Cal Poly, one of the most storied HS programs in the country, takes a unique and detailed approach to their special teams concepts. Find out the details as provided by their long time ST Coordinator Luis Hayes.
By Luis Hayes
Special Teams Coordinator
Long Beach Poly HS (CA)
Situational football, this is term that we coaches hear about all the time and incorporate it into our weekly preparation. As coaches there are countless situations that we all prepare for. During the season many teams script out situations so that they can see how well their team can execute their scheme in a specific game-like situation. This is true for most offensive and defensive coaches. Unfortunately, the one area of the game that often does not get to work situational football is special teams. This can be contributed to time factors and practice configuration. However, the one situation that no coordinator or head coach ever likes to been in is when you only have 10 men on the field. This is especially true in the kicking game. A special team’s coordinator nightmare is only having 10 men on the field and then having to explain to your head coach why you burned a timeout, took a penalty or were just flat out undisciplined. If you have ever coached special teams you may know exactly the feeling I are referring to. The question now is as a special team’s coach how do you prepare for those unique special teams situations?
As a special teams coach you must always be evaluating everything, specifically your personnel, scheme, and weekly preparation. These are three key factors that will enable your players to be successful on game day.
The evaluation of your players is something that a special teams coach should be doing year around. This is because a special team’s coordinator could potentially end up coaching every player on the roster before the season is over. Whether it’s the starting QB as your holder, your left tackle on PAT or the 9th string wide receiver who happens to also be your best long snapper. As the special coach you should know your roster better than anyone else and you should also be a great evaluator of each player’s individual talents. While many staffs debate about which offensive and defensive starters should and shouldn't be allowed to play on special teams, the determining factor should always be effort. It is very easy to know who are the fastest or most athletic guys on your team but every coach needs to know which guy is incapable of playing more than one phase of the game. The evaluation of talent begins in the weight room. By evaluating your players in the weight room you will be able to predict how certain personnel will respond to certain situations. This will also help you to predict who you can and can't count on in the kicking game.
Observing your players in adverse situations when they are fatigued will tell you whether they can play on special teams or not. When evaluating players it is very important to remain honest and objective about each player’s individual limitations. A player might have the biggest heart in the world but as a kid starts to exert himself past his mental or physical limits it is not only detrimental to the team to play him but it may also be detrimental to the safety of that player. Instead of riding your best players until they reach fatigue, play young talent that will take the field with fresh legs and enthusiasm. Special teams are an opportunity to get as many of your developmental or upcoming players involved in your program; it is not the part of the game where you want to push your best players to their limit because a mistake on special teams could cost you a game.
The other thing that any coach can evaluate about a player in weight room is responsibility. Our punt team consists of most responsible guys who were also the guys that never missed a lift, and never missed a practice. These are the type of guys that are purpose driven individuals and hard workers. Responsible athletes are also usually responsible students. This is the type of kid that you want to use on your special teams because they are mentally and physically dependable. They will keep their head in the game, know the situation, listen to the call and do their job. A lot of this information can also be gathered by looking at an athlete’s attendance at school and in the weight room or by just talking to your strength coaches. The ability to collaborate with the rest of your staff will make your special teams stronger and make managing your special teams easier.
Constantly evaluating your scheme will allow your players an opportunity to showcase their talent. The evaluation process begins by finding out what your players do best. Then as a coach you must be flexible enough to incorporate those skills into your scheme. For example, in 2011 we had 2 excellent kick returners, in fact both of which ended up returning kicks as true freshmen at their respective colleges; UCLA and Arizona St. My personal philosophy on kickoff return has always been to be a vertical downhill runner. The scheme that compliments this philosophy the best is double wedge however both of these return men were shifty elusive runners. For the first four games of the season I forced a scheme on these two seniors which also forced an unnatural running style on these athletes. Consequently, our double wedge return was average at best. However, after listening to my players and staff we added a sideline return that allowed our return guys to be an athlete and run in space. Needless to say our kickoff return became more explosive and dynamic. Conversely, in 2012 we had true vertical downhill runners, so we ran double wedge with great success.
By altering the scheme to fit our player’s talents we had much more success in the kicking game. We also had more guys willing to actively participate on our special teams and be genuinely excited about our kicking game because they were heard and valued as individuals. When the players are excited they look forward to the situation and this eliminates a lack of focus which also naturally makes them better prepared for all special teams situations. This all stems from knowing what our athletes do best, the ability to be flexible and to also allow our players to evaluate the scheme. I always keep in mind that the players have to execute the scheme with a maximum amount of effort and desire. By building off their strengths and providing each special teams unit with a certain level of autonomy and ownership they now have the ability to master the scheme and execute it with great success.
There are three questions that I always ask when evaluating all of our schemes:
1. What are our players best at?
2. What are our players passionate about?
3. What scheme will allow our team to score the most points?
The winner of a football game is determined by the number points scored. The ability to create turnovers and the advancement of the ball as close as you can to your own goal on special teams will increase your chances for scoring points. Our special teams pride themselves on creating positive first downs for our offense or defense. This is only possible if your players and staff buy into the scheme, and are motivated to execute the scheme with maximum effort. This is where special teams can be significant unification point for our team. At Long Beach Poly we do it all for each other and we are all on the B.U.S. Each special team unit allows different guys to get involved and participate so that they can be B.U.S.
EVALUATING WEEKLY PREPARATION
This is where everything comes together. The first thing that we do when preparing for an opponent is to reevaluate our personnel. Based off the previous game film players are evaluated and our special team’s depth chart is updated before Mondays practice. As the special teams coordinator I get an updated injury report from our training staff the day after our game. It is imperative to know which guys are banged up and how much each player will be able to practice throughout the week. General rule of thumb for us on special teams is if you can't execute the scheme full speed with maximum effort during the week then you won't be given the opportunity to do it on game day. After I have updated our depth chart I give it to our head coach for approval and players are notified in Monday’s meeting of any changes.
Once we know who can play we can then install our game plan. Each week we put our players in a position to do what they do best so that they can attack out opponent’s weakness in the kicking game. This may mean we might have to shuffle some personnel around or have different personnel groupings; as complicated as that may sound it is actually quite simple. The key to eliminating substitution errors is limiting the number of players that come on and off the field in specific situations and naming each specific position on each unit so that everyone on your team specially knows what that position is and where that position normally lines up. For instance on our kickoff team we give every position a number instead of name. They are numbered 1 through 10, (The kicker is always number 11) and we always count left to right. This way players can communicate to each other and help each other line up. For example, during the 2012 playoffs we had a freshman start as our number 5 on kickoff, during the regional championship game we had an injury and I had to replace our number 6 player with a senior back up. When we broke the huddle the senior didn’t know where to line up… the freshman put him in the right position. This was possible because the scheme was easy, players understood the fundamental scheme and they also took ownership of their unit.
Limiting substitutions in specific situations will help to eliminate substitution errors; however this strategy requires the head coach and all his coordinators to develop game plans that complement all three phases of the game so that they overlap one another. This way everyone knows what the general plan of attack is and how the staff will plan to utilize all of the teams’ personnel.
One thing that we do at Long Beach Poly is we will have 2 to 3 different personnel grouping for our punt return unit each week. In specific situations we will make a whole sale change on our defense and sub anywhere from 7 to 11 players. There will also be times when we might leave our base defensive package on the field or our nickel package on the field. All of this is predicated on what we decided to do as staff during our weekend preparation for each specific situation. We then practice those situations throughout the week. This means that we work all of our special teams units daily and in cohesion with our offense and defense.
Whenever we work our backed offense situations we will also incorporate punting the ball out of the end zone; which means that we will also practice returning the ball from that part of the field. The same applies for 2 minute, red zone, goal line and short yardage periods.
The biggest coaching point here is that you only get one kick and there are no do overs. This makes the situation as real as possible for the kickers and allows them to understand that you only one shot at it. When talking about scoring points all players must learn to value each rep and execute. This is once again an opportunity to evaluate your players in adverse situations and see how they perform when you are trying to finish a drive.
What You're Missing:
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An in-depth look at how Coach Hayes' connection of scheme and personnel make substitutions simple and fluid.
How Cal Poly ties in 3rd down situations into their weekly Punt and Punt Return practice plan.
Plus video of concepts and more...
Countless coaching points and philosophical concepts that help Coach Hayes build his units over time.
These are some of the drills and concepts that we have incorporated into our special teams that supplement what we do in the rest of our program. Again, part of our special teams’ philosophy is that the kicking game is an extension of our offense and defense. Our special teams also incorporates our offensive and defensive fundamentals and techniques that enable us to attack our opponent’s personnel and schemes. Our scheme is simple and tailored to fit our personnel so that we may stop what our opponents do best and we can get 11 guys doing their job. I am honored and humbled to be asked to write an article for X and O Labs’. I hope that I have at least contributed in a small way to this great site that has helped me grow as a coach. If I can be of any more assistance in any way to you or your programs please don’t hesitate to contact me. Thank you and God Bless.