Building Winning Special Teams with Core Principles – Part I
By Mike Cieri, Defensive Line and Special Teams Coordinator
Montclair State University
Coaching Special Teams requires much energy and enthusiasm (E2). The ability to coach Special Teams will separate you from other coaches. It is an opportunity to learn how to coordinate personnel, prepare and execute practice plans with effective drills based on sound and effective schemes as well as game plan and play calling. As a Special Team Coordinator I get this question quite often especially from young coaches.
Can Coaching Special Teams Prepare You to Become a Head Coach? I answer with an emphatic YES! Being a Special Teams Coordinator provides an experience with managing the personnel of the entire football team (coaches / players / staff / trainers) and it provides a chance to develop and prepare players to contribute to the overall team success. As a Special Teams Coordinator you have the opportunity to address the entire team on a weekly basis. All the other coaches do not speak to the team to discuss the mental and physical strategies in preparing for a game. You the special teams coordinator are always thinking and formulating like a head coach, constantly anticipating the next week’s opponent or the ‘next play’ during the game. And, you are in “Good Company”. Coaches like Charlie Weis, Marv Levy, Bill Belichek, Bill Cowher, John Harbaugh, and Mike Smith all were Special Team Coordinators.
Three habits of highly effective special team coordinators are to learn, begin with the end in mind and put first-first. All special teams’ coordinators must go to clinics meet with coaches and go to college or pro practices to gain knowledge, tweet what you are doing and get the latest trends in special team play. Secondly, you need to develop a mental plan through film study of you team and your opponents. Then, physically create your philosophy, schemes, techniques, practice schedule, drills etc. Lastly, develop an off-season and in-season time management matrix classifying by importance and amount of time spent on each special team unit. When we say put first-first, we mean we always work on first our punt and kickoff coverage units.
In order to be successful, there are a few other things to consider. First, you need a Head Coach that is committed to special teams. The kicking game needs to be approached the same way as O & D. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday there are 40 minutes dedicated to special teams. We meet on Mondays for 50 minutes for film study on the previous game and the upcoming opponent with an overview of the new game plan and the week’s practice expectations and drills. On Friday we call out the teams with key subs, perform our onside kick off and hands units as well as work on hurry up field goal. The head coach also has the entire coaching staff involved with the special teams with the coordinators expect the QB coach.
We also incorporate man schemes to be as simple, sound and effective as possible. Man schemes allows us to maximize the development of fundamentals, build individual skills quicker & be more efficient by compartmentalizing drills. Coordination between players & schemes are
minimized, easier to adjust the scheme if necessary and by the nature of the one-on-one match-ups, players are held to a better level of accountability. With man schemes it is easier to identify who is being productive by film study, development of a large special team player pool to assist greatly in finding solid replacement (injuries, travel squad).
The philosophy we use for our special teams is that the kicking game is considered an Offensive Weapon. We plan to win every phase of the kicking game, design the schemes and work the techniques to keep constant pressure on our opponents. We demand consistency, efficiency and no stupid penalties with much intensity, desire, effort, discipline, concentration and enthusiasm. The kicking game is not a place for players who will loaf but a place to give a 110% effort. We are not striving to be good; we are going to be the best. STS – Special Team Strong. It is a trust thing.
Squeezing every minute out of our special teams practice time is the backbone of our special team’s success. When we have meetings, specific plays have been selected ahead of time to review, the scouting report is given both in video and paper form all being sent to the players ahead of meetings. Separate meetings with all of the kicking specialists, centers and punt returners occur to improve techniques and discuss expectations from our opponents. Maximizing the time allocated to special teams lies with having great organization and cooperation from all.
Player motivation toward special teams is mandatory and must be constantly cultivated. From the head coach to coordinator to all of the assistant coaches, the aspect of the kicking game being the “Hidden Yardage” must be sold by demonstrating how it had a great impact on the outcome of a football game! One of the motivation tools we use is to show key special teams plays during our meetings. In addition, we provide our players statistical proof on our effectiveness in winning the field position battle by studying the hidden yardage. The following three charts are used to show the critical importance of field position and how each unit is faring towards success to our special teams’ players.