1. Celebrate Special Teams
Your attitude as a coaching staff is vital to the preparation and performance as a team on special teams. You can tolerate special teams, or you can celebrate special teams. Unfortunately, many programs tolerate special teams and their programs reflect this.
When you celebrate special teams you embrace them as a staff. You have the same passion, energy, and enthusiasm coaching special teams that you have for every other phase of the game. Your players will feed off you. You have to sell your players on the value of special teams, and how great special teams will help you win more games.
We had a special teams player or players of the week every single game. We honored them with something special. At one school we had special shirts for our special teams units. We had a championship belt that a guy got to wear on the sideline if he had a big hit or a takeaway on special teams. We had names for our units that our players took pride in. Again, it starts with coaches being passionate about coaching special teams.
2. Use Wrinkles
During my coaching career I have had the opportunity to coordinate special teams and special teams units at a few different schools. We always wanted to find a way to use special teams as a way to help us win games. We wanted to force people to have to prepare for our special teams. We wanted them to have to take time from offense and defense to have to look at what we did on special teams.
I learned a lesson my first year as an OC. While meeting on Sunday the head coach informed myself and the DC that we were going to take 10 minutes from our offensive and defensive preparation to work special teams. Our opponent was very good on special teams and had a few wrinkles we had to take time to prepare for. I carried this with me, and we made a decision to do some things a little bit different that would force teams to have to prepare.
How We Were Different
The first thing we did was added a cluster kickoff formation. Jerry Campbell, a coaching mentor of mine, introduced us to this in 1999. Coach Campbell had come up from Westwood High School in Round Rock, Texas to help us install some option and zone read concepts. We were talking about special teams, and he showed us the cluster kickoff. Below is a diagram of our cluster kickoff
Another element we added was using a gate formation after we scored. We would sprint to get lined up in our gate formation. After a touchdown teams often have their heads down. We wanted to take advantage of this and have a chance at a quick two point conversion. We had five gate concepts we could run, in addition to shifting to kick. The defense had to take time to prepare for our gate formation. We would install our gate formation during the first three days of camp when we were in shorts and shirts. Below is a picture of our gate formation:
Our punt team would align and shift from one look to another. We would show a shield look from a balanced set and then an unbalanced look. We also would show one or two fakes early in the season. Again, this took time for our opponents to cover. Our punt return team would bring pressure each week. We always had a way to attack the weakness of a protection without having to install anything new.
3. Coach The Details
This is vital. Too often we install our specials in a team setting. There is nothing wrong with this, but at some point you have to teach the individual skills. We had a special teams block and return circuit, and a special teams cover circuit. We worked players through stations to help them to learn how to do their job.
We then worked an individual period, a group period, and a team period for special teams. We coached them just like offense and defense. We had 4 coaches involved in each special teams unit. We coached them on specific details for their position. We didn't just tell two guys they double-teamed L3, we worked it in an individual period. We didn't just talk to our jammers about how to wall off the gunner, we practiced it in our individual period. We taught them how to off hand jam, and what to do when they lost contact. Coaching the details is vital.
Special Teams Change Games
When we took over a program that had not won a game in 3 years, special teams helped us beat people were shouldn't beat. Every time we broke a big return we made it easier for our offense to score. Every time we recovered a kickoff we gained a possession, while taking a possession from our opponent.
We were smart on special teams. We never kicked deep if a team had a big-time returner. We kicked the ball to spaces, not people. When we covered, we covered with the intent to get the ball back. We wanted to be physical when we tackled and try to get the ball out. We never punted to great returner. We wanted to have a 35 yard change of possession.
When we returned our kicks we set up a simple return where we could create a crease and get vertical. We didn't try to bring a ball across the field running laterally. We got vertical and found a crease. Our punt return unit was very good at blocking kicks. We always brought pressure from somewhere, and worked hard to hold up cover guys. If our returner made a guy miss we felt like we could have a big return.
We won games we probably shouldn't have won because of our special teams. We felt like it was simple for us to install, but took time for our opponents to prepare. We were able to change momentum and ultimately win games because of our special teams.
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Here are a couple of additional screenshots!