Oakland Raiders' Special Teams Coordinator Bobby April reveals his secrets to developing a dominating kickoff team.
By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
Now entering his 22st season as an NFL special teams coach, and his first with the Oakland Raiders, Bobby April has been known as one of the premier special teams coaches in the country. His units with the Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints and now the Raiders have been consistently among the most productive in the league during his tenure in each of those organizations. Recently, X&O Labs’ Senior Research Manager Mike Kuchar was granted exclusive access to Bobby April. This Q&A reveals the details of that meeting – a meeting focused on building a dominating kickoff unit.
MK: Coach April it’s a pleasure to speak with you. Please identify three to five qualities you look for when selecting kick coverage players?
BA: The first thing he literally has to be able to run fairly well because there is so much space that has to be covered. It’s an open field play. Generally they are going to be more like defensive backs or linebackers taking on a screen. The point is they have to be close to the ball in order to have any success. You don’t necessarily need the toughest guys because your toughest guy may be your left tackle who weighs 300 pounds. You always have a dilemma between toughness and the speed factor. We’re not talking about combine speed or 40-yard dash speed. I mean functional speed. I’m looking for guys that play hard, and are explosive, sudden with decision, sudden with separation from blocks. They may only run a 4.8 but they run at a franatical pace. You may have a guy that runs a 4.5 but doesn’t want to get down there every kick. Most teams don’t have enough of them, so you are going to have put guys in fold or contain positions to fill out the team. We want to be strike and be sudden with taking on blocks. They may not make the play but if they’re the first guys down they may be able to disrupt the dynamics or disrupt the pattern of the return. You have guys on your team like that and you have to get them on your team.
MK: What is your general philosophy behind kick off coverage?
BA: You have to treat kickoff coverage like it’s a goal line play. You need to get people up the field. As you take the best path to the ball, you have to make sure you have inside and in front leverage to the ball. If you don’t, that’s not the best path. You have to arrive at the ball with inside shoulder force and inside leverage on the ball. If there is an obstacle in your way, you have to make a decision on how to evade or beat that obstacle. If there is a great distance between you and the ball, you have more freedom to use space to your advantage to get away from him. If the ball carrier is to one side of the blocker and you are opposite, if I’m going around him and going backdoor I can do that as long as I can recover and take a best path to make a play on a head across tackle (Similar to a pull scheme as a Down lineman, come underneath). You’re not going to get 10 trained killers on there, so you’re always trying to nurture those guys more than anything else. It’s more about coaching attitude than technique. Special teams have more mental obstacles than anything else. It’s always been obstacles that players have to overcome to realize special teams are important.
MK: What is the negative stigma that surrounds special teams? Does it still not get the attention it deserves from coaches and players?
BA: I tell them right from jump street, ‘look, you have not been rewarded in your career from playing on special teams - there were no scholarships for you. You got a scholarship because of offense and defense. Nobody rewarded you based on how you blocked on the front five. In fact, none of those coaches probably even seen you block on the front five. We drafted you in the second round because of how you played linebacker, not how you covered kicks. But we still need your talent to go out there and bust your ass on this play. You’re reward is a win. There mentality is ‘no, I’m here to play linebacker.’ That’s their mentality. That’s what you need to overcome. That isn’t any different now than it was in 1991 when I came into the league.
MK: Which kind of returns do you see mostly?
BA: We’re primarily seeing some type of double team by the front level players. There is usually a sixth guy sneaking up to work with the front line, where connects with one of the front line guys. Or you have a diamond formation where you have five and one is in between the wedge and the front. There is going to be six guys that end up being part of the front line and five being part of the back, generally. We see a double team at the point of attack and some kind of kick out. It’s similar to a traditional power off tackle. If they double the fourth guy in, the wedge guys would go at the 2 and 3. The off-returner will go block the 1. If the 1 was up the field, he would block him like a fullback would kick out a defender. If he was back off the ball, he would square up to him. You get those two wedge guys single blocking that two-for-two for the most part.
This Q&A is continued below…
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Why April doesn't believe in teaching kickoff coverage zones
His opinion on the difference in technique as it pertains to two-gapping and one-gapping kick return blocks.
The most productive and protective way to defeat wedge blocks
How rushing a passer and covering a kick has more similarities than you would think.
His most efficient kick cover drill- the one he uses with NFL players
Why he believes teaching the use of hands to evade blocks when covering kicks may not be as productive as other forms of block destruction
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Continued from above…
MK: Explain what you teach in the contact zone. How do you teach them to leverage the football and train their eyes
BA: To me, it’s very similar to playing defense. If there is a lot of space between you and the ball carrier, you’re treating that blocker the same way a pass rusher would treat an offensive lineman. You’re pass rushing that guy, you’re not fitting your hands on him. The only time we fit our hands is if we’re going to knock him vertically back which would end with a pass rush move. If you’re really far away from the ball, you’re like a receiver chasing space. The closer you get to the ball, the fatter you need to hit the guy. The further away from the ball, the more you want to injure the edge and the more liberties you have to how much you’ll go outside of him to evade him.
MK: Are you specific on lane restrictions?
BA: No. I want them to take the best path to the ball, but never compromising having inside and in front leverage to the ball. If the blocker forces you out of your ability to have inside and in front leverage, than you have to go through him. You can’t take an edge. If you do you’ll lose those critical components, which you have to do.
MK: Explain what you teach in the tackle zone. How do you teach the "approach" on a returner? It is a shimmy? Where are your eyes?
BA: You rarely get a chance to make an open field tackle. We don’t have them breakdown. We’re going to that guy as fast and as quick as they can. There is no coaching up on the shimmy. We don’t see this as an open field play. We’re taking the presumption that we got all 11 guys going. We’re almost on a full blitz. On defense, when we go through the line on a full blitz we’re not going through the line and shimmying up on the QB. So we’re flying through there and looking to put a hat on him.
MK: Where are the majority of mistakes made in kickoff coverage?
BA: Guys not playing fast and trying to analyze the return. Also, guys widening their feet and engaging the blocker in a stalemate too far from the ball. Guys can’t be afraid to make mistakes. You let them know that they have full provision from you that you’re delegating to them to use that recklessness in a game to be fearless of making mistakes. That’s how you get the best coverage. It’s similar to boxing, if they were afraid to throw leather, you’re going to take a lot of hits. You’re not going to win that fight. That’s what happens to kids, they think too much. They give their opponent too much credit. They say ‘if I do this, than he’s going to do this, etc.’ I tell them that everyone at my level has the ability to do this, but some of you will choose not to use it. Those that choose to use it will help us win. Really, you’re coaching an attitude. They must be decisive on their movement to the ball. When they’re not, the ball carrier gains an advantage to push the ball up the field and that’s where you get into trouble.
MK: What is the most under coached aspect of kickoff coverage?
BA: Teaching players how to play in space. So much of playing in space is identifying guys that are going to get up the field and make plays. When you watch Troy Polamalu play, there is no indecision in his play. He sticks his foot in the ground and he’s flying. That’s what you want in your coverage teams. The closer you are to the ball, the more technique is essential. The further you are away from the ball, the more your natural ability or aggression is essential. Coaching kickoff coverage is more giving them the opportunity to gain the experience of judgment than anything else. You can teach them how to keep their elbows in and shoot their hands when they’re going to bull rush, or dropping their shoulder below the hand level of the blocker when they’re taking an edge, dip the shoulder when they cross face, should they surge with opposite shoulder when they rush up the field. You can and should do all of that.
MK: Thank you for taking the time to meet with us, Coach April.
BA: Anytime, Mike. I really like what you guys are doing at X&O Labs.
Questions or Comments? Post your questions or comments below and Coach April or Mike Kuchar will respond. Please note – Coach April has started camp, so he may be limited in time.