KICKOFF COVERAGE: AN INDIVIDUALIZED APPROACH

Orginal Posting is USA Football Coaches’ Notes

Kickoff coverage is an underrated aspect of the kicking game. It is well documented and intuitive that a further a team must go to score a touchdown, the less likely they are to score a touchdown.

At Dakota State, we dissect our kickoff coverage with two questions in mind:

  • How can we individualize the roles and teaching while keeping the big picture in mind?
  • How can we make the roles realistic, simple to the individual and repeatable?

In answering these questions, we came up with the following scheme.

The kicker

Just as an offense is only as good as its quarterback, a kickoff coverage team is only as good as its kicker. It is imperative for every team to find a good kicker.

In college, it’s a little easier because we can recruit players for that position. In high school, coaches need to get creative. Have open tryouts. Talk to the soccer coaches. Tell players they only need to show up for 15 minutes of practice. Do whatever you can to find someone who can execute what you are trying to do.

It also is important to aid in the development of your kickers. Encourage them to go to camps, help and coach them as best as you can, and tell them how important they are to the team. If you can afford it, go along with them to a kicking camp and take as many notes as you can.

In our kickoff scheme, we need our kickers to kick the ball deep, and it must land on the top to the middle of the numbers. That is our No. 1 priority.

If you have a kicker who can do that consistently from the middle of the field, great, but that usually is not the case for us. I let him kick from wherever he feels comfortable in his ability to put the ball where it needs to go. To find his best spot, I tell him to go to the near hash and work toward the middle if he needs to. We also set our scheme based on what side of the field he is more consistent at getting the ball to our target zone.

Contrarians may say I am giving away where we are kicking the ball, and this may be true, but a well-placed kick is more important to me then tipping off location. If we feel a return team is cheating us, we always have specialty kicks in our back pocket. In the video below, you can see our kicker alignment, and he puts the ball exactly where we want to put it on a deep left kick.

Once we have a player who can consistently kick it to the boundary numbers, we work on getting hang time to 4.0 seconds; work kicks from both hashes; practice specialty kicks such as surprise onside kick, squibs and sky kicks; and continue to build power.

Those are important but all are secondary to the ability to put the ball deep and on the numbers.

Coverage basics

Our coverage team is a 5-by-5 formation around the kicker. We will always have the same five players go to the kick or boundary side and will always have the same five go to the non-kick or field side. This allows their roles to never change and helps keep it simple and repeatable for our players.

We number our players from the outside in with B for boundary side and F for field side.

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Boundary side

B1 and B2 work closely in a technique we call the “Force Fold.” I want B1 to be an aggressive, physical player. If he is getting kicked out, he needs to drive the blocker back as best he can. If he is bypassed, he needs to squeeze down and make the tackle if the return is coming to the boundary sideline.

B2 needs to make B1 right. Like a Cover 4 safety, he needs to fill the vacant ally left by B1. If B1 gets kicked out, he fits inside. If B1 gets reached, he needs to fit outside. He does not need to have a ton of speed. He just needs to be able to read and react quickly and make a tackle. He will trail B1 slightly so he has time to react and to mess up the timing of the kick return blocks.

Below is a video of good force fold situation. No. 5 is our B1, and you can see he is being aggressive in closing down the gap that the blocker is trying to make. Although he is not getting a reach block, he is able to press the kickout block back into the gap which forces the returner to bounce. The B2 (No. 11) does a great job of seeing this unfold and fills the outside gap. You may also see the relationship between B1 and B2 sometimes allows for a natural twist, which I think is a nice bonus.

B3 and B4 are our lane runners. We want B3 to run a lane 2 yards on top of numbers and B4 run a lane on the hash. We want our lane runners on their landmarks for the first 20 yards. After that, we really want them to leverage the returner and the blocks they get.

Best case scenario: We force the returner sideway and to the sideline and the Force Fold, but it may not always happen that way. For instance, if a return team is trying to hit the return between 3 and 4, we want B4 to fight the kickout block and B3 beat the reach or down block.

B5 and F5 are our gunners. We give them one rule, and that is move the ball. They need to beat any block and get the returner to stop his feet or move toward a sideline. Rarely do teams get big returns if the returner completely stops his feet and restarts. The timing of the blocks does not match up, and the coverage team converges. That is what we want our 5s to do.

I used to have our gunners from the edges similar to a punt coverage team, but I think that was a big mistake. Why would you want your most destructive forces coming from the furthest away? Additionally, if the other team returns to a sideline, the gunner to the far side may not even get to the ball. I now believe putting your gunners inside allows you to create havoc from the inside out and force the ball to one or the other sideline so the returner has to run sideway before turning upfield, which is ideal.

Below is a clip of what we want from our 5s. As the returner comes up the hash, we want our 5s to beat blocks and converge. If the returner tries to run between them, they must make the tackle. If not, they must force him horizontal and get him to stop his feet.

Field side

F4 is our final lane runner. We give him the lane of the near upright for the first 20 yards. He has got to be able to recognize blocks and the way the returner is going, because we need him greatly if the return tries to go to the field as we would like him to turn the returner back toward the boundary side.

F3 is our fastest player. We want him to knife in from the field side as tight as he can behind the initial wave. By alignment, we try to make him unblockable. By this I mean we will stretch B2 and B1 as wide as we need to widen out the return team member responsible for B3, usually a player on the front line or a tight end. If we stretch that player far enough and he needs to reach our B3, it is impossible with his speed and alignment.

F2 is our contain player to the field side. This player needs to be disciplined, competitive and have ice in his veins. In a worst case scenario, we could miskick the ball and the return team could have a field return on. In that scenario, F2 needs to keep his outside arm free and drive any block he gets down to reduce any space the returner would have in the middle of the field. He must either make the tackle or slow him down enough for the boundary players to get there.

The video below shows a field return by the return team. F2 (No. 47) does a great job of recognizing this early and attempting to set a field-side edge. Although he ends up getting reached at the end, he does his job stringing the returner out and our lane-runner F4 (No. 14) does a great job of recognizing the field return, leveraging the returner and making the tackle.

F1 is our aggressive fold player. We want him to trail the rest of the team by 10 yards. If the returner gets hung up at all by the initial line, F1 is the finisher. F1 needs to be a great tackler and have enough awareness to recognize a boundary return from a field one.

If he sees a field return, we absolutely do not want him to fold. We want him to stay on the field side and leverage the returner. Below is a great example of F1 (No. 42) doing his job. As he sees the return go to the field, he abandons his fold and leverages the returner to make the tackle.

Adjustments

We have calls built into our scheme that allow us to exchange roles of any of these players. This is important in order to keep return teams guessing and not allow them to get a bead on what you are trying to do. We do this by straight-up exchanging roles or by running twists where we run normal for 10 yards and twist players in and out.

If we see a player leave early, a poor ball handler in the front line or if a team is not widening out to our field side, we use multiple surprise onside kicks. Design each onside kick to take advantage of what you are seeing on a weekly basis, but you should have your kickers practicing these kicks for the entire season – even if you do not plan on using one. The better he gets, the more creative you can be.

We also use squibs and sky kicks to keep teams off-balance, to neutralize a returner, to negate a certain return we are exposed on or if the weather is giving us fits. This is another thing our kickers must be practicing all season long even if we do not plan on using them.

Having good kickoff coverage is imperative to setting in motion a positive snowball effect. By pinning a team deep after a score, you put more pressure on their offense to perform, which usually leads to poor execution and good field position for yourself.

Another thing we say every day to our kickoff team and in every kickoff huddle is: make it, take it. This is derived from the schoolyard pickup basketball games where a team who scores gets to keep possession of the ball. We want to have the same mentality on our kickoff team. Just because we scored does not mean we have to let them have the ball.

We want to be sound in our jobs, but we also want to be stripping at the ball and try to pop it free because there is nothing more demoralizing to an opposing defense who just allowed a score who now has to come back and defend their goal deep in their territory. Those types of swings change games so we want to emphasize their importance as best as we can.

Jared Hottle is the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach at Dakota State University. Follow him on Twitter @CoachHottle.