The "Never Punt" concept has been out there for a few years now, but we wanted to find out how it is working from someone that had adopted the philosophy more recently. Coach Hales breaks down his approach and the numbers here...
By Tyler Hales
La Jolla Country Day School (CA)
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Over the past few years there has been a lot of talk about the no-punt philosophy thanks to the great success of Coach Kevin Kelly at Pulaski Academy (AR). Coach Kelley has done a tremendous job explaining the reasoning and benefits behind this uncommon strategy and his analysis was something that I researched extensively when I took over as head football coach in January 2014.
Our 4th down philosophy (“never punting”) not only fit our desire to play aggressively on 3th down, but it also best suited our personnel. Over the past two years, we have implemented this philosophy with great success. In 2014, La Jolla Country Day won the first 11-man CIF title in school history and in 2015 we lost in the CIF semi-finals to the eventual State finalist Coronado. Additionally, we averaged 4,476 total yards and 423 points per season since making that change. That is over 800 yards and 40 points more than the average over the previous 9 seasons.
There is no doubt in my mind that consistently going for it on 4th down has led to this offensive improvement. But the analytical part of me wanted to make sure that the numbers matched my gut feeling. This article will dive into our philosophy and the numbers that support the use of this approach at La Jolla Country Day.
It Starts with Assessing Personnel
A few other coaches and I had talked about the no-punt philosophy for a few years, so when I took over the program we immediately began to seriously discuss this approach for our varsity squad. While on paper this philosophy looked great, we wanted to really do research and a self assessment to make sure we were ready to take on this style of play. While we scoured the internet to read everything we could find about not punting, we also took an in depth look at our roster. We were coming off our worst season in over a decade (2013), finishing 5-6 and losing in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since we became 11-man in 2005. Our 2014 team would have some good senior leadership but was relatively inexperienced and very undersized. The question we asked ourselves was what do we need to differently to compete in our tough league and in playoffs?
In assessing our personnel, it was obvious that our strengths were going to be on the offensive side of the ball. We had a returning quarterback who had started every snap as a freshman and is one of the most highly recruited QBs in the nation. Surrounding him in our air raid offense was a group of good receivers and running backs. Conversely, our defense was going to be young and inexperienced. We surmised that we were likely going to be counting on our offense to lead the way in 2014. Add in the fact that our punting game in 2013 was unimpressive, averaging only 28.5 yd/punt and you can see why we were looking for a different approach.
After analyzing the research and our personnel, we decided that we were ready to be “all in” on the “never punting” philosophy. With our personnel and with the data in mind, we wanted to keep the ball in our playmakers’ hands and keep the ball rather than voluntarily punting. The prospect of having a 50% chance of converting the 4th down rather than give our opponent the ball 20-30 yards from our spot simply made sense to us.
Defining Our 4th Down Philosophy
Of course, we knew there would be challenges in implementing this philosophy. As Coach Kelly has discussed in detail, getting your people to buy in is huge and players typically aren’t the ones you need to worry about. One of the biggest challenges our coaching staff discussed was those “what if” situations.
For example, it’s late in the game, we are up by 2 points and backed up in our own zone facing a 4th and long. To address situations like this, we had a contingency plan of bringing back what we called the “field goal punt,” which is a little known rule in HS that you can line up your FG unit and simply kick the ball as if you were kicking a 90 yard FG. Because this is a scrimmage kick it ends up like a punt and the return team can return the ball from wherever it lands (which in our plan was out of bounds). Doing this allowed us to still be all in on going for it on 4th while also giving us flexibility in certain situations. We also had our QB practice quick kicks once a week as another options to utilize in certain scenarios. When we presented our plan to not punt to the team on day one of fall camp, I allowed players to process this philosophy and push me with questions. After about 15 minutes of this discussion, players were excited and ready to go.
Here is a look at our complete “Philosophy” that all of our staff is agreed upon going into the season:
Torrey Football: 4th Down Philosophy and Guideline
We are an aggressive 4th Down team.
We do not fear 4th Downs.
We take advantage of having four downs instead of three to move the chains. This opens up our play book and puts pressure on the defense.
We stress the opposing teams defenses and create more opportunities to score.
Never too high, never too low; we will NOT BE PHASED if we get stopped on 4th Down nor will get lost in the moment when we convert 4th downs. We EXPECT to convert EVERY 4th down opportunity!
We do not voluntarily turn the ball over by punting. We will have confidence to be able to convert ANY 4th down situation.
We wear down opposing defenses with our aggressiveness. They will not have a chance to get off the field.
Our Defense will be backed up. Our defense will have a “so what” attitude and will get tough when opponents have the ball in our zone. Defend our endzone WITH CONFIDENCE!
In order to be confident and successful, we will prepare for various 4th down situations every day in practice and put pressure on our players to perform.
We never line up to punt. Therefore, we don’t spend practice time on punts.
We ALWAYS plan to go for it on 4th down once we have reached our opponents 30-yard line. Certain situations late in games can dictate a different play call.
Between our opponents’ 20 and 30-yd line, we plan to go for it on 4th and 5 or less. Otherwise we will EITHER Quick kick with our QB (Trio Rt, RAQ Kick) OR FG Punt (aiming out of bounds). Certain situations, especially late in games, can dictate a different decision.
Inside our own Redzone, we will plan to go for it on 4th and 1 or 2. Otherwise, we will EITHER Quick kick with our QB (Trio Rt, RAQ Kick) OR FG Punt (aiming out of bounds). Certain situations, especially late in games, can dictate a different decision.
We plan go for field goals between the 10 and 25 yd line, on 4th and over 5 yds. Certain situations, especially late in games, can dictate a different decision.
Another factor that many coaches are concerned about when discussing this option was the potential repercussions from the fans and administration. The fear is that by being unconventional you are setting yourself up to be an easy target. We have a saying for our senior leaders that we expect them to “accept the risk of leadership.” That same quote works well for our coaches.
Sometimes, doing something differently and going against norms is risky, but we had an unwavering belief in what we were doing, so we did not see this as much of a risk. Additionally, we have an incredibly supportive administration that trust our coach stuff to do what is in the best interest of our program and players. Of course, I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t a little nervous after failing on our second 4th down on the season on our own 25-yard line (our opponent scoring 2 plays later didn’t help!). Once we started having more success, the players’ confidence grew, fans started buying in as well.
The Risks and Rewards:
There are obvious risks and rewards to never punting. In an ideal world, we convert most of our 4th downs, leading to longer drives and improved chances of scoring every time we have the ball. Additionally, by keeping the ball after these conversions we are keeping the ball out of our opponent’s hands, limiting their opportunities to score. Every 4th down conversion also builds momentum for your team while chipping away at the morale of the other team. Our last two seasons back this up, as we have scored on 65% of the drives on which we converted a 4th down, which has been good for 4.19 points/drive with a conversion.
Another reward of not punting has on your weekly practice routine. Like many programs, we value the importance of special teams and we spend significant time each week on every phase of our special teams. By not punting, this opened up 10-20 valuable minutes every week to focus on another phase of our team, which often was more opportunities for our QBs and WRs to work together. Ultimately, but the end of our season we freed up approximately 4 hours of practice time because we did not punt. This likely contributed to our improved play as the season progressed.
Of course we want to convert every 4th down, but this isn’t going to happen. If you are going to adopt this philosophy, you need to prepare the team how to react after failed attempts. We teach a “so what” attitude to handle these situations. When we fail to convert in our own zone, we are giving the ball to our opponent in great field position. We make sure that our defense spends significant time practicing situations when we are backed up inside our 30-yard line in order to help our defense play more aggressively and confidently in those situations. Our conversion rate when we go for it on 4th down inside our own 35 yard line has only been 19% for the last two years, while we have converted 50% of the time from the 35 yard line on. However, we have only had 16 opportunities in 25 games to try to convert 4th downs inside our own 30.
Another challenge we have faced is getting ourselves into 4th and long situations. As you can imagine, our conversion rate drops dramatically trying to convert long 4th downs. Over the past two years we have converted 54% when it’s 4th & 6 or less, but when facing 4th & 7 or more we only have converted 37% of the time. For this reason, it is fundamental for our offense to get positive yards, especially on on 3rd downs, in order to get into manageable 4th downs. When we execute well and get ourselves into short 4th downs, we increase our chances of converting to 66% when it’s 4th and 3 or less. Because it’s so critical to get into short 4th downs, sacks and negative runs are detrimental to a drive by creating more challenging situations.
For Insider’s Only… A detailed statistical analysis and statistical breakdown of how never punting on fourth down has equated to significant scoring and conversion efficiency for Coach Hales and his program.
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So does never punting actually work? Is it for everybody? Is it just a gimmick? After two years of implementing this style of play I am still a believer. Just like any football strategy, it is about execution and attention to details during the practice week. In a way, I view choosing to go for it on 4th down like choosing your offensive or defensive strategy. Whether you run a wing t or the spread, or you are a 4-3 or 3-3 stack, you need to passionately teach your players well and they need to execute; all of these styles work as long as players are coached up and they believe in your system. To me, not punting fits into this notion and our philosophy as a team. I firmly believe that if implemented with unwavering dedication and with practicing these situations regularly, this 4th Down philosophy might just be the jolt your program needs win those close games and get to the next level.
Meet Coach Tyler Hales: Coach Hales took over the La Jolla Country Day Football program in 2014 after serving as an assistant coach for Jeff Hutzler (101-37) for seven years, the last four as varsity Defensive Coordinator. The Torreys have amassed a 15-10 record in Hales’ first two seasons has head coach and in 2016 have been moved up from Division 5 to compete in Division 4. Hales played for legendary coaches Tom Austin at Colby College (ME) and Bill Tighe at Lexington High School (MA). In addition to coaching at LJCDS, he teaches 8th grade US History.