By Bill Lund
Kickoff coverage can set the tone for the start of a game or second half. It’s a unit that must have 11 athletes who can play fast, be disciplined and understand leverage and angles of attack for the returner.
I prefer to look at the kickoff unit as a defensive play with fits and gaps just as any other defensive play. Though it appears simple, executing a proper kickoff is more than running down to knock someone down. Execution must be precise or big yards are at stake.
Get to your fit, find the ball, tackle it and – if you can – get it back to the offense.
I number players in the unit from outside to inside from 1 to 5. We have L1 to L5 and R1 to R5.
The 1s are the fold and fill players. After the kick, they fall behind the coverage, assess and take the best path to the ball.
The 2s are the contain players and must keep everything inside of them. They must set the edge and pursue at ball depth.
The 3s and 4s are fit players. They fit gaps based on the return scheme. The 3s fit outside the tight end, keying the tackle, guard, tight end triangle. If the tight end key pulls, they will track him like a puller. The 4s key the center/guard and fullback triangle to help determine the direction of the kick. They will fit outside the fullbacks.
The 5s are the “spill and over the top players.” The 5s key the center/guard and fullback triangle to help determine the direction of the kick. If the kick goes left, the L5 will fit inside the fullbacks with the R5 working over the top – and vice versa. I prefer to kick the ball from the middle of the field to either corner.
The goals are simple. On approach, we want to hit the restraining line – the point the kicker contacts the ball like a steel rod. All players should be at maximum speed and hitting the line at the same time where we can make a straight line through them all.
From the minus-35 – or minus-40 in high school – to the plus-30 yard line is the fly zone. In the fly zone, we must beat all blocks with speed. You can refer to my earlier kickoff drills article that details out some great fly zone drills.
From the plus-30 to the plus-20 is the strike zone. This is where most of the contact will occur. We must understand spacing and leverage and use our hands and feet to defeat blockers. Players must stay on the edge of blocks, always defeating them to the ball side. Against any doubleteam coverage players, we will split the seams of the double and will never trade 1 for 1 in blocks vs. a double team.
Our basic rules in coverage are if the returner is 25 yards or more, we can beat blocks back door. If the returner is 15 or less, we must punch and press, giving ourselves the ability to have a two-way go.
Inside the 20 is the big play zone. Here we must be great tacklers, make the big play and create momentum and field position for the defense. We are looking to cause and create fumbles and swarm on top of any loose balls.
The offensive return team is trying to execute a play versus the defensive kickoff team. Our mentality will be a defensive mentality. We will all have a fit responsibility within the defensive scheme. We also will have a force/contain player as well as alley players that are expected to make the tackle.
The kickoff coverage unit is arguably my favorite unit to coach. If you have an explosive offense, it will be one you want to make sure is on point to keep the opponent’s momentum in check. Through trial and error, I have found that this scheme is simple to implement and teach as well as effective in getting players to their fits fast to limit returns.
In our first year at Saginaw Valley, we went from 125th in the country to 42nd in coverage defense with the same kicker. What we were able to do was create a unit that was confident in its fits and were able to play fast.
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.