"Every time a kick hits the ground, it lessens your chance of winning."
-Murray Warmath, former Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach
A few weeks ago I wrote of hidden yardage on special teams. I've read a few things and heard a few things lately on punt return that I would like to share with you. As stated earlier, the University of Illinois has hired a new coaching staff and one of their priorities is to improve special teams. The coach that has been charged with this task is backfield coach Tim Salem, son of former Minnesota head coach Joe Salem. Coach Salem is determined that punts will not hit the ground. "If we need two people back on punts, that's what we’ll do. But we're not going to spend a lot of time on punt returns. Illinois only had 20 punt returns all season. That's less than two per game. We’ll have one primary return, and practice the devil out of it. Catch the ball correctly and make 10 yards. That's a first down. That's the goal."
I like that philosophy. And I'm always amazed that I just keep learning. I’ve spent just about my whole life in football and that's the first time I've heard of that philosophy, not the part about catching the ball, of course, but the part about trying to get at least 10 yards on every return because that's a first down. I think that's a good way to look at it. Now here’s the thing. At the pro and collegiate level you pretty much know what you’re going to get as far as a punt. A high, spiraling, good hang time, 40 yard punt. You can practice that over and over and the returners HAVE to catch the ball.
OK, now the typical high school scenario, especially small schools. You’ve watched the punter on film and are pretty familiar with how he punts. Then you also watch him in warm-ups before the game. Looks like between 30-35 yards every time. OK, we’re ready. The first time your opponent has to punt, your returner is 35 yards deep. The punt is away and it’s a low knuckleball drifting left. It goes about 28 yards and your returner has to make a quick decision. Does he try to catch it at his knees or let it go? He knows you’ve harped on him to CATCH THE BALL! He trys to catch it but muffs it and…well, you get the picture. It’s not so easy to catch some of those high school punts on Friday night. Never the less, it’s going to be a part of the game and you’ve got to be ready. What are some of your philosophies? I know this, it can sure be an adventure. Give me some of your thoughts if you get the chance and keep checking www.chiefpigskin.com for more ideas on all phases of football.