Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Special Teams - How to go from worst to first

So how do you go from dead last in kick-off coverage in 2006 (119 out of 119 teams) to #1 in the nation in 2007 at 15.62 yards/return? That is a feat Georgia Tech has managed so far this season. It is probably the single most remarkable stat when comparing last year versus this year. It's freaky and mind-boggling. Worst to 55th? I can buy that. Maybe top 20 even.......... but #1 in the nation. Come on. That's just plain bizarre.

So what does it take to have a turnaround like this? There are many teams that would kill to improve their kick-off coverage, but what Tech has managed almost doesn't seem possible. How have they done it?

Here is my take on the key factors resuting in this particular turnaround:

1. Talent. The better talent you put on the field, the better chance of success you have. There's no way around it. However, special teams is typically a mine-field of holes and inexperience. You're giving freshman a "taste" of the speed and physicalilty of collegiate ball. You just don't put your best players out there for kick-off coverage. You can't risk it. You want Philip Wheeler risking injury flying down the field 100mph? He's too valuable for the defense.

However, when saying put the best "talent" on the field, I am NOT saying the fastest guys, the most athletic guys or the strongest guys. These factors are important, but there is a factor that trumps all these - having "a nose for the ball". In 2006, who seemed to make about 90% of every special teams tackle? The answer would be Michael Johnson. If he didn't make a stop, then it tended to be a free-for-all trying to keep the opposing return men from breaking a big one.

Here's the thing about Michael Johnson though. He was rarely the first guy down the field on a kick-off (at least that I could tell). I was at the Thursday night game last season against UVA and Johnson made about every kick-off and punt coverage tackle (or so it seemed). He was actually often one of the last guys down the field - yet he always seemed to be the first guy to make the tackle. He just seems to understand how to get to the ball carrier. He seems to understand angles and how to slither through traffic to get to a guy.

This year's freshman class has provided a major infusion of physical talent. But more important, there is an infusion of guys with a "nose for the ball". You go back and watch our coverage team replays and you're going to see a lot of guys like Morgan Burnett, Brad Jefferson, Mario Butler, and DJ Donley among others making plays consistently. I tell you, Morgan Burnett is a joy to watch on special teams............. oh, and Michael Johnson is still doing his thing.

2. Scott Blair. He's not kicking balls in the endzone, but what he is doing is kicking the ball very very high. He is giving our guys an extra 10 yards down the field with the extra hang time. This cannot be underestimated. Now remember, the stat we lead the nation in is "kick off return yardage defense". If he kicks a skyball to the 35 yard line and we tackle the guy at the 38, that's a "great" return defense giving up only 3 yards. However, field position in that case isn't wonderful. However, Blair is kicking his sky balls typically to the 5-10 yard line. Occassionally he'll kick a shorter one - which are often by design to keep things off balance - but he's doing a nice job to get them deep AND kick them high.

3. Coaching. It would almost be logical to put Special Teams Coach Charles Kelly #1 on this list. I am focusing here on kick-off return coverage, but when you look at our 6 special teams groups (punt, punt return, kick off, kick-off return, FG, FG defense), they are ALL getting the job done. Heck, we are #10 in the nation in kick-off return yardage. Coach Kelly deserves huge credit for this.

Folks - it amazes me that some teams would NOT have a special teams coach. Think about it. Typically special teams accounts for about 20% of the plays in the game, and has a huge impact on field position (hidden yardage) and scoring (FG's). We will have a tight ends coach, a running backs coach, an O-Line coach, etc, etc, but many won't even have a special teams coach.

Clemson does not have a special teams coach. The past two weeks for them? Blocked punt.... Fumbled punt...... 4 missed field goals........ opponent punt return for TD......... opponent kick-off return for TD........... NEED I SAY MORE?

Having a guy who focuses on these 20% of plays in a game makes a difference. Of course having the right guy makes an even bigger difference. So far, coach Kelly sure looks like that guy.

4. Schemes. This is really a subset of coaching, but it deserves it's own category. Coach Gailey is the first to credit Coach Kelly with spending the off-season meticulously studying schemes and game-plans to improve Tech's special teams play. All you can say is that it is working. He has added some wrinkles to our kick-off coverage, our kick return team, built some consistency in our FG trio (snapper / holder / kicker). He's pushing the right buttons.

However, as fans, none of us REALLY understands the difference here. It's hard to tell from the stands and certainly on TV the difference this year in terms of roles and responsibilities of each player. There is a lot of basic X-and-O pieces to kick-off coverage. If you want to read an interesting article about on-the-field positioning strategy - read this. It's a lot more complicated than "get your rear end down there and tackle the guy with the ball".

Television camera angles make the kickoff coverage unit look like vaguely organized chaos. That’s not an entirely inaccurate description of what’s happening on the field. But players on the kickoff coverage units spend hours watching film and studying the Xs and Os on the blackboard for a reason. Within that seeming chaos, each of the 10 men on the kickoff coverage unit has a specific job that he needs to execute with every bit the precision of a quarterback’s seven-step drop or a safety’s blitz. Covering a kickoff doesn’t get a player’s face on television, but it does help his team win.

Everything isn't going 100% right on special teams. There have been a few key miscues, but I don't remember in my GT memory a year when so much of it was going right. The best punter in the nation. Great punt coverage. Great kick-off coverage. Great kick-return game. Great FG kicker. Good, high kick-off man. Guys with a nose for the ball making plays. Blocked punts. Forcing fumbles.

Overall, you have to say special teams this season are truly............ special. Keep it going guys.