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The ‘off-tackle’ kick return by Dan Reed

Posted by John Reed on

If your next opponent ran nothing but the above play on offense, would you be impressed?

Despite the complete lack of creativity, this is the most common kick return strategy in football. Most coaches have heard that special teams make up 10-20% of all plays. A common response is to spend more time on their punt protection and continue to neglect kick return. Some are still convinced they need to spend all your time on offense and defense, and to them, kick return is just something that happens in between “real” football plays.

Note by John T. Reed: This off-tackle kick return and five others that worked for us over the years are explained in a 17-page chapter in my book Coaching Freshman and Junior Varsity High School Football. In that book, the kick return play below is called the Columbia kick return after Columbia University where my son Dan was part of it.

Starting field position helps your offense and your defense. You need to know there are simple kick-off return plays that don’t take a whole lot of time away from other practice, but are much more effective for giving you valuable starting position that will help both your offense and defense.

Don’t be lazy

off-tackle kick return diagramI learned about this kick return playing in college. It was our base kick return with a few game plan variations. It is the simplest, straight-forward return I have ever encountered that actually has some thought put into it. I am fully aware some coaches actually apply a comprehensive strategy when installing a wedge return, but most coaches just tell their players to congregate in the middle then start running forward, and hope their returner doesn’t get hurt or fumble the ball.

Don’t yell at your players for going half-speed on a play when you’re doing the same with your special-teams strategy. This is not some gimmicky trick play. It has no more risk than the wedge. If the wedge is a basic dive play, this is just your basic off-tackle play. Offensive coordinators cannot diagram a play without knowing the defense. From week to week, the blocking of a particular play can change based on the opponent’s defense. You may run other plays instead depending on the defense. The great thing about kickoff return is that everyone pretty much has the same kickoff strategy. Kickoff teams send 10 players down the field in “lanes” with the goal to run at the same speed to eliminate any running lanes to slow down and stop the returner. The kicker is generally uninvolved in the strategy, usually hanging back to be a free safety.

Think of the kickoff team just like a defense, which it is. 10 lanes for the kickoff team creates 11 gaps for the return team to attack, with a free safety as a last resort. Our goal is to design a return to attack one of those gaps.

Specific assignment blocking

Rather than telling the players to pick up whichever player they encounter first, this return gives them a specific man to block. They can’t say “I thought I had ______.” How many times have you seen two guys in the wedge pick up the same opponent and let one go free unblocked? You must give them specific kickoff team member assignments.

You don’t have to block all 11 defensive players for an offensive play to succeed; for kickoff return, it’s even easier since the “defense” is one thin single wall. Corners and safeties are routinely left unblocked, and we will do the same in this kick return. That will free up some players to make double-team blocks.

To talk about the kickoff players, we need to number them. Kickers do not always kick from the middle of the field, so we will count the kickoff team from the outside in on each side, ignoring the kicker location.

Kickoff Team Numbering

Kick Return Positions

Once we pick a gap, two double-team blocks will be used to pry that gap open wider. In this case we will double-team L2 and L3 away from each other.

23 Left

The LT drifts back and starts redirecting L3 inward at the 38 yard line. At the 30, the LE joins the LT and continues redirecting L3 inward. We’ll call this a "pin" block. This block will also slow the L3 down, while the rest of the kickoff team advances unimpeded. The LB and RB both join in the middle then head toward L2 and block him outward or redirect past returner.

The returner that does not catch the ball leads the ball carrier toward the gap and picks up the L1 as he approaches. The ball carrier is to follow through this gap and break off the block of the L1. If the L1 runs himself out of the play to maintain contain, that blocker can continue leading the returner and pick up the kicker or any other player that appears.
L4, L5, R5, R4, and R3 are all blocked away from the play by single blocks. We do not block the 2 players furthest away from the point of attack (in this case, R1 and R2) to make the 2 double-team blocks possible.

Opens gap in two directions

The blocking scheme resembles a trap play. Rather than merely muscling the gap open with base blocks, we slow one KO player down (L3) and allow an adjacent KO player(L2) to advance up the field. We open the gap up horizontally while the kickoff team opens it vertically for us.

The fine points

  • As with any return, the front line must watch the ball and wait until it is kicked before they leave. If I see front-line guys leaving early, I'll kick onside and get it. Don't create an unnecessary opportunity for your opponents.
  • Teach your players to count the kickoff team players at the time of the kick. If the kickoff team has a guy loop from L4 to L3 right before the kick, he is now L3. If a guy loops from L4 to L3 down the field after the kick, he remains L4. The count is final when the kicker’s foot hits the ball.
  • As your players drop, tell them to peek every few steps to keep track of their assignment. Whether by design or accident, kickoff team players do not always run in a straight line.
Be prepared to make modifications to the blocking scheme based on scouting. Sometimes the kicker runs down the field like a free tackler and is the biggest stud on the team. You need to account for him. Either make one of the double teams a single block, or leave the backside 3 on the kickoff unblocked.

Game-plan changes

Watch the scout film of your upcoming opponent. Do the kickoff players all come down the field simultaneously? Do any of them stray from their lanes easily? For me, scout film always revealed a slower player, or a disobedient player: sometimes a weak player. Coaches routinely put backups on special teams, even bench-warmers who try real hard. Admirable, but you should make them pay for it.

One week, we noticed the L4 was a weak player and that L3 was looping outward as contain/safety (after the kick). On top of that L2 was not filling for L3. So I changed the play design. We executed the pin block on L4 inward, the backs still kicked out L2, and the other returner picked up L1. The only big change is the LG now drifts back, maintaing inside leverage and blocks L3 where he wants to go: looping outward.

Opponents scouting you

When I played the 2 on kickoff team on the backside against similar assignment returns, I was taught to converge quickly and abandon my lane if the return was away from me, and this allowed me to often make the tackle since I was unblocked.

Smart opponents will do the same to you, eventually, but you will generally be at decent field position before the tackle can be made. If that player is giving you trouble, your first counter-measure should be to find an ineffective coverage player as far from the point of attack as possible whom you can leave unblocked. Another possibility is to have your backside tackle redirect the backside 3 at first and then abandon him when the backside 2 converges and block the 2. If the return is fielded cleanly, neither player should be able to catch the returner before he reaches the lane.

If your opponent forces you, be creative. Just keep in mind the basic strategy of the return in your game plan: pin block inside, double-team kick out outside. Giving
your players a specific assignment is crucial. Most wedges are too vague for the players to take any pride or even fully understand what they’re supposed to do. Tell them to “block that guy,” and you’ll be more likely to see it happen.

Dan Reed (daniel_t_reed@yahoo.com)

23 Left

LT - Drop back and begin redirecting L3 inward. Maintain outside leverage on L3. Pin with LE.
LG - Drop playside on L4 and maintain leverage.
C - Drop playside on L5 and maintain leverage.
RG - Drop playside on R4 and maintain leverage.
RT - Drop playside on R3 and maintain leverage.
LE - Drop back to the 30, then work back to LT block on L3. Make sure not to knock LT off of L3 or allow L3 to split block. Pin L3 with LT toward middle.
RE - Hustle to middle of field to gain playside leverage on R5. Avoid other blockers.
LB and RB - Turn and sprint to 10-12 yards in front of ball with other Back,
grab hands temporarily, head towards L2 and release hands. Double team L2 out,
force upfield or pancake him.
LR and RR - Returner that doesn’t catch ball moves to 5 yards playside and
5 yards in front of ball catcher and leave when he catches ball (make sure he
catches it). Head toward gap between L2 and L3 looking for L1. If L1 runs
himself out of play, returner should continue upfield to kicker, etc.

32 Right

 

LT - Drop playside on L3 and maintain leverage.
LG - Drop playside on L4 and maintain leverage.
C - Drop playside on R5 and maintain leverage.
RG - Drop playside on R4 and maintain leverage.
RT - Drop back and begin redirecting R3 inward. Maintain outside
leverage. Pin R3 with RE.
LE - Hustle to middle of field to gain playside leverage on L5.
Avoid other blockers.
RE - Drop back to 30, then work back to RT block on R3.
Make sure not to knock RT off of R3 or allow R3 to split block.
Pin R3 with LT toward middle.
LB and RB - Turn and sprint to 10-12 yards in front of ball with
other Back, grab hands temporarily, head towards R2 and release
hands. Double team R2 out, force upfield or pancake him.
LR and RR - Returner that doesn’t catch ball moves to 5 yards playside
and 5 yards in front of ball catcher and leave when he catches ball
(make sure he catches it). Head toward gap between R2 and R3
looking for R1. If R1 runs himself out of play, returner should continue
upfield to kicker, etc.


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