To be successful on the punt block unit, it is important to be efficient and organized with your scouting, game-planning, meetings, and practice time.
By Andy Merfield
Cornerbacks Coach & Special Teams Coordinator
Benedictine College (KS)
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With limited time to practice special teams during a game week, it is very important to be as efficient and organized as possible. This is especially important when it comes to the punt block unit. In my experience, among the main four special teams’ units (kickoff, kickoff return, punt, and punt return), this one is typically given the least amount of practice time and often does not get the first choice in special team’s personnel. To be successful on the punt block unit, it is important to be efficient and organized with your scouting, game-planning, meetings, and practice time.
I think it is important, on the punt block unit and in other areas of football, that one does not try to be too good at everything, every week. We have three main points of emphasis when game-planning on the punt block unit: pressuring the punt, returning the punt, and defending fake. Most weeks, we will choose to focus on only two of those three areas. With limited time to plan, meet with players and practice, I have found that focusing on only two areas can help provide clarity as we strategize for the game and structure our practice time. I will come back to this topic in more detail when I discuss game-planning.
In this report, I will first discuss the work that goes into setting up your scheme in the off-season. Then I will cover practice work and player selection on the punt block unit. Finally, I will review game-planning and what we do to prepare our punt block unit during game week, as well as some thoughts on how to handle game-day decisions. I will specifically focus on organization and efficiency on this unit, but I think that many of the procedures we use can also be applied to other special teams, as well as offense and defense.
Offseason Work and Setting Up Scheme
During the offseason, I will conduct a review of the previous year’s unit. This review will include statistics on which of our calls and concepts were most successful, ideas on our scheme and better ways to coach and drill our techniques, notes on our opponents’ schemes and better ways to attack their protections and coverages, and thoughts on our personnel (especially underclassmen who will be with us again in the coming fall).
In the summer I will build a menu of pressure and return calls that we like against different punt team structures. We primarily see shield-style protections, along with a few teams that use pro-style protections. If an opponent is radically different from one of those types of structures, usually I will have to put together something a bit different for us as well.
On the pressure menu, we will usually have four or five different pressures that we use against shield teams, three that we use against pro-style teams, and one main concept against rugby teams. It is important to note that we will only carry one or two different pressure calls into a given game (more on this when we get to the game-planning section).
Building our pressure menu helps reduce the time one has to spend creating new concepts during a game week. It’s akin to offensive coaches who have a true ‘system’ (i.e. wing-T or flexbone option) with all their answers built into the scheme. They do not have to game plan all day Sunday, because they already know what they like against different coverages and structures. We try to be the same way with our punt pressures; we just categorize what we are going to be seeing and choose from the menu based on the specifics of what the opponent does.
For our returns, our basic structure rarely changes. We will always carry a man return (every man wins his one-on-one matchup) and sometimes a directional return as well. We will game plan our directional return based on the opponent's kick placement and coverage tendencies. To increase efficiency and learning transfer, almost all players will have the same responsibility on our man return and our directional return. On the directional return, we are just telling them where the ball is going and what leverage we want them to have on their man.
As we get into practices during spring ball and fall camp, our attention turns back to our players and the techniques that we use on the punt block unit. During spring practice and fall camp, we only do drill work in a circuit format, small groups, or one-on-one competitive work. We rarely will do any full-team reps before the first game week. I think this ties in with the emphasis on efficiency and technique. We teach our players the proper techniques, then (once we are in-game week) let them apply their techniques to different pressure and return calls.
In our game week practices, we will sometimes use some of the punt block practice time to break up into smaller groups. This allows us to best utilize our time so that all members of the team are working on the skills and calls that are most relevant for them. We will also try to use the same scout-team players throughout the season to simulate the opponent’s punt team. That way the same players are always working similar techniques from week to week, which gives us a better look. If there is anything special that the punt team does (speed huddles or drastic shifts, etc.), we can try to build in some time during practice where the coach who works with the scout team can get them organized while the players on the punt block unit do drill work.
As we come out of fall camp, we work to put together our depth chart. I think it is very important to categorize players based on their abilities and stack up against players on the depth chart with similar skill sets (often players who play the same defensive or offensive position). In the same way that an offensive coach should be able to describe the characteristics of their ideal tight end, a coach running the punt block unit should know what he is looking for in different positions and roles. This helps with the efficiency of running the unit in that when you need to make changes to the depth chart, you already know what you are looking for in that position. Using circuit training on this unit allows our coaches to instruct all players in the same basic skills and evaluate a wide variety of players and put them in positions where they can be successful. Here are the general roles that we use on the punt block unit:
Corners: our players at the corner position are almost always cornerbacks by trade as defensive players. We need guys we can trust playing man coverage in space.
Secure: we will have two players whose primary job is to secure off the edge and make sure the ball comes inside on any potential fake. These players are rarely the most athletic ones on the field, but they are guys we can trust to get the ball turned inside and make a tackle if necessary (usually backup linebackers or safeties). These players are often ones you would not want in a one-on-one hold-up situation, but once the ball is kicked, they can hustle back and get in someone’s way to have a chance to spring a big return.
Block emphasis: the best punt block specialists I have been around all having great athleticism and desire to get to the block point. They must also have the intelligence and toughness to navigate protections and survive collisions with the shield, and the courage to go after the block when they can do so. We also coach our guys on their decision-making around the block point. This is a clinic talk for another time, but we give specific coaching points on where and how to finish, when to leave their feet, etc. In three seasons I have run the punt block unit, we have blocked 16 punts and only had three roughing/running into the kicker penalties.
Return emphasis: other players on the unit focus more on returns and are rarely in on the rush. These players need to do a great job being tenacious and persistent to win their one-on-one matchups.
At the college level, we also always have a player on the field (usually an experienced and trustworthy linebacker or safety) that can make checks within the game plan or if the opponent presents an unfamiliar formation.
Returner: the returner needs to be trustworthy and sure-handed above all else. No matter how athletic he is, if he has issues with ball security, he will not be on the field for us in that role. Usually, with punt returners, agility and quickness in a small space are more important than blazing speed.
Continue to the full-length version of this report...
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- The process Coach Merfield undertakes to build a pressure menu based on pro-style, rugby-style and shield style punt operations.
- The task work he uses to scheme pressures against various types of protections.
- The Punt Return Hit Chart Coach Merfield uses to present looks to take advantage of protection schemes in order to optimize potential returns.
- The four principles he uses to defend and discourage potential fakes by presenting multiple looks.
- The game week schedule Coach Merfield uses as well as the game day situational considerations based on: backed up, short yardage, midfield, etc.
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I would like to thank the staff at X&O Labs for allowing me to present some thoughts in this report. I would also like to thank my coaching friends John Steger, Jason Hoskins, Travis Walch, and Kaleb Koch for their contributions and thoughts over the years.
There is a lot of work that goes into being successful on the punt block unit. With limited practice time, multiple looks to prepare for, and not having the first choice of personnel, it can be difficult to be successful. With that said, it is very important to be organized and efficient when working on this unit (or anything else in life, for that matter). I would encourage coaches to build inconsistent processes that you can use week after week and season after season. You will be more organized and get more out of your time.
Meet Coach Andy Merfield: Coach Merfield recently completed his first season coaching the cornerbacks at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Before that, he spent three seasons coaching at Upper Iowa University and was a graduate assistant at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He started his coaching career in Madison, Wisconsin, working with the Edgewood High School football team.