By Anthony Veloso Associate Head Coach Becker College
Editor's Note: A Long Island native, Coach Veloso played for and earned his BA at Denison University and received his MS from Indiana State University. Currently the Associate Head Coach at Becker College, he coaches the Running Backs/Tight Ends and Kick Off team. He has coached for Curry College, the Peoria Rough Riders (UIFL) now the Peoria Pirates (AF2), and volunteered at Indiana State.
"Special teams are the quickest way to win a game." That is the first line in my special teams handout to our players. It is the 1st thing our players see. If that statement is true, the opposite must also be true; they are also the quickest way to lose a game.
Special teams affect field position and momentum. As much as we want to dictate the tone of the game by our play, we most certainly do not want to put our team in a disadvantage by letting emotion overcome discipline. Because of our teams youth (76% of our roster going into the 2012 season were freshmen and sophomores), our players would sometimes let their emotions get the best of them which contributed to assignment errors.
As much as coaches preach that special teams are 1/3 of the game, how many of us actually use 1/3 of our practice time on special teams? We know this, yet sometimes we get caught up in trying to out scheme teams without having the necessary time to practice and hopefully master all our ideas. As much as I would like to believe that our initial scheme was simple, easy to learn and teach, the statistics proved otherwise. In our 1st 7 games we allowed 21 yards per return including 1 return for a touchdown.
Our goal is 15 yards or less per return. We had to make changes. My first instinct was that we need to change personnel. We started the year with seven freshmen on our kick off team. Looking back at our depth charts, I realized that I had already used different players, or used players in different spots. The problem wasn’t necessarily our players. It was me.
It is my job to put our players in a position to succeed. I tell our players in meetings that if they don’t know what their job is (their assignment), that’s their fault. We have meetings, they watch film and get plenty of handouts. If they don’t know how to do their job, that’s my fault. It’s my responsibility to teach them and put the right guys in the right spots to do our jobs. Failure to do so was putting our defense at a disadvantage.
The biggest problem I identified was that each individual was thinking too much on the field. I had to simplify the scheme so that our athletes could let their talent and energy take over.
Our scheme started out what I believe to be fairly standard. We had 2 "Head Hunters", a wedge-buster, contain players, safeties, and coverage players. Opposed to numbering our players L1-5, R-5, we number our players 1-10. In our system, our kick offs are numbered. The 3 numbers we use indicate who are the head hunters and the safety player opposite the kicker. All others fit accordingly.
The ProblemsProblem #1 - Our head hunters are the 1st down the field to the ball, and are supposed to keep the ball on their inside shoulder and responsible for making the returner change direction. The players we put in those positions would consistently lose the ball in the air, run straight down field (not to the ball), or overrun the ball while avoiding defenders.
Problem #2 - Our wedge-buster is supposed to hit the ball head on and be the tip of the arrow (all of our coverage players fit off of the wedge-buster). The players we put in that position would often not adjust to the path of the returner; throwing off everyone else. Or he would pick a side on the wedge, creating a wide gap in the middle of our coverage.
Problem #3 – The number system allows for flexibility. Our head hunters were generally the same kids but we could line them up wherever we wanted based on where we wanted the kick to go. However, if they originally lined up at the 3 and 8 spots, numbers 2 and 9 knew that they had to close down to numbers 4 and 7 because 3 and 8 were gone. If they didn’t there would be huge gaps in coverage. That is exactly what happened.
Problem #4 – Ideally the coverage team running in stride should resemble the tip of an arrow; each man trailing a specific distance outside the man inside of him. Our issue was that not each player hit the line at the same speed at the same time. Once our players got going, they were not trailing the man inside of them. Our coverage team was running downfield staggered and not in their proper lanes.
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All 4 challenges led to us giving up an average of 21 yards per return with a long of 80. We what changed to was the most basic kick off I could think of while allowing us the flexibility to build off it.
Simplified SchemeFirst, to eliminate problem #4, we changed our alignment. Our #5 and #6 players were our safety players and would leave when the kicker signaled them. As our kicker approached the ball, the rest of our coverage team could not take off until the kicker past them on the way to the ball. This fixed our staggering problem.
The fix to our remaining problems, came from fundamentally changing our approach to kick offs. We eliminated the head hunter position on our kick off team. That took care of problem #1. We instead combined the role of wedge-buster (our "point man") and head hunter. The Point Man now had to go to the ball and hit it head on with his inside shoulder. Our Point Men were the most inside players to the kicker; numbers 4 and 7. No matter where on the field the ball was kicked, 2 men, not 1, would now direct the rest of the coverage to the ball. Each side now had their own man to set off of.
Since we no longer had "head hunters" (players with no lane responsibilities), no one had to close any gaps by the player leaving. Now each player only had to stay outside and behind the man inside of him, trusting that the Point Man to his side would do his job. The widest men in coverage, #1 and #9, were our contain players. This took care of problem #3.
Our safety players #5, #6 and our kicker trailed the coverage team, dividing the field into thirds essentially playing cover 3.
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By changing the structure of the unit we were also able to add some simple wrinkles to our kick off. You can keep the looping and incorporate a surprise onsides. The kickoff and onside look exactly the same. Depending on how skilled your kicker is you can run the surprise onsides to either side. You can also eliminate the looping aspect and run a squib.
ConclusionSimplicity, consistency and repetition were key in getting our players to understand and execute their assignments. Putting the right players in the right spots to succeed was most crucial to the success of the scheme. Like we started, we finished the year with 7 freshmen on the starting kick off team but our contain and safety players were the 4 upperclassmen on the unit. In the end, we finished the last 3 games giving up and average of 14.2 yards per return with a long of 22.
There are no secrets to success. To be good, you need good players. Those players need to work hard, be determined, and execute their assignments. It is our job as coaches to put the right players at the right spots and teach them how to execute in order for them to be successful. Once you do that, you need to rep it over and over again to get yourself a shot.
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Detailed before and after video that shows the impact of the scheme change.
Specific drills that Coach Veloso used to implement and refine his coverage unit.
Coaching points that extend the concept into squib and onside situations
Plus diagrams and more…