At New Palestine, we are an aggressive, up-tempo, no huddle, power spread offense, and a blitz-heavy 3-3 stack defense. When I became the Special Teams Coordinator, I wanted to bring that same aggressiveness to our special teams.
By Wes Anderson
Specials Teams Coordinator
New Palestine High School (IN)
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At New Palestine, we are an aggressive, up-tempo, no huddle, power spread offense, and a blitz-heavy 3-3 stack defense. When I became the Special Teams Coordinator, I wanted to bring that same aggressiveness to our special teams. We tell our kids we play fast and hard and to put a strain on our opponents on downs 1, 2, and 3, but we weren't really doing that in the kicking game. In the other two phases, our expectation is to punish our opponents relentlessly, but then we gave opponents a bunch of hidden yards on 4th down. Why? Our defense works so hard to get off the field, why don’t we take advantage of that in the kicking game?
New Palestine is in the second-largest class in Indiana, so we play against some incredibly talented specialists, particularly kick and punt returners. We only have around 45 players on our varsity roster in a given year. With those two factors considered, the decision about who plays on specials is an easy one for us. Our best players play. We approach it with an attitude of required effort. If you won’t play hard on special teams, you won’t play at all on offense or defense. It’s what we need to do to win. Here’s a look at how we implemented this on our kickoff team.
The last two seasons, we have not had a kicker with a monster leg. We have to go cover kicks. In past years, lining up five players on one side and five on the other didn’t work for us. Our best players were getting double-teamed. Wedge returns were killing us because we preached lane integrity. This past off-season we felt like we needed to make a change to get our best players a better chance of getting to the ball, not depending on the return taking the ball to them. So, we elected to let them go straight to the ball.
We now give our best three tacklers the opportunity to line up wherever they want, run directly to the ball, and make tackles. We call them “Hitmen.” They have no set alignment or assignment. They are encouraged to align differently on every kick so our opponents can’t account for them with the same player each time. The other 7 players on the coverage team still have a lane they are responsible for, but the other 3 are free to take whatever attack angle they deem appropriate.
Our 7 “regular” players line up 4 yards deep instead of the traditional 5 to allow our Hitmen to move freely around the formation during the approach. Our kicker always kicks from the dead middle of the field.
We do NOT believe in safeties. Our edge players are full speed on the rundown, but smart about making sure nothing ever gets outside them.
Here are some alignment examples that I'll talk more in-depth about throughout the course of the article:
Notice how in the kickoff above, Hitmen technically represent players 4, 6, and 10 as you count from left to right. The photo below is the very next kickoff in the same game.
They now represent players 6, 8, and 10, which can completely change how our opponent would block them.
In the instance above, we have created a bunch at the top of the screen. By grouping 2 Hitmen together with one of our regular players, it becomes more difficult for a man return to sort out exactly which of the 3 players belongs to them. Against a traditional single wedge return, it forces the front line players to make difficult decisions about who gets blocked and who gets released to the wedge.
This quads-type look was particularly effective, and one that I encouraged our players to use as frequently as possible against any type of return.
In these 4 photos, you see four totally different alignments, in some cases moving freely between a 5 & 5 alignment and a 6 & 4 alignment, with little to no actual adjustment made by our coaches within the game itself.
We employ a small set of guidelines for our players to think about when we face a certain type of return. In this article, I’ll talk about the three main types of returns – full man-blocked returns, a single-wedge return with man blocking in front of it, and a traditional double-wedge with no man-blocking elements. Almost all returns will, in one way or another, fall into one of those 3 basic categories.
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We’ve noted the following since making these changes:
- Our best players are harder to block because opponents don’t know where they will line up. We saw coaches on the other sideline trying to adjust the return at the last second based on how our hitmen aligned.
- Man blocking schemes do not work against us. We twist both on the approach to the ball and on the rundown. Against man returns, this has resulted in as many as five players being totally unblocked. Man returns averaged under 9 yards per return against us in 2018.
- Wedge returns usually bounce outside the wedge, where we have unblocked edge players waiting to make tackles.
- We have seen a 65% decrease in return yards allowed with this scheme.
- The average starting field position for our opponents is 12 yards further back than with normal kickoff coverage. In previous years, we would get fed up with big returns and just squib the ball because we couldn't cover it. Those days are gone.
- In 2017, 9 of 85 opponent drives started at the 20 or deeper, a rate of 11%. In 2018, that happened on 56 of 118 drives, a rate of 47%.
Meet Coach Anderson: Wes Anderson is the Special Teams Coordinator and Wide Receivers Coach at New Palestine High School. In his 3 years at NPHS, the Dragons are 33-2 with a 2018 IHSAA Class 5A Championship. NPHS teams have broken Indiana All-Time Season Scoring record twice and the Indiana All-Time Season Yardage Record. NPHS has led the state of Indiana in scoring 3 of the last 5 years. In two seasons as STC, the Dragon Red Berets have forced an average of 5 turnovers per season, blocked an average of 6 punts, and have converted 164 of 175 PATs and FGs.