Over the past several weeks, we have had numerous questions in regards to special teams. Over the next couple of classes, we will break down special teams play and show its importance in the outcome of football games.
The two most measurable statistics affecting the outcome of a football game are turnover ratio and field position. Each time the ball is punted or kicked there is a great deal of yardage involved and a high risk of turnovers. Field position is the essence of football -- the farther a team has to drive the ball, the less of a chance it has to score.
In this week's class, we will begin with the set up for the organization of special teams focusing on the punt and punt return units.
More and more college football teams are keeping their starters on the field in kicking situations. This shows the importance of special teams' play and allows your best athletes to be in the game. Coaches stress the honor and privilege of serving on the special teams -- often a team's most respected unit. Ideally, backups and role players will also be involved because they are rested and focused for their chance to make an impact.
Some programs choose to have a special teams coordinator who is in charge of all phases of special teams. Others have several different coaches in charge of each individual unit, dividing up the responsibilities. Either way, the entire staff and head coach is involved in the coaching of each phase. Below is how the punt and punt return units are divided up for coaching assignments. The scout team represents the opponent's looks and personnel that you prepare for and coach against.
Punt protection and fakes - Coach A
Scout team - Coach B
Centers and personnel protectors - Coach C
Left side of protection (guard, tackle, slot) - Coach D
Right side of protection (guard, tackle, slot) - Coach E
Gunners (left and right) - Coach F
Punter, timing of snap and punt, operation time - Coach G
Punt return and block team - Coach A
Scout team - Coach B
Corners - Coach C
One, two and three - Coach D
Four and five - Coach E
Six, seven, eight - Coach F
Returners - Coach G
When punting the football, you are constantly focusing on several goals. The first is not allowing a punt block. Nothing affects momentum and the outcome of a football game more than having a punt blocked. Teams should always think protection first, coverage second. The second goal is a net punting average of 37.5 yards. Net punting is the end result of the punt after the return yardage. The punt's height, distance, coverage and penalties are among the many other factors. A third goal is to limit the opponent's punt return to 8.0 or less. The gunners or the wide outs are the most important punt coverage players. Because they have no punt protection responsibilities, the gunners are the first men down the field in coverage.
The operation of the punt is critical, including the snap and getaway time for the punter. You must perform your snap-to-punt process within the following standards: (1) the 15-yard snap in .08 seconds, (2) the punter's catch and kick time in 1.4 seconds and (3) a total operation time of 2.2 seconds.
The minimum hang time for a 40-yard punt should be 4.1 seconds. Hang time refers to the amount of time the ball is in the air once it leaves the punter's foot to the returner's catch.
Spread punt formation
Almost everyone in college or pro football uses the spread punt formation employing two wide outs, referred to as gunners or sprinters. The gunners have no punt protection responsibility and this allows them to release immediately down the field for coverage. This leaves the center, two guards, two tackles, two slots and a personal protector to block for the punter.
It is obvious you have eight blockers to protect your punter. The punt return can normally rush a maximum of eight, if they cover the gunners, who are eligible receivers and also have a returner back deep. The difficulty in this protection is the snapper must snap and also block a man. The punting team will count out the potential rushers from the outside in. This is why you normally see punt protection teams at the line of scrimmage pointing to the defenders across from them. In man punt protection diagram below, the gunners are responsible for 0s, the slots are responsible for 1s, tackles for the 2s, the guards for the 3s. The personall protector will block a 4 to his right or left depending on the protection. The center will block the opposite 4.
Vertical set technique
The punt team's center, guards, tackles and slots will use a technique of getting depth away from the line of scrimmage on the snap called the deep vertical set. This allows them to get away from the rushers to be able to recognize twists and stunts. The punt team will pass off these twists and stunts like offensive linemen using zone protection. In the drawing below, the guard and tackle pass off the twist. It is imperative to know that the tackle still blocks the 2 and the guard still takes the 3, but it is how they end up after the twist.
The toughest block in man punt protection is for the center. The center's first priority is an accurate snap, but then must block the 4. In the diagram below, we show the center blocking the 4 in the left gap.
Double teaming the gunner
Because of the vertical set and deep set of the punt protection team, you can see how critical it is for the gunners to get down the field and cover the punt. Many times the punt return team will deploy two defenders to double the gunners. The defense does this because it is hard hold the gunner up in such a large field in a one-on-one situation. If so, they only have six rushers. The tradeoff is now the center and personal protector can release immediately into coverage
Punt block schemes
The punt return team has several options: a full return, a full block or a combination of both. If you choose to block a punt, you try to do one of three things: (1) confuse the count of the punt team by moving prior to the snap, (2) twist with your rushers picking the punt protectors and (3) work on the center's protection. Any time you try to block a punt it is important to go to the block spot -- approximately one foot in front of the punter's foot after he kicks the ball. If you work at this angle, you will not rough the punter. Below are some different examples of punt rush and twist stunts working on man-to-man protection.
The best and simplest punt return is set up by forcing the punt team to protect for the punter. You actually blitz the blockers selling the all-out punt rush. Once you have sold the punt rush, you go into a hold-up technique where you prevent the blockers from releasing down field. This technique is a lot like defensive backs playing man-to-man bump-and-run coverage on receivers. You blitz then convert to a hold-up technique once the ball is punted. Keep in mind: time = yards. The longer you hold up the punt team, the more yardages your returner will have. Below is the example of a simple middle return where the returner tries to get North-South immediately
It's obvious special teams control a big part of the two most important aspects of football -- field position and turnovers. It also gives teams opportunities for big plays that force huge momentum swings. Having a simple scheme with great execution is important, but the most important thing is the attitude of your players. They must buy into the fact special teams is truly one-third of the football game and decide the outcome in many games.
Q & A with Bob Davie
Thanks for all of the terrific responses and knowledgeable questions this week. Please keep sending in the questions and we'll tackle as many issues as we can this season. Here are a few of your questions regarding I-formation offense:
I vividly remember the great I-teams of the '70s (USC comes to mind) with the toss sweep for speed and isolation for power. My question concerns the reason we don't see as many I-teams today? Is it a lack of great tailbacks? Is it a lack of dominating offensive linemen who can make the tough one-on-one blocks required of the toss and isolation? Or does it have to do with trying to spread the ball around with the wide open offenses we see every Saturday?
Bob Davie: The biggest reasons the number of I-formation teams have dropped are the advent of the 8- and 9-man fronts and the zone blitz on defense. The difficult thing about the I-formation is the ease with which the defense can disguise. When you spread the field on offense and 1-back, it makes it more difficult for the defense to disguise because they have to spread out and cover the receivers. I think the shift has been more about the defense than a personnel issue.
How often would a coach try to run before calling the play action? What kind of run-pass ratio would he expect to draw the most defense?
Also, how often does the blocking scheme backfire? Does the offense get so caught up in switching on the defenders that they forget to plug holes and get penetration?
Bob Davie: First and foremost you have to be able to run the football to set up the play-action pass. You need to get the defense into an 8-man front, moving the safety from deep coverage to a linebacker spot. If the defense can stop the run with a 7-man front, it's difficult to hit the play action.
The offense will also want to throw on running downs -- particularly on first-and-10. Balanced is a critical factor because the offense being balanced keeps the defense off-balanced.
One advantage of I-formation football is you can run gap-blocking schemes, which means all the offensive line block down or back and that eliminates penetration. Then you use the fullback to kick out or the backside guard or tackle pulling around on a counter.
Has anyone ever merged option football with the I formation -- like with the fullback dive into the line and the quarterback and tailback running down the line? I've seen Big 12 teams and occasionally some others running just the quarterback/tailback part of the option, but never the fullback part of the old Houston "Veer" or Wishbone offenses.
Los Angeles, Calif.
Bob Davie: Nebraska comes to mind as the team in modern college football that is an I-formation running option and even some triple option concepts. They use the fullback as a ballcarrier as much as any team in college football today. Nebraska is very difficult to defend because they can run East-West option football and North-South downhill power football.
Send in your Football 101 questions. Bob Davie will answer a few of them next week.
Editor's note: As architect of top defenses at Texas A&M and Notre Dame, Bob Davie is recognized as a top X's and O's coach. This season, Coach Davie analyzes offensive and defensive schemes as part of his season-long course on football for ESPN.com. Each week, he breaks out the chalkboard and break down the X's and O's in college football.