Punt Philosophy (Part I)
By Jared Hottle, Special Teams and Wide Receivers Coach
Dakota State University
There are many punt formations used in football and most of them work. It is important to stay committed to whatever formations or philosophies you use and work to adjust as the need for adjustments comes up. At Dakota State, we teach the shield punt. For me, it is the easiest to teach as far as rules for each individual player goes and allows our players to be athletes on the field and play fast. Furthermore, it gives us the best chance to get coverage downfield and allows our snapper to focus on snapping and not on protection.
As most coaches know special teams often takes a backseat as far as practice and preparation time goes for a football team getting ready to play a game in a week. I try to use that to our team’s advantage by giving multiple looks and blocking schemes to a team by keeping the rules for our guys as basic as possible. We carry as many as 6 punt formations into a given game but we will never change the protection rules on our guys, just alignments.
The idea behind this is that teams who try to scheme up a block or a return will be forced to adjust to our alignments and take them out of whatever advantage they think they can gain. They only can practice so much on our alignments and formations and unless they want to make 6 different formation checks for their punt team, they will often stay basic and just hope to do the best they can. Below are two of our common looks. Notice the shield will stay intact which allows us to keep all our basic rules. We have automatic checks off some of our looks as well to take advantage of a team who is cheating to one side or the other.
We run a hybrid zone protection scheme. We have a call to make everybody block the man to their right as well as a call to make everybody block to their left. We want them ripping through
the defender to the call side to stop the vertical push. If they cannot rip across the face of the defender, they need to drive them sideways and widen their highway to the punter.
I call it a hybrid zone protection scheme because we allow them some autonomy within the system. We first look to our zone side gap, then we look for a head-up defender. If neither exists, we block “back” or away from the call. This must be communicated with the players around them and sometimes allows us to get maximum protection on interior gaps.
I think you are asking for trouble if you always pinch and always block out with your shield scheme. With a pinch team, you leave your edges or B-Gaps exposed and with a block out scheme you leave your A-Gaps exposed to stunts and twists into the shield. Additionally, if you always block and kick to the boundary, it is easy to detect and scheme against from a return or block perspective.
In regards to coaching the shield, I think shield punt coaches can get caught up on man assignments to make sure the shield has an idea of who they will need to pick up pre-snap. We do not worry about that. I tell our shield to stay square and protect inside out. To me there are too many ways to put a shield player in conflict if we give him a specific guy to look for. I would rather him sit back and react. This plays right into our zone scheme because our front line does not have to think about whom they need to let go to the shield and our shield is not committing to a certain player pre-snap.
Matching Personnel to Scheme
I think the best thing you can do as a coach of special teams is hone into exactly what you are looking for at each position and put guys in spots to succeed. If a guy is a great cover guy but horrible at protection, we make him a displaced gunner. If a guy is a tad slow but a great blocker we will put him at guard. If we have a punter who can get the ball off quickly but does not get the hang time we want, we will put guys on the front line who are faster coverage guys and will widen their splits a little bit. If we have someone who doesn’t get the ball off as fast as we want, we will move him with rugby kicks and get guys more focused on protecting.
The shield is the one area where I think you need to spend the most time and get those guys focused on protecting inside and not jumping the first outside rusher they see. When a punt return team sees that, they will try to get the shield guy to step out and run a fast guy right inside of him. Additionally, they are the ones that need to know what you are looking for to call protections, check out of certain things, and make the automatic checks. We like getting a little more athletic in the shield to be able to run fakes and adjust in space. We use mostly defensive ends and tight ends.