands. Finally, if the ball that is rolling along the ground or setting in one spot, then “scoop” it. This requires the return to bend at the knees, using one hand to pull the ball into the other.

If a ball is fielded on the opposite side, away from a sideline return, do not try to cross the field. Run north and south getting as many yards as possible. Whenever a returner runs parallel, the coverage players are closing, which means the returner will have more players to avoid in order to break clear.

Field all punts in the air unless late in the game and the team has a lead and field position. Then let the punt hit the ground to consume time – returner will be notified from the sideline. A single deep punt returner gives the punter lots of space to directionally kick away for the returner. Therefore, key the punter and start moving in the direction he steps – do not wait for the ball to be in the air. Get underneath the ball and use proper technique and be in rocker position when fielding the ball. Remember, a ball that rolls is yardage that must be earned back.

The proper technique to catch a punt has the feet should in a balanced position, allowing the returner to cut in either direction to avoid the first tackler. Also, the balanced position will help the returner hang on to the ball in the simultaneous catch and hit situation. The palms are open at eye level, with the forearms parallel to one another. This puts the elbows slightly away from the body and chest height. The ball is funneled down the forearms, as the elbows “receive” the ball lowering to the hips. This is the most efficient position to catch punts that are in front of the returner, regardless of whether the ball is wobbling or spiraling.

When a ball is kicked over a returner head, they should turn and run catching the ball over the shoulder, in a similar fashion to a wide receiver. When the ball is shanked, or kicked short (less than 25 yards) run toward the ball yelling “HOT-HOT-HOT”. Do not run away from the ball, because your proximity to the ball will allow your teammates to get away from you, and thus the ball.

A right-footed kicker’s punt will have a tendency to drift toward the right shoulder when positioned underneath the downward flight. If wind is a factor, adjust either back or forward. If it is a cross-wind, then stand to the side that will blow the ball into you. Recognizing the trajectory of a punt and how it is going to carry is an important skill. Study the flight of the ball in the air. The following can be used as a general guide.

If the nose is markedly up or down, expect the ball to drop suddenly at the end of its flight (nearly straight down). This type of punt will drop short, therefore move up directly under the flight path.

A punt that is wobbly has a tendency to “Knuckle” which causes it to dance and float all over – be prepared! Get in a solid balanced position and surround the ball as it comes down the funnel.

The ball that has a spiral will “Nose over” and will sail for a longer flight – get deeper. If the ball sails over your head turn and catch like a pass.

Secure the football and get at least 10 yards on every punt that does not go out of bounds or inside the 10-yard line. In order to do this, you must break a tackle or beat first coverer defender. The first steps can be lateral in order make a defender miss, but the next ones should be north and south, getting straight up the field, or to the sideline picket.

A fair catch is signaled by extending one hand clearly above the head and waiving the hand side to side – more than once. Some additional points include:

• Do not back up to make a fair catch.
• Only signal for a fair catch if YOU are going to catch the ball. Once you signal for a fair catch, no one on the return team can return the ball.
• You CANNOT BLOCK if you give a fair catch signal.
• You are permitted only two steps after a fair catch. Do not give the appearance that you are running with the ball, especially to return it.
• Do not field or fair catch a ball inside your 10 yard line.
• You CAN shade your eyes.

On punts near the end zone, set your feet on the 10-yard line. Do not handle the ball inside the 10-yard line. On kill or pooch punts, get on the 10-yard line and do not back up to catch the ball. Do not fake fair catch on kill or pooch punts, instead fake a catch by sprinting up the middle or either sideline in proximity to the ball.

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.

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