Football Kick Off Coverage
The Indianapolis Glazier Clinic was a medium sized clinic with a small but enthusiastic contingent of youth football coaches. It was great to see guys from all the way from Cincinnatti there that ran my system last year for the first time. I got to the clinic just in time to see some excellent speakers including a Special Teams guru that had sent a number of kickers to Division I and NFL teams. I got the chance to listen to an Illinois Hall of Fame High School coach, Mike Rude talk about the nuances of his famous Shotgun 'T' Series as well as hear a former 11 year NFL vet speak about connecting to players. I had breakfast one on one with a High School head coach from El Paso whose team set numerous Texas Passing Records. I had the pleasure of sharing a ride with fellow speaker David Tennison, the Defensive Coordinator from Jenks High School in Oklahoma and got a chance to talk with him on the 40 minute trip to the airport as well as when we waited for our flights.
Jenks as many of you know is a perennial USA Today Top 10 Program. It was non stop football for 3 days and 2 nights and as usual I came away the better for the experience. We don't go to these things with the idea we are looking for new football plays or new schemes, just better ways to accomplish our goals and to see how other successful coaches and programs do things. Kickoff Coverage One area I thought we needed improvement on was our kickoff coverage. We onside kick with a mob or pooch kick until we are leading by 3 touchdowns, then we kick deep.
Our onside and pooch kick coverage has been very good. In the last 8 seasons, we have yet to have a return for a touchdown and our recovery rates have ranged from about 5 %-30 %. Our theory is, why put the ball in the hands of the other teams best player "in space", when no one is holding a gun to your head to do so? They want the ball in that guys hands, so why do I want to give the other team exactly what they want? Deep Kicks What hasn't looked so good for us has been our deep kickoff coverage. We just haven't bothered to put a descent coverage scheme in place or even practice covering deep kicks. Part of my lack of coaching effort in this area comes from priorities and part comes from the fact that when we are up by 3 or more scores and kick deep we really don't care if there is a descent return or not. But if part of our charge as youth football coaches is to pursue excellence in every aspect of the game, our deep kick coverage was in need of a lot of work. High School Legend and His Kick Coverage Concepts Phil Acton is a High School coach with a tremendous track record of success, especially in the special teams arena. His kick off coverage team had not had a kickoff return for a touchdown in over 20 years and last season had just 2 returns go past the 30 yard line. Phil is firmly convinced the "lane theory" that most kick-off coverage teams use doesn't make much sense. He drew up a number of returns that showed the sheer silliness of this concept.
If the opposing team were to receive the kick on the right hash and the returner ran the ball straight up the right hash, the kicking teams players on the left hash and to the left of the left hash would be wasted players if they stayed in their lanes. These left hash defenders could even be left unblocked, allowing the return team to use double teams and numbers to overwhelm the coverage team where the return team wanted to focus its return. Phil had a very simple concept imparted to all his kick coverage players: keep the returner in front of and inside of you. So if you are on the left side of the returner, you would adjust your pursuit path to insure the ball carrier was in front of but also inside your right shoulder. The defenders would continue to adjust their pursuit paths to insure they were not being outflanked. Now the ball carrier instead of just having to beat 2-3 players that are in or nearby the 'lane' he chose to run in, he has to beat 8-10 defenders. Phil also suggested directional kicking so his teams had to only defend a portion of rather than the entire field. He always wanted to kick away from the most dangerous return man and make that returner run to field the football. Kick Coverage for Youth Football When coaching youth football it is important that you understand the importance of special teams. Your kick coverage team is not the one you load up all your non-starters on, that is a recipe for disaster.
Open space tackling is something most of your non-starters don't do very well in most cases. In my book "Winning Youth Football a Step by Step Plan" we give you much safer and player development friendly methods of getting those kids playing time, but it surely isn't on the kickoff team. Youth Football Coaching Adjustment In youth football it may make sense to add a small adjustment to this strategy. A simple way to force the ball carrier to the inside would be to position your boxing ends in positions that would force the ballcarrier to the middle of the field or better yet to one side of the field, so you have less field to defend. You could also assign your best open field tacklers to the side you are forcing to. As most of you know, I don't like to recommend anything we have not heavily field tested with a variety of teams, ages, skill sets and competition, so I'm not advocating this method just yet. But this is an area we will be looking at very closely for next season. I've never been a fan of lanes and the simple "in front of inside" method, seems to make sense and worth a hard look for next fall.