Find out how Coach Smithley and his staff create a consistent return that averaged over 24 yards per return in 2013.
By Christopher Smithley - @WJFootball
Secondary / Special Teams Coordinator
Washington and Jefferson College
Editor's Note: Coach Smithley coached his 2nd season as a Presidents' football assistant in 2013 as the team's Special Teams Coordinator and Secondary coach. In 2013 Smithley led the Presidents secondary to a conference high 16 interceptions including 5 from 1st Team All Conference free safety B.J. Monacelli '14. The Presidents special teams ranked 1st in kickoff return average, punt return average, and kickoff coverage in the Presidents Athletic Conference. The Kickoff return unit also averaged 24.33 yards per return ranking in the top 15 in the country. In 2012, as linebackers coach, Smithley helped Pine-Richland High School graduates Ian Hennessy '13 and John Hunter '13 produce the best seasons of their careers with 99 and 97 tackles, respectively. A native of Bolivar, Pa., Smithley played quarterback and H-back during his playing years with the Yellow Jackets. He is a graduate of Laurel Valley High School.
Kickoff return, like all the other special teams, is extremely important in the outcome of a football game. At Washington and Jefferson College, we put a major emphasis on our KOR unit. We feel that field position not only can determine a football game, but can also create huge momentum boosts that raise the level of play for an entire team. We have all seen it. There is nothing that compares to a kickoff return that involves two punishing blocks and a returner that threads the needle in the hole and busts a big return. The energy that erupts from your sideline and your fan base is stronger and more powerful than any other play in football.
The key to this unit is, and always will be, having one or two guys that when the ball is in their hands, is a threat to break a big play. However, it is also important to have a scheme that is simple and effective, and gives a coach the ability to be multiple with their returns.
This year our KOR unit was ranked 15th in the country and led our conference in kickoff return average with an average of 24.3 yards per return. This team, just like all of our other special teams units, is made up from personnel from all over our roster. These guys have responsibilities and focuses in their offensive and defensive positions. I cannot say enough how important it is to make special teams simple and effective for your program.
We currently run a scheme that our Head Coach Mike Sirianni has used here at W&J for years. This past year, we placed larger emphasis on this team with film study and practice repetitions in order to create more productivity. We typically spend approximately a half hour per week working this unit in practice. We give our scout kickoff team the looks to run that we will see for that week as well as the possibilities that we feel as a staff that we could see. We will also get 30-40 minutes of film each week watching our practice, past games, and opponent scouting. I cannot say enough about how much film study is in every phase of the game, but in this particular unit it has been extremely productive for us here at W&J
Scheme and Alignments
There are a thousand different ways you can scheme up a kickoff return. Some teams will run an outside return to the boundary and some may even run an outside return to the field. When I say to the boundary, the kickoff team kicks a directional kick to our right. The right side would be the boundary and the left side would be considered the field. Teams can run a right middle and a left middle which typically hits either just inside or outside of the hash. Also teams can just run a middle return right up the center. Technically, if your KOR unit is set in their alignments the same way every time, that is five different schemes that you’re asking your players to be able to know and execute. In our scheme, we teach our guys a sideline right and a left middle. It minimizes the amount of information that our players have to comprehend. If we want a sideline left or a right middle, we will flip the entire return unit. Now, we have a sideline and a middle hash return to either the field or boundary based off of where the ball is kicked.
In our actual scheme we use a five-man front. I have seen a four-man front and even a six-man front. In our scheme, the five-man front works best for what we are trying to do, and the reasoning behind that is based simply off of our blocking angles and spacing. We also feel that building double teams around guys that start with depth are way more successful than two guys on the front line. We use a center, two guards, and two tackles. The center and the two tackles are always lined up 10-12 yards off of the ball. The center is lined up in front of the ball but NEVER directly over it. This is a security blanket for us in case the kicker is planning to kick a stinger right off of our center. The tackles will align right on the numbers. These guys have to be prepared for any surprise onside kick that is coming at them. The guards will line up staggered slightly with the center and two tackles between 14-16 yards. All of these alignments can be adjusted and changed to fit your personnel and scheme. They will be aligned midway between the numbers and the hash leaning a little heavier towards the hash. These depth alignments are all up for negotiation when preparing for an opponent based off of onside threats, and giving our guys the best blocking angles. However, this is where we will start and any adjustments we make will not be too drastic related to where our starting point is. You would be surprised at how much a yard here or there can do for your players from a blocking angle standpoint.
The personnel that we use on the front line are typically linebackers and secondary guys with a large amount of athleticism and play with a large motor. The back four are typically tight ends, running backs, and bigger receivers that have the ability to catch the ball on a short, or squibbed kick.
We put two ends approximately 15-20 yards behind the guard and tackle splitting their width. The two fullbacks will be anywhere from 10-20 yards behind the ends and they will shade the inside leg of our guards. We will have two returners deep and they will communicate the catch based off of the kick. Typically one of the returners will be our call guy. He will make the call either “you” or “me” on who will receive the kick.
In our KOR unit, we use a large array of athletes. Our front line consists of safeties, corners, receivers, and athletic linebackers. We typically put the linebackers at the guard position keeping our athletes with better hands at the center and tackle positions due to the fact that they are more threatened by a surprise onside kick. Our ends and fullbacks consist of tight ends, running backs, and bigger receivers that have the ability to catch the ball in a pooch-kick situation. We also want to have the ability to return the ball with these guys if the kick fits what we are doing. You would be surprised how many kicks will go to these guys at the end and fullback position once you start having some success with your return unit. The returners can be anyone from a secondary player to a receiver or running back. We want our returners to be the fastest guys on the field, but also able to field the kick in the air. We also want our returners to be patient ball carriers that can trust his blockers, burst through a gap, and catch another gear.
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- Why he believes a five-man front produces the best blocking angles and spacing.
- The alignments and assignments of his front five.
- How he will vary the schemes of his returns based off the ability of the kicker.
- A film tutorial on all of these concepts.
This scheme allows us to be extremely multiple in our returns and is also very simple for our guys to effectively execute. We practice this unit throughout the week against different looks and coach the timing and depths of drops with attention to detail. Our kickoff return unit, without a doubt, gave an edge on our opponents this past season.