By Luis Hayes
Special Teams Coordinator
Long Beach Poly HS (CA)
Situational football, this is term that we coaches hear about all the time and incorporate it into our weekly preparation. As coaches there are countless situations that we all prepare for. During the season many teams script out situations so that they can see how well their team can execute their scheme in a specific game-like situation. This is true for most offensive and defensive coaches. Unfortunately, the one area of the game that often does not get to work situational football is special teams. This can be contributed to time factors and practice configuration. However, the one situation that no coordinator or head coach ever likes to been in is when you only have 10 men on the field. This is especially true in the kicking game. A special team’s coordinator nightmare is only having 10 men on the field and then having to explain to your head coach why you burned a timeout, took a penalty or were just flat out undisciplined. If you have ever coached special teams you may know exactly the feeling I are referring to. The question now is as a special team’s coach how do you prepare for those unique special teams situations?
As a special teams coach you must always be evaluating everything, specifically your personnel, scheme, and weekly preparation. These are three key factors that will enable your players to be successful on game day.
The evaluation of your players is something that a special teams coach should be doing year around. This is because a special team’s coordinator could potentially end up coaching every player on the roster before the season is over. Whether it’s the starting QB as your holder, your left tackle on PAT or the 9th string wide receiver who happens to also be your best long snapper. As the special coach you should know your roster better than anyone else and you should also be a great evaluator of each player’s individual talents. While many staffs debate about which offensive and defensive starters should and shouldn't be allowed to play on special teams, the determining factor should always be effort. It is very easy to know who are the fastest or most athletic guys on your team but every coach needs to know which guy is incapable of playing more than one phase of the game. The evaluation of talent begins in the weight room. By evaluating your players in the weight room you will be able to predict how certain personnel will respond to certain situations. This will also help you to predict who you can and can't count on in the kicking game.
Observing your players in adverse situations when they are fatigued will tell you whether they can play on special teams or not. When evaluating players it is very important to remain honest and objective about each player’s individual limitations. A player might have the biggest heart in the world but as a kid starts to exert himself past his mental or physical limits it is not only detrimental to the team to play him but it may also be detrimental to the safety of that player. Instead of riding your best players until they reach fatigue, play young talent that will take the field with fresh legs and enthusiasm. Special teams are an opportunity to get as many of your developmental or upcoming players involved in your program; it is not the part of the game where you want to push your best players to their limit because a mistake on special teams could cost you a game.
The other thing that any coach can evaluate about a player in weight room is responsibility. Our punt team consists of most responsible guys who were also the guys that never missed a lift, and never missed a practice. These are the type of guys that are purpose driven individuals and hard workers. Responsible athletes are also usually responsible students. This is the type of kid that you want to use on your special teams because they are mentally and physically dependable. They will keep their head in the game, know the situation, listen to the call and do their job. A lot of this information can also be gathered by looking at an athlete’s attendance at school and in the weight room or by just talking to your strength coaches. The ability to collaborate with the rest of your staff will make your special teams stronger and make managing your special teams easier.
Constantly evaluating your scheme will allow your players an opportunity to showcase their talent. The evaluation process begins by finding out what your players do best. Then as a coach you must be flexible enough to incorporate those skills into your scheme. For example, in 2011 we had 2 excellent kick returners, in fact both of which ended up returning kicks as true freshmen at their respective colleges; UCLA and Arizona St. My personal philosophy on kickoff return has always been to be a vertical downhill runner. The scheme that compliments this philosophy the best is double wedge however both of these return men were shifty elusive runners. For the first four games of the season I forced a scheme on these two seniors which also forced an unnatural running style on these athletes. Consequently, our double wedge return was average at best. However, after listening to my players and staff we added a sideline return that allowed our return guys to be an athlete and run in space. Needless to say our kickoff return became more explosive and dynamic. Conversely, in 2012 we had true vertical downhill runners, so we ran double wedge with great success.
By altering the scheme to fit our player’s talents we had much more success in the kicking game. We also had more guys willing to actively participate on our special teams and be genuinely excited about our kicking game because they were heard and valued as individuals. When the players are excited they look forward to the situation and this eliminates a lack of focus which also naturally makes them better prepared for all special teams situations. This all stems from knowing what our athletes do best, the ability to be flexible and to also allow our players to evaluate the scheme. I always keep in mind that the players have to execute the scheme with a maximum amount of effort and desire. By building off their strengths and providing each special teams unit with a certain level of autonomy and ownership they now have the ability to master the scheme and execute it with great success.