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By Steve Erxleben, Head Football Coach, Southern High School (MD)

The execution of Kickoff coverage is, especially at the high school level, one of the most opportune times to either make an explosive play, or in the case of the coverage unit, give up an explosive play.

By Steve Erxleben
Head Football Coach
Southern High School (MD)
Twitter: @CoachErxleben



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The execution of Kickoff coverage is, especially at the high school level, one of the most opportune times to either make an explosive play, or in the case of the coverage unit, give up an explosive play that either ends in 6 points or creates a short field. In most cases, the typical H.S. kicker has the ability to roughly hit the 5, 10, or 15 yard line so in most cases, kicking the ball into the end zone for an automatic touchback (federation rules) is out the question for most High School Teams. In the end, a Kickoff is a defensive play that asks all 11 players to close the distance between themselves and the ball carrier, avoid unnecessary blocks, defeat necessary blocks, and in most cases tackle in an open field or “ball away” situation. Therefore, like any play in football, the scheme and the skills needed to execute it are extremely important in limiting yards during the return and improving field position for the Defense. At Southern High School we have incorporated a “Pop 30” philosophy in our coverage scheme. However, the execution of our scheme is really how we have incorporated our established Force and alley rules as well as our Rugby-tackling and “ball away” principles to open field tackling that ultimately make our kickoff coverage unit a successful part of our special teams structure.


Open Field Rugby Tackling Principles:

Even though from a schematic aspect this article is dedicated to Kickoff Coverage, an explanation of the applied defensive skills with regards to Open Field tackling and Force/Alley rules are needed before applying them to our Kickoff Scheme

As a Defensive Staff both at Southern, and before that South River High Schools, we have completely dedicated ourselves to a rugby tackling style methodology. As a staff we do not feel you can be an effective tackling team in either Defensive or special teams play without completely drilling the concepts of tracking the near hip or pec, contacting with a same foot/shoulder fit, wrapping and pulling tight to the body, and finishing with either a drive for 5 steps or a hawk roll situation. We drill these principles continuously throughout every practice and in many ways, they are drilled in as many non-contact as contact situations. Like many Rugby style schemes, we split our tackles up into three scenarios that really fit into one of two categories.

  1. Ball To situations
  2. Ball Away Situations


Diagram 1


Editor’s Note: Included with this report is a tackling clinic cut up we have used as a staff that highlights the coaching points of both a ball to and ball away tackle.  It is at the end of this report.


Drilling Tackling:

We Drill tracking weekly in really two different ways. In both situations we are stressing an acceleration and a deceleration. Many schemes will employ more of a “shimmy” or come to balance, which is an effective technique to gear down or decelerate a player in space to eventually reaccelerate to tackle. At Southern HS we employ more of a staggered shuffle, which we refer to as a “horse ride” with our near foot up to contact. The reason we prefer this over the shimmy is the shimmy is more of a squared-up position with both feet at the same level. We feel the stagger of the horse ride keeps consistent the same foot-same shoulder principle as well as its less of a true stop and start, which means our players tend to reaccelerate quicker once they truly decelerate to funnel and force the ball carrier back to an adjacent player with leverage.


Force and Pursuit Principles

Force, Alley, and Pursuit rules really apply when the ball or ball carrier is in space or is spilled outside the tackle box. In every defensive call made at Southern High School, there is an identified force player both on the frontside of a play, as well as on the backside (which we refer to as the B.C.R. or Boot, Counter, Reverse player). There is also, in most cases, a Secondary Force player that inserts outside the numbers in an extreme case or due to poor execution. The assignment of the Force player is to keep their outside arm and leg free from a blocker, penetrate to 2 yards of depth, and physically force the ball back into the pursuit of our defense while not allowing the next gap inside to expand. Once the ball crosses the Line of Scrimmage, the force player then has the freedom to fold back in and possibly make an outside-in Hawk or profile style tackle.

Diagram 3


Just inside of the Force player are between 1 and 3 (dependent upon the call and the coverage) “Alley” or chase and spill players who play downhill and will keep the ball on their nearest shoulder to leverage and usually make most of the tackles on a particular play. Alley players can be an over the top ILB, MOF Safety who cleared run/pass, or a quartered safety who plays at 8-10 yards normally.

Lastly, there is normally the End man on the Line of scrimmage, which we refer to as the “Fence” or inside Pursuit player. This particular player has “set the edge” inside in that he has penetrated 2 yards and squeezed the C gap, making the ball bubble or spill out to the alley and Force players. This player is normally a Defensive lineman or OLB, usually responsible for the C Gap on most runs. On a daily basis Pursuit, Alley, and Force rules are repped via both a Pursuit Drill and in our general tackling drills and stations.

In terms of Backside or away pursuit we do teach the B.C.R. assignment along with what we call the “21” player. The 21 player is usually the farthest and deepest person away from the ball, normally a backside corner. The 21 player has really one job: to keep all 21 players besides himself in front of him; deep pursuit but being chiefly responsible for extreme cutback and wind back on his way to the corner of the end zone.



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As a program that stresses Force/Alley rules and rugby style tackling, incorporating these bedrock in everything we do is an important aspect of our program. Looking as the kickoff as an extension of our defensive structure is key towards wining the field position battle and setting our defense up to hopefully get the offense back onto the field in 3 downs or less. In the end, using already established Defensive principles in the instillation of Kickoff, and any other special team, allows for double teaching in a lot of respects and makes the execution of both phases seamless come game time. I want to personally thank the staff of X and O labs for the opportunity to contribute to their site and for what they do for the game of football. It is a true an honor.



Meet Coach Erxleben: Coach Steve Erxleben has been the Head Football Coach at Southern High School in Harwood, Maryland for 3 seasons. Previously, Coach Erxleben was the Defensive Coordinator/Secondary coach at South River High School in Edgewater, Md and has 16 years of Coordinator experience. From 2005-2010 Coach Erxleben was the Head Coach at South River High school appearing in 1 playoff game and winning 7 games in 2010. From 2011-2012 Coach Erxleben was the Head Coach at St. Mary’s High School in Annapolis, MD. Coach Erxleben has also coordinated defenses at Meade High School, and Southern High School, all in the state of Maryland. Coach Erxleben also serves on the Board of Advisors at X&O Labs.





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