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Risk vs Reward: Should your best players play special teams also?


temptation
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Thought about a question this weekend.  Put your coaching caps on.  How much emphasis do you place on special teams, specifically kickoff and punt returns?  The rule changes have made the kickoff much less dangerous at the collegiate and pro level but not so much when it comes to the punting unit.

Injuries can occur at anytime but is it worth the risk?  

One train of thought is that it is a three phase game and special teams is important and should be treated as such.  

Another is that possession of the ball is the most important concept and you just need someone back there that has reliable hands.

I ask, as my favorite collegiate team had WR1 returning punts this past weekend and he is now out for the season due to an ACL tear suffered on a punt return.  Seems like on a scholarship roster of 80+ guys you could find someone else to put back there who could be slightly less talented, but also not as important to your offensive/defensive first unit yet still reliable.

What say you?

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Edward George calls this team the Special Unit (or something like that).

Best 11 play in biggest games.

Full platoon works best when possible.

2 of the most successful college coaches in recent history use/d "star" players on special teams.

Saban at Bama and Meyer at O$U

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I’ve been involved in HS football for over 1/2 century, and I have been firmly convinced all that time that coaches do not put enough emphasis on special teams. It is hard for kids to be disciplined enough to consistently drive the ball the length of the field to score, without making mistakes. Special teams generate field position advantage that can give the offense short fields, and even big play scores. And special teams is a place where you can offset physical and athletic disadvantages with scheme and ingenuity. If I were a coach, I’d spend a lot of time blocking kicks and running tricks.

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Great topic.

On one had, you'd think there are many capable players to play on special teams. They've made it to this level for a reason............they are very talented. 

On the other hand, if you are a multi-million dollar coach at a university that expects wins and a national championship, I may be tempted to put my best athlete on the team in a position to make plays on special teams. 

I can see both sides of the coin on this one. Personally, I'm giving my second string players an opportunity to get on the field and showcase their skills. That experience in front of thousands of fans is invaluable. Not to mention, your best player on the team doesn't do you any good with an ACL tear that happened on special teams. 

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40 minutes ago, temptation said:

Injuries can occur at anytime but is it worth the risk?

Calculating the risk/reward ratio on this, and other decisions, is why they pay those guys big bucks. One thought is that the situation enters into the math. How badly do I need a score here? Am I going to be in good field position even with a decent punt and a fair catch? And of course, personnel issues are relevant as well. Is this guy actually irreplaceable on my team, or can I pretty much make up for his lost production with a couple of other guys already on my roster? Very few wide receivers are actually irreplaceable. But I doubt I’m going to have my star QB covering punts anytime soon.

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Great topic......I spent many years coordinating special teams. Keys to special teams in high school are a reliable kicker/punter, and a reliable returner; a guy who can at least catch the ball in the air. A few years ago, we had a kicker put the ball easily in the end zone every time. The sound of his foot hitting the ball was a different thump from any other I heard in almost 30 years of coaching. We could afford to get a few "program guys" on the kickoff team then. Guys that are a part of the program for their whole career and rarely miss a thing, and worked hard will find a way on the field. I learned as a player that getting a guy a few plays, even on special teams, makes all the difference in the world. Of course there are a few key players that were starters that HAD to be on the field. We were never really deep enough as a program to not have that; even while I coached at Cathedral. Our punt coverage team has often been the most critical, so we would put speed on the field. It was at times a tough sell, but guys loved being returners and gunners. Next to the kicker and returner, the long snapper was huge too. It is a tough skill to teach; and since they are untouchable for the most important part, I put anyone out who could get it there quick. 

The most fun I had was creating a punt team with the fastest guy on the team, who happened to be the best punter. I lined the guys up in trips open; the line zone stepped right (right footed kicker), and he rolled with the option to run or punt. We even threw a pass in. It was a deadly weapon for the better part of that season, and the kids got fired up for it. 

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I always used my best players if they could help us on special teams.  In 2006 our best player at KV was our running back who also started as a safety. He returned kicks and punts.  Against Calumet he had 435 all purpose yards with 4 td's. That is an impact I cannot keep on the bench.  Was there a chance he could get hurt absolutely, just like there is a chance to get hurt on any play.  If they have a change to make an impact you use them.  We had the same philosophy when I coached at Brebeuf and our star running back returned kicks as well.  

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32 minutes ago, temptation said:

Is it dependent upon the opponent?  Does special teams lose some of its importance in a contest where you are heavily favored or have built a big lead?

It can depend on an opponent. If a team has a really bad kicker, we say get what you can from the kick. But there are still things you have to pay attention to. A bad or funky kick can hit a guy if he is not paying attention. If we have a big lead, I will put backup guys in, but I need to make sure they have practiced there that week. Comfortable leads also could give you a chance to get the FG unit a live game rep in case they may be needed in a more competitive game. 

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Do you think special teams are more important than defense or offense  ? I don’t. They are all equal.  
To be successful you have to platoon in high school. Let alone college. 
No way can a team only use 11-14 players and go deep into a championship. 

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On 9/7/2021 at 10:17 AM, Bobref said:

I’ve been involved in HS football for over 1/2 century, and I have been firmly convinced all that time that coaches do not put enough emphasis on special teams. It is hard for kids to be disciplined enough to consistently drive the ball the length of the field to score, without making mistakes. Special teams generate field position advantage that can give the offense short fields, and even big play scores. And special teams is a place where you can offset physical and athletic disadvantages with scheme and ingenuity. If I were a coach, I’d spend a lot of time blocking kicks and running tricks.

How many of those +50 years in HS FB, were spent coaching?

45 minutes ago, southend said:

Do you think special teams are more important than defense or offense  ? I don’t. They are all equal.  
To be successful you have to platoon in high school. Let alone college. 
No way can a team only use 11-14 players and go deep into a championship. 

Depends on the size of the school and their conditioning. Plus add in some luck. 
 

The Kiser led Pioneer teams come to mind. 
Likely more than 11-14, but don’t know by how much. 

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45 minutes ago, southend said:

Do you think special teams are more important than defense or offense  ? I don’t. They are all equal.  
To be successful you have to platoon in high school. Let alone college. 
No way can a team only use 11-14 players and go deep into a championship. 

I politely disagree.  Call me stubborn but special teams snaps are less than 20 percent of the total snaps in most football contests.

I want my best players playing the other 80 percent and then competency on my coverage teams and return men.

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1 minute ago, temptation said:

I politely disagree.  Call me stubborn but special teams snaps are less than 20 percent of the total snaps in most football contests.

I want my best players playing the other 80 percent and then competency on my coverage teams and return men.

Creates much needed depth too. In my 15 years of coaching, many players earned O/D playing time by doing outstanding ST work. 

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On 9/7/2021 at 11:17 AM, Bobref said:

I’ve been involved in HS football for over 1/2 century, and I have been firmly convinced all that time that coaches do not put enough emphasis on special teams. It is hard for kids to be disciplined enough to consistently drive the ball the length of the field to score, without making mistakes. Special teams generate field position advantage that can give the offense short fields, and even big play scores. And special teams is a place where you can offset physical and athletic disadvantages with scheme and ingenuity. If I were a coach, I’d spend a lot of time blocking kicks and running tricks.

It's somewhat different in play at the youth level, but the general concept of position control still holds. 

We'd spend a day a week on special teams before the first game of the season ... so a day out of five practices ... and then a half day out of three days after the first game.  Our kickoff teams were notorious for possession changes with probably 1 out of every 3 or 4 of our kickoff resulting in us getting the ball back.  Of the others, we often could pin a team deep ... which, as you mentioned with discipline, was almost as good as a long pass for field position as, if you could make a youth team start at their own 20, the chances of them getting a score that series was really low.  Add to that that most teams had trouble punting ... more specifically covering punts ... that that made the situation more problematic.  On punt returns, we were probably 50% on scoring TDs.  As might be expected, we almost never punted ourselves.  As a former colleague of mine used to state, there are way too many things that have to go correct on a punt for it to have the one good outcome and way too many things that could go wrong for the many bad things that could happen.  Every time another team punted to us and the punt returner would take it to the house, I could be heard on the sideline saying, "That's why WE don't punt."

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20 hours ago, Bash Riprock said:

here is irrefutable proof as to what can happen when you field your special teams with players not ready.......

 

My son kicks for Harrison's JV and also suits up for varsity, but hasn't kicked there yet.  Last week, they played Brebeuf's JV.  On his first kick, he had a boomer.  On his second kick, the coach had him kick it line drive.  He drilled the front line guy right in the head and bounced it right up in the air.

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OK...funny story time........YEARS ago now, while I was at Cathedral, we pick up a JV game at Columbus East; maybe in 05; might have been 06, but I don't think it was....Anywho, before the game, their coach and I are chatting and he says by the way, we do have a kid, gave his number that I have long forgotten now, who has a prosthetic leg. In their uniform it was not noticeable. Coach says depending on the score, he will try to get him in on a special team. I said ok. Late in the game, I completely forget, and we are up big. We are kicking off after a score, and this kid is on the front line of the KOR. He drops back a few steps, and our is going by him, but they make contact, and yep, you guessed it; the leg comes off. Our kid FREAKS out; looks right at me, and I thought, OHHHHH my GOD, I am completely forgot. To add to the drama, the kid is hamming it up. And by that point, we are all getting a good laugh, including the kid with the prosthetic. 

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5 minutes ago, Irishman said:

OK...funny story time........YEARS ago now, while I was at Cathedral, we pick up a JV game at Columbus East; maybe in 05; might have been 06, but I don't think it was....Anywho, before the game, their coach and I are chatting and he says by the way, we do have a kid, gave his number that I have long forgotten now, who has a prosthetic leg. In their uniform it was not noticeable. Coach says depending on the score, he will try to get him in on a special team. I said ok. Late in the game, I completely forget, and we are up big. We are kicking off after a score, and this kid is on the front line of the KOR. He drops back a few steps, and our is going by him, but they make contact, and yep, you guessed it; the leg comes off. Our kid FREAKS out; looks right at me, and I thought, OHHHHH my GOD, I am completely forgot. To add to the drama, the kid is hamming it up. And by that point, we are all getting a good laugh, including the kid with the prosthetic. 

I always love opportunities like this in sports.  We had a season about 15 years ago, where we had a kid that had been in treatment at Reilly, but he could not be in a contact situation.  We made him a team coach so that he could hang out with his classmates even though he couldn't play.  At the end of the season, we had him wear his uniform to the last game of the season and told him that we were going to take his picture for team pictures.  He was still wearing his uniform during the game and, toward the very end of the game, we had a fumble recovery in the endzone for a TD.  We were already ahead by two TDs before the recovery.   For the two-point conversion, we called time and I went over and talked with the opponent's head coach ... I had already cleared things with the kid's dad.  I explained the situation and asked if we could get our player in for one play.  He explained to his defender what was going to happen and that contact couldn't be made with our player due to his medical condition.  We put our player as a wideout and had him do a down and out ... we then ran the ball right up the middle just as we had told the opponent we would do so that there' was no chance of the ball being near the player so he wouldn't get hit/hurt.  The kid was so elated that he got to get in during a real game, you would have though he caught the game winning catch.

Just a couple of seasons ago, we had a similar situation with a kid that couldn't play due to treatment at Reilly and we also made him a coach for the season.  For him, we had him be the on-field defensive coach and had him call the defense for the second half of our last game.

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18 minutes ago, foxbat said:

I always love opportunities like this in sports.  We had a season about 15 years ago, where we had a kid that had been in treatment at Reilly, but he could not be in a contact situation.  We made him a team coach so that he could hang out with his classmates even though he couldn't play.  At the end of the season, we had him wear his uniform to the last game of the season and told him that we were going to take his picture for team pictures.  He was still wearing his uniform during the game and, toward the very end of the game, we had a fumble recovery in the endzone for a TD.  We were already ahead by two TDs before the recovery.   For the two-point conversion, we called time and I went over and talked with the opponent's head coach ... I had already cleared things with the kid's dad.  I explained the situation and asked if we could get our player in for one play.  He explained to his defender what was going to happen and that contact couldn't be made with our player due to his medical condition.  We put our player as a wideout and had him do a down and out ... we then ran the ball right up the middle just as we had told the opponent we would do so that there' was no chance of the ball being near the player so he wouldn't get hit/hurt.  The kid was so elated that he got to get in during a real game, you would have though he caught the game winning catch.

Just a couple of seasons ago, we had a similar situation with a kid that couldn't play due to treatment at Reilly and we also made him a coach for the season.  For him, we had him be the on-field defensive coach and had him call the defense for the second half of our last game.

That is awesome........On the high school side of this, I have seen it happen a couple times, where a team is playing the last game of the year, gets a kid in a similar spot in. Because playoff rosters had to be submitted several days before the end of the season, an opposing coach has notified the IHSAA that a kid was in a game that was not on the roster, and the game was forfeited. I won't go into details here about who was involved; but most would be shocked if I told them who pulled that. 

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Coincidentally, I just came across this quote from Saban regarding Julio Jones: " ...We were coming off a 6-6 season, so they (referring to Jones, Hightower, etc.) came here, and they believed. They trusted in what we were trying to do to create a program, and they wanted to prove something. There was nobody we had that was a better leader, or did more to enhance the culture of toughness and effort than Julio Jones did. He used to run down on kickoff and would not come off the kickoff team during the game. There were a lot of guys that made an impact in the early years, but Julio was the guy who led the way."

Interest comment from Saban. I can see how adding your best players to Special Teams can make them better, but also add to the culture of the program. I believe Urban Meyer took ST serious enough at Florida/Ohio State that he ran them and it was a goal for players to be on the field in a ST position.

 

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