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Winning with special teams.

There is no technique in football that requires more actual teaching time than that spent on special teams.

That has been our experience at Apollo Jr. H.S. We are a coed seven-through-nine school of about 900 students. On the freshman level, we have two coaches working with 30 to 50 young men. Over the past 10 years, they have produced a 77-20-3 record. In many of those victories, it was the special teams that tipped the balance in our favor.

This is how we have done it, much of it borrowed, but all of which is practiced every day.

A high school coach once told me that he had the "special teams" deal figured out. "Put speed back there," he told me. He was right--as far as he went. Maybe he had an all-world kick returner, but I still believe that speed alone wouldn't do it.

At Apollo, we have succeeded because of the three P's: The way we Preach it, Personnel it, and Practice it.

Although we have a reputation for explosive offense, we preach defense and special teams. They are the keys to winning from day one.

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Our special-teams plan receives emphasis from spring meetings, through non-contact practice in the Spring, the non-contact phase of two-a-days, the full-contact phase of two-a-days, and fall practice.

This is probably no more than the next coach does. But no amount of preaching about special teams will impact your kids unless you put your money where your mouth is in terms of personnel and practice time.

If you want your kids to know how important the kicking game is, you will have to develop a culture about your best athletes competing for kicking- game spots.

During two-a-days, Scott Sellers, one of our coaches and I, make a list of the players who have made the cut for special teams. We are only looking for the guys who can run and hit. We tend toward tight ends, fullbacks, linebackers, defensive backs, and the occasional h back.

It is exceedingly rare for an offensive lineman to make our kickoff or kick-return teams. Our guards usually stay on the punt team, but they may also be replaced by the physical types I have already mentioned.

Our kids take great pride in making these teams. More than any other place in our program, we will promote or demote special-teams players based on performance.

Even though I still see special teams loaded with lumbering linemen, many programs have made the commitment to stock their special teams with runners and hitters. What most programs have not done is commit to practice time.

Many programs pay lip service to the fact that special teams make up a third of the game. Even though few single plays on offense or defense have the impact of a special-teams play, coaches continue to have their kicking-game people work non-contact on the day before the game.

At Apollo we long ago made the commitment to kick live three days a week. Since our games are on Thursdays, our typical weekly special-teams schedule will have us kicking PAT/FG on Friday as part of our situations practice.

On Monday, our offensive day, we will punt and return kick-offs. On Tuesday, our defensive day, we return punts and kick off.

All of this is done in full pads with full contact. Each session borrows 20 to 25 minutes from a practice schedule of an hour and 45 minutes to two hours.

I am often asked whether I am worried about the risk of practicing open-field situations with full-contact.

First, we have had only one serious injury in the last 10 years of our special- teams practice--a broken arm to a substitute.

Second, I think the risk is outweighed by the advantages gained from the practice.

We involve everyone in special teams practice. I've seen a lot of special-teams' practices that had the coaches working with 11 players while 35 knelt (doing nothing). Right up until contact in two-a-days, we teach everyone our special-teams' schemes.

Our PAT/FG drill offers a good example of how to keep people and practice hopping. We run the drill after stretching and conditioning at the beginning of practice. Without huddling, we will get in 25 kicks and one fake, forcing our kids to set up quickly or move to a new hash-mark and reset.

All personnel not on the kick team are divided into block teams, each with its own captain. (You don't need 11 people on each block team.) The block teams rotate every three kicks, with the resting teams retrieving and rotating new footballs back to me.

Before we start the drill, I will tell the kick team which kick we will fake. For instance, we might fake the second kick on the left hash at the 10-yard line. We will then kick six extra points, move the ball back to the right hash at the 10 and proceed to attempt two kicks from each hash at the 10, the 15, and the 20. We will kick two from the middle at the 25.

All this is done as much as possible without stopping. After every kick, the deep snapper looks for me to feed him a new ball.

MONDAYS

After stretching and conditioning, we punt. We put the ball at the five, which forces us to kick out of the end zone. This is just another subtle way to get in some extra mental work.

We use a spread-punt formation with two wings and two wide outs, a man protection scheme, and will practice at least two reps blocking up to nine, blocking 10, and both our fakes (a run and a pass). We will then walk the field and return kicks.

We don't call it that, but our opponents refer to our kick-return scheme as a starburst. We run a series of fakes and handoffs to our three deep men. We will always wall one side of the field, but will often run a naked handoff when we find someone thinning their coverage by running people outside the wall. Before we began running this scheme nine years ago, we ran a cross-blocking scheme.

I believe that you have to have a specific scheme if you want to score. In the middle-wedge and even the kick-out wedge schemes, I often see exercises in wishful thinking. We have returned 13 kickoffs in nine years.

High school coaches have called this scheme "junior high stuff" and not worthy of being run at their exalted level. So I was gratified to find on some old Stephenville film that no less than Art Briles used this scheme.

TUESDAYS

After stretching and conditioning, we return punts. Though we will always have a block scheme, we prefer the walled return. I believe you must have an organized plan if you want to score. Simply holding up the coverage team is more of an act of faith than a scheme.

Just in the last year, we have returned six punts back inside the red zone.

We kick off from the hash, with six to the wide side. We borrowed a great scheme for numbering the placement of kicks, one through nine, on a grid from Texas great Marty Criswell, who might be the most organized man on the planet.

From left to right, 1-2-3 short, 4-5-6 medium, and 7-8-9 deep. With a right- footed kicker, we will rep several ones (onside), two's (surprise onside), and sixes (a hard squib down the hash). We don't kick the ball deep unless we can kick it into the end zone.

Kicking the ball in the air to the opposing Stud is an act of ego. We prefer to take that hazard out of play. If your Stud touches the ball he will have to pick it up off the ground.

WEDNESDAYS

We use a situation script, borrowed from Coach Criswell, that includes all the different special teams. A number of other programs use a similar script.

When our pre-game practices became tedious, we began using the script. It transformed our practices into the most fast-paced item in our program.

Players are substituted from the sidelines, with everything duplicating game situations, except that we only work in uppers, so we wrap but do not tackle.

After 26 years in this business, I evaluate the coaches I see by how well their programs do the less obvious things that make a team successful.

Nothing reflects a more positive light on a coach and his program than a team that consistently wins the special-teams battle.

It is gratifying to see young coaches with a passion for special teams and who work to make them special, indeed. I hope some of this information is useful to you. Feel free to contact me at mark.malcom@risd.org.

Gentlemen, remember: You are doing something important every day!

RELATED ARTICLE: APOLLO JUNIOR HIGH SPECIAL TEAMS SCRIPT

Apollo Panthers Pre Game

Pre Game Script

1. K/O Return: Starburst

2. Offense: (+40) Score

3. PAT/FG: Swinging Gate

4. K/O: #6 (Squib)

5. Defense: (+40) 3rd Down stop

6. Defense- Punt Return: (+40) Wall Right

7. Offense: (+20) Score in the Red Zone

8. PAT/FG: PAT

9. K/O: #2 (Surprise On sides)

10. Offense: (+50) Two-minute Drivevary T/O

11. Offense: (+25) Run a play / Spike the ball

12. PAT/FG: FG Hot

13. Defense: (+3) Goal line stop

14. Offense: (+3) Coming out

15. Punt: (+3) Punt out of the end zone (10 Liz)

16. Defense: (+35) Strip the ball

17. Offense: (+5) Score from short yardage / goal line

18. Offense: (+3) 2 pt. Conversion

19. K/O: #1 (On sides)

20. Offense: (+45) Convert 3rd and long

21. Offense: (+30) Quick mode after and explosive play

22. Offense: (+20) Red call

23. PAT/FG: (+25) FG Waco

24. Punt: (-20) Punt Dallas

25. Defense: (+20) FG Block

26. Offense: (-20) Green call

27. Offense: (-15) Quick Kick

28. Punt: (-15) Punt Waco

29. Punt: (-10) Take a safety

30. K/O: (-20) Kickoff after a safety

31. Offense (+35) Possession play

32. Offense (+30) Kneel down

33. Defense: (+35) Victory punt return

By Mark W. Malcolm, Football Coach

Apollo Jr. High School, Richardson, TX
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:FOOTBALL
Author:Malcolm, Mark W.
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
Words:1708
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