By Bill Lund
Developing an efficient and effective way to practice kickoff coverage is a constant battle between skill development and scheme review. Most weeks, teams only have a small window of practice time to accomplish this task.
Throughout the years, I have found that focusing too much practice time on scheme creates more angst in preparation. Inconsistency and lack of quality looks often offered by scout teams limit the ability to get ready to execute at game speed.
A few years ago, I shifted my approach to focus on getting more work at game speed. I started evaluating our practice plans and looked to steal time for skill development within practice. Most of the programs I have been associated with have had prepractice or pre-warm-up special teams periods where returners, snappers, kickers and punters get some extra work. I began using this time for the “Unit of the Day” skill work.
When you the break down most practice schedules, there is always time budgeted for offensive or defensive individual work followed by group time, unit periods and team periods. Rarely is individual time dedicated to special team’s skills. It comes back to sacrificing individual skill work for scheme work. The prevailing method for special teams practice has been to develop skills predominately during fall camp when you have more time and focus on scheme when the season begins.
When you evaluate the number of times a team kicks off in a game, it ranges from one to eight reps on average, forcing the scheme you are facing to be limited. What your players need to truly know for kickoff is the direction of kick and the direction or return. This is all the information needed to allow your players to know how to defeat the blocks and limit returns when facing opponents at speed.
With this in mind, I create as much time for individual skill development for all the various special team’s units. When breaking down the kickoff coverage unit, I determined that skill work was more crucial for the unit’s success than the actual scheme. I designed the scheme to be adaptable to any Return look we will see and dependent on players winning their battles in space to get to the ball carrier. Hence my focus was on mastering our individual work at speed.
Practice time for our kickoff period is broken up by using our 10 minutes of prepractice time to work on our close quarter skills. Our 10 minutes of in-practice time is broken up by position.
Starting during the preseason, we will work all our drills during the first two weeks at least twice. Once we get into game mode, we rotate the drills used throughout camp to hone and master our skills needed to excel in coverage at a high level. The drills are broken up like this.
- Punch press/quick (can add sled work)
- Back door, speed
- Donut-hawk tackle, drive for 5
Scheme and Timing
- Restraining line
- Jog the fits
Understanding leverage and responsibility
- Fold drill
- Can drill
- Lev drill
Winning vs. blocks in space
- Fly zone
- Mascot drill
During prepractice, we always work on an aspect such as hand development for block destruction or on our ability to avoid blockers in space as well as tackling – especially for offensive players. These are close quarter drills focusing on a specific skill that I will look to have applied to our full speed drills.
Backdoor drill in prepractice
Most days, we will work fold drill with the 1s, 2s and kickers with the rest of the unit working a leverage drill for a five-minute block. The last five minutes we will work our restraining line drill then jogging our fits we will see for the given week.
The next week, we will switch up drills where we can work on defeating blocks with speed with our fly zone drill.
In the next five-minute block, we work the whole group on block destruction and leverage using our mascot drill. I will mix in our leverage drill to work on leveraging a returner with a teammate, having the whole unit participate.
On Fridays, when we do our pregame walkthrough, we will review our fits versus the return looks, jogging through execution and adjustments.
I have been successful in the implementation of this method in training our kickoff coverage throughout the years. In 2016, when I took over at Saginaw Valley State, our coverage unit was 125th in the country. Utilizing the same personnel, we improved to 42nd in the country in kickoff coverage.
The scheme is designed just like run fits for a defense. Each player has fits he must get to and responsibilities to execute.
The scheme is simple to execute and allows players to utilize the skills we are mastering to play fast, to play smart and finish.
From the outside in, our players are numbered 1 through 5 on both the left and right sides. Each position has a responsibility and a skill set that we as a staff try to match. Our 1s are the playmakers. They are called fold and fill players. Our 2s are the contain players. Everything stays inside them. The 3s are punch and press players, typically linebacker or big safety types who can take on and defeat blockers. The 4s are physical thumpers: big linebackers, H-backs, tight ends or defensive ends. The 5s are linebacker types who serve as spill and scrape players.
- Fall behind the unit, ball to you, fill best path to the ball with speed. Ball away, fold and find lane to the ball at speed.
- Contain everything inside and get to ball depth. Ball away, “trim the fat” with speed at ball depth.
- Must play physical. They will key the tight end on the return and fit to his outside.
- Physical players who must beat frontline blocks with speed and fit outside the up-backs/fullbacks.
- On a return left, the L5 spills inside the rullbacks and the R5 scrapes over the top to the ball. Vice versa when going to the right.
- Stay on top of the ball, squeezing the ball-carrier to the sideline and using it as a help defender.
Bill Lund is the linebackers coach and special teams coordinator at Saginaw Valley State University. He previously held positions at Hope College, North Park University of Carleton College, St. Norbert College, University of Buffalo, Colby College and Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @Lundsanity51.