Kicking Scrimmage – Practicing Special Teams, Third Down Offense, and The Free Kick

Years ago I heard now retired coach Wally Hood present a clinic on the kicking scrimmage. This special teams focused scrimmage format allowed a team to work all phases of the game, but gave emphasis and most reps to the special teams. When I became a high school head coach this was something I implemented with my teams, and we also did this at the college level.

I’ve used a number of different variations of tho scrimmage format over the years, but my favorite also emphasizes third down offense.

Choosing teams

Depending on your situation, you can choose the teams, or you can select captains and allow them to choose the teams. I like the players selecting the teams because it gives them ownership, and gets them thinking about who the best special teams players are. This helps emphasize the importance of special teams in their minds. Kickers, punters, and long snappers are obviously drafted early, and when you let the whole team be involved in the draft, it’s good to see the specialists valued by their teammates.

After the teams are selected, players need to be put on units. Again, I like to give ownership to the players, but also understand in this area they need guidance. I usually have a different coach in charge of each unit of special teams, so each one would work with both teams to help them put together their units. We do the same with offense and defense, ensuring that all players have an opportunity to perform in the scrimmage.

Preparing for the kicking scrimmage

This is another opportunity for the team to realize the value of work on special teams. Usually the kicking scrimmage serves as the second practice of the day during two-a-days. We give each team time to practice and go over their units (with coach supervision) at the end of the first practice, and as a walk through before the scrimmage.

Because this is something unique, and an opportunity to compete and win a spot on a unit, the players pay attention to the units they are on and their assignments even more than they do during regular special teams practice time.

Make it fun and publicize it

The kicking scrimmage is always open to our parents, and our boosters always make it a big affair. We like to hand out our script and an explanation of exactly what we are doing with the kicking scrimmage. I promise that you will get a lot of strange looks from parents and fans if they don’t understand the format you are using. We use the opportunity to let local media get a preview of the team.

Officials and chain gang

If you can add officials to the scrimmage, it’s great work for them to practice their mechanics on special teams, and it’s always good for players to know it is a game situation. Give the officiating crew a copy of the script so that they can help with the situation. This is also an opportunity for the chain gang to get out and work together before the first game.

The format

The kicking scrimmage will begin like a normal game, with a kickoff. The goal then is to establish field position to the point where the offense has a legitimate shot at scoring a touchdown or the field goal team is in range.

While offense and defense can be completely eliminated, we have used the kicking scrimmage to work third down situations. Depending on the year and how much work we want to get our offense and defense in this scrimmage, we will may add or delete some third down situations, but we start with the following number of repetitions in each third down situation.

3rd & 1 (2)
3rd & 2 (2)
3rd& 3 (4)
3rd & 4 (4)
3rd & 5 (2)
3rd & 6 (6)
3rd & 7 (4)
3rd & 8 (4)
3rd & 12 (2)
3rd & 15 (2)

We mix the order up as follows:

3rd & 1
3rd & 15
3rd & 2
3rd & 12
3rd & 3
3rd & 8
3rd & 3
3rd & 8
3rd & 4
3rd & 7
3rd & 5
3rd & 7
3rd & 5
3rd & 6
3rd & 6
3rd & 6

Each team is attempting to move the ball down the field with one offensive play. This is where we will utilize the plays we have for our third down package. If the offense converts, then they move to the next third down on the script. However, if the next offensive play results in another first down, the down becomes fourth and ten and part of the kicking game must be executed. Again, the emphasis is on the kicking game, so we do not want the offense on the field for more than two plays in a row.

4th down

On fourth down, a kicking unit must come on the field. They may chose to execute a fake. Inside the 35, the head coach can choose to advance the ball to a legitimate try for the kicker who is up. If we know that from the 34-20 we are typically going for it on fourth down, we will move it to the top end of the kicker’s range and let him attempt the field goal from there.


After we finish the script, we take a short halftime break. The half time period serves as an opportunity for us to teach our team halftime procedures. We have a normal half time routine that is detailed to the minute. Our players are shown where each position is to report at half- time. The halftime position meetings, time for players to see trainers, doctors, or use the rest room are all laid out, so that we know exactly where to go and what to do when we get to halftime of our first game.

After installing and explaining the halftime routine, the team goes back out on the field. We then explain and practice our halftime warm up routine, and we get to the sidelines and repeat the script for the second half.

Coach Hood’s kicking scrimmage became pretty popular in Ohio. Jim Tressel adopted it, and now Darrell Hazell continues the kicking scrimmage with Purdue. In the video below, while at Kent State, he gives his thoughts on the kicking scrimmage and gives an overview how they do it with every play being part of the kicking game.

Fair Catch -Free Kick
The kicking scrimmage usually presents at least one opportunity for a team to practice the rare fair catch-free kick situation.

The very rare fair catch kick may be something that wins you a game. Many coaches aren’t aware of this rule, but it does exist in high school football and the NFL. The rule does not apply in college football.

Article 10.2.4(a) of the NFL rule book spells it out: “After a fair catch is made, or is awarded as the result of fair catch interference, the receiving team has the option of putting the ball in play by … a fair-catch kick (drop kick or placekick without a tee) from the spot of the catch.”
The last time it was attempted in the NFL was in 2008. According to the announcer, the last time it was successful was Chicago in 1968 against Green Bay, though I have found another source saying the last successful attempt was in 1976 by Ray Wersching of San Diego against the Buffalo Bills.  Either way, it’s a rare play.

Here is the section of the NFHS Rule Book that defines the free kick situation:

ART. 3 . . . A free kick is any legal kick which puts the ball in play to start a free kick down. After the ready-for-play signal and before the kick, each player other than the kicker and holder for a placekick must be behind his free-kick line. A free kick is used for a kickoff, for a kick following a safety, and is used if a free kick is chosen following a fair catch or awarded fair catch.
 ART. 7 . . . A place kick is a legal kick made while the ball is in a fixed position on the ground or on a kicking tee. No material or device may be placed on the ground to improve the kicker’s footing. The ball also may be held in position on the ground or on a kicking tee by a placekick holder who shall be a teammate of the kicker. A place kick may be used for a scrimmage kick, a kickoff, a free kick following a safety or for a free kick following a fair catch or awarded fair catch.”

This is a situation that I had my teams practice every week. In my second year as a head coach, I almost called for it, but we determined that we would be out of range. Though it is something you may never use, it’s best to have your team prepared for this in case you do decide to use it.

The following video is a good example of what needs to be covered with your team in order to pull it off. Each point will be discussed in detail.

Obviously, the first thing that needs to happen is that you pin your opponent deep and force them to punt. This is where you probably should have a specific play call for this on the return. We simply called it “fair catch for free kick.” From a strategy standpoint, you will still want to have at least one rusher in the case of a bad snap. You will also want to consider putting two returners back.

You should have an idea of what type of punter the opposing team has and where to place your returners. You will want your returners to be spaced properly so at least one of them can make the fair catch. If the punter you are facing likes to kick it straight away, then you may want a returner deep and a returner short. Again, this is where some special teams scouting and game planning is important.


After you have successfully executed the fair catch, now you have the opportunity to align for a free kick. The ball may be placed anywhere across the line of scrimmage, so your kicker does have the opportunity to line his kick up wherever he wants it on the line of scrimmage. You will want to use your kick-off unit to do this because the ball is live after the kick and can be returned by the opposing team.

In high school, the kicking team is allowed to use any legal tee including the tee used for kick-offs. The point we always stressed with the rest of the unit was to not go offside. Because the distance they were covering was less than a typical kick-off, we had them stay back and see the kick instead of trying to time it up to be as close to the line as possible. The “receiving team” must be at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, exactly like a kick off.

If you are on the opposite side of a free kick, the important thing to remember is the ball is live. If for some reason it is short or is shanked, the kicking team can recover and get the ball at the spot they recovered it. Obviously, with time left on the clock, this is something you do not want to happen, so be sure to recover all free kicks. Any ball caught or recovered in the end zone by the receiving team will be ruled a touchback in high school. If the ball goes through the uprights, it is worth the same as a field goal, 3 points.

Here’s something to be sure you cover with your team if you are punting. Be absolutely sure you do not interfere with the fair catch. If the team fair catching is interfered with, they will march off 15 yards and the fair catch is still awarded which means they may attempt a free kick. You don’t want to make the kick any easier.


Strategy on Using the Fair Catch Kick

1.  The end of the half is an obvious place to use this.  Many teams look to get good field position when they force the opponent to punt from their end zone at the end of the half.  Based on your timeouts and the time left, you may be better off attempting to fair catch the punt and take the free kick opportunity.  Three points on the board at the half can make a difference later in the game.  It’s much easier and probably a higher percentage than running a shot at the end zone and then aligning for a long field goal.  In this situation if you are unsure, you could call for the fair catch attempt and make the decision afterwards.

2.  If you have at least one time out left, put your offense out on the field and attempt to draw them offsides with a freeze play.  If they don’t jump, you can call timeout and align your free kick.  If they do jump you can get the free five yards and be closer for your free kick.

3.  If you are up at least seven points with under two minutes left, but they have all of their timeouts, you may want to put the extra three points on the board with a free kick.

4.  At the end of the game, this is a consideration as well.  This is where being a great game manager comes into play.  Has this been a tight defensive battle?  What is the other team’s ability like in running a two minute or up-tempo pace?  Do you feel confident about coming out and stopping them after going up by a few points?  If the situation warrants taking the lead and playing defense, when you execute this play may be with more time left than just a last second kick.

In the kicking scrimmage, this is an opportunity to score points as well as lining up your kick off and kick return units. Though the opportunity may never arise in a game, at least your players understand it if it does happen.

Good luck this season, and remember that you can only expect your players to be competent in situations which they understand and work on in practice. The kicking scrimmage allows the opportunity to work many aspects of the game that are often overlooked.