Stepping “Out Of The Box” On Special Teams

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By David Walkosky • Special Teams Coordinator • Georgia Tech

In order to have great special teams, you must have a head coach that truly believes this phase of the game is as important as the other two phases. Coaches always say that you must be able to play your best players on special teams, no matter what the situation. It is great when you have a head coach that lets the special teams coordinator follow through with this thought.

After implementing this philosophy, the attitude and the results of special teams changes for the better. If you say it is important, then we must show that it is important. Actions speak louder than words.

There is no doubt that the offensive line coach is going to find the best player on the team to start at offensive guard. Then why would I, as a special team’s coordinator, not find the best player on the team to start at punt guard? When you have starters asking you to be on special teams, it is obvious you have made an attitude improvement. It was a great feeling when Bill Doba (retired Washington State Head Coach) told me, “I have never seen players begging to be on special teams before.” Once you have the correct or best players playing, you now can go to the next step.

The late, great Murray Armstrong of the University of Memphis taught me many things about coaching special teams, but the greatest was: “On special teams, you have only one play to be perfect. There is no fifth down for the special teams.”

With this knowledge, one must coach to be perfect and coach to win that one down. The attitude that came along with this thought was I needed to change some looks on special teams, but still keep it simple for our offensive and defensive starters. If I am going to use starters who play 70 plays on defense or offense, then I must keep it simple enough for them to remember their assignment, but also be complex in our looks.

If you don’t like where your special teams are ranked, then something must change. The point is, if you don’t like where you are, then you must do something you have never done before. I have gone to changing punt formations and alignments (Diagram 1).

Without getting into too much detail, I went to a rugby style punt. This enabled us to get more players covering the punt. The results proved to be very positive. At Toledo, we had a net punt average of 41 yards, and at Washington State University, we went from 10th to sixth in the Pac 10. There is no perfect answer to any of the special teams, but I believe in the previous statement. If you don’t like something, then there must be a change.

Another way I go “out of the box” in special teams is the belief in taking strategic chances. The game of football is hard and defending high-powered offenses is even harder than ever. I feel that once we get the ball, I don’t want to freely give it back to our opponent. If we are in a 4th down situation, I think three things:

  1. I want to score.
  2. I want to move the chains.
  3. Punt and change field position.

This thought process is not what many head coaches believe in, but it is the “out of the box” philosophy of this article.

If a punt return team gives a look that is not sound toward a specific play, then I will try to run that play at them on 4th down. The difference comes back to Coach Armstrong’s point: You only get one chance.

When talking about execution, it is even more important when it is 4th down and 6 on your own 35. There are many situations that can be discussed or examined on every play, but I believe in a few points that must be addressed in a program’s special teams.

The following factors have been taught to me as a player or as an assistant coach.

Most of the techniques I implement are ones that I am regurgitating from other great coaches. A coach should pick out things they like and stress those ideas.

Choosing Position Coaches And Players

In our first team meeting, I make a statement that I want coaches and players that are committed to winning football games on every play. If you are not as excited about special teams as I am, it is ok; the team does not want you on special teams. I truly feel this way. If coaches don’t want to help, then they should not be out there.

It will hurt you at some point. I would rather take two GAs that love to learn and give them responsibilities of their own. There is great energy with young coaches and this is better than a full-time guy just putting in time. Yes, we all can mandate coaches to do things, but I would rather have guys that are dying to be coaching!

Depth Chart

With limited time to make sure every man is in the right spot, we line up in meetings in our depth chart order. If there is a change during film or before a meeting, I make the change within their seating order. This sets the tone for a meeting and players know who they are behind by getting the visual throughout the meeting. This also helps your position coaches teach during the meeting.

Emotional Play

Pregame talks may last for one play in football. This is why I put little time into preparing for it, but a talk before a special teams play can change the energy level of one or more players. I believe that if I’m not high energy before a play, then it is possible the players will not be excited for that play. If I am fired up, wide-eyed and focused, then there is a great chance our players will be the same for the next 8-10 seconds.

Guided Discovery

I let players decide how they will perform certain tasks. This form of teaching must truly be presented correctly, but if they decide the technique, then they will perform the technique. Involvement equals commitment. An example of this is on kickoff coverage. We have landmarks on the field horizontally, but for their get-off, they can line up anywhere they want. The goal for us is to have every man at full speed at the kick. I have tried several drills, but by putting this task in each player’s hands, this phase of drills has been eliminated. Does our kickoff look crazy and unorganized? The answer is yes, but that goes back to being “out of the box.”

Time Organization

Every coach wants more time. We do not have much time to practice every technique that must be performed in every special teams situation. One way I have solved this problem has been to get players to understand that they work on special teams all day long. By utilizing different techniques that are used by position coaches, I explain to the players they are working on position specific drills and special team drills all at the same time (Diagram 2).

Another thing I have players do is have each member of the kickoff get out early and get five get-offs with our kickers. This only takes 2 minutes, but can save 5-6 minutes of drill time. By having great get-offs, we can save several yards on our kickoff coverage. While the kickers warm up, they run next to them and work on their time up.

Specificity in Training

As an educator, I believe in doing skill specific drills. I do not want to take time doing bag drills in a straight line or a four-cone drill in which we run in a square when neither of these occur in a game. I want to find an exact movement that occurs during a special teams situation and then rep that skill. Repetition is the mother of all learning.

Coaches will take their position players and find what they need to work on and we will drill for most of the special teams time. I do not get many full team reps in a practice.

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