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In 2014, my team had some really tremendous kick returners. My top guy averaged 29.3 yards per kick return and 26.8 on punt returns, both of which led the state of California. Unfortunately, people were wise enough to stop kicking to him. So, our team saw a lot of ugly kicks the rest of that season, starting about halfway through our 13 games.
We had to practice kickoff return differently than we did the first half of the season. For the first half of the season, it was all about setting up schemes against the teams we were going to face. I have always spent a great deal of time through film in trying to put our return team in the best possible position. Sometimes that means double teaming their leading tackler, sometimes it is putting in a brand new return to take advantage of their scheme weakness or sometimes it is adjusting where our returners are standing.
When we started seeing nothing but squib kicks and pooch kicks, we had to start practicing our kick return team different. It became about defending those two kickoff philosophies.
Some coaches just teach their players to fall on the squib kick, and catch the pooch kick. Simply securing the ball where the kickoff team puts it is all that this philosophy cares about. I'm a little different here. I want to get yards. I look for ways for us to get yards when the opponent squibs or pooches. I like to be aggressive with my kick return because usually kickoff teams don't see aggression; they see a passive team who just secures the ball.
There are two main goals that come with defending the unconventional kickoff. They are not any different in word and on paper than defending the traditional kickoff: secure the football and get return yards. That seems simple enough, but it's not all that simple if you really want to do it right.
One of the first things you need to look at if you're expecting pooches or squib kicks is your personnel. For instance, I like using big linemen in my "wedge" back deep near the kick returners, similar to what many NFL teams do. However, those kids won't do well with squibs or pooches. Change them out for running backs or receivers. If I expect pooches or squibs, I put linemen on the front line to block. We don't ask them to get very deep as the first line of defense. I move the linebacker/safety type of kids off the front line, and put them on the back two lines. I want the ball in their hands.
Learning to return all kick offs, not just the deep boot, will help your offense with better field position.
File photo by Warren Hyde
For the pooch kick, if a team pooches often, we will set up a sideline return right to that pooch side. We number the kickoff kids, 1-10, left to right. And we will set up a man return right up the sideline. If they pooch to our left, we will most definitely block those 5 coming down at us on that side with 7-8 kids. We teach the returner to catch the ball and get up the sidelines as well as they can.
For the squib kick, we are doing to also try to return that up the sidelines. Most teams will squib right down the middle of the field, maybe at a little bit of an angle. We are going to put more of our "bulk" up the middle of the field, but tell them not to touch the football. I want my second or third lines securing that ball because they can run with the ball more effectively. Again, we number the kickoff team, and assign each returner to block one of those men, not a zone return scheme, but man.
That's how we handle pooches and squibs. We are aggressive in getting return yards by setting up man return schemes, right up the sidelines. Remember, nobody can tackle you from the sidelines.Chris Fore is a veteran Head Football Coach and Athletic Director from Southern California. He consults coaches and programs nationwide through his business Eight Laces Consulting.