With 14 punt return touchdowns and 5 kick return touchdowns in his career, no one would question you if you made the claim that Devin Hester is one of the greatest special teams players in NFL history.
After all, he clearly has always had an impact on football games. Hester once said, “I know I’m a football player. No matter what opinion people have, that’s fine with me. I’m a player that’s willing to do anything.” You don’t have to be an every down player to make a difference.
Although they don’t always get credited with being an actual football player, kickers can single handedly make the difference between a win or a loss. One key reason for this is that kickers score a lot of points, sometimes the most on the team. After all, look at who has the most points in NFL history: it’s Morten Anderson, who amassed 2,544 over a long career.
First off, at any level, kickers need to be able to convert extra point chances. They aren’t the toughest kick, but if it isn’t an automatic point for your team, it can become troublesome. Second, the longer the range for field goals the better. If you have a for sure estimate of the kicker’s range, it will provide assurance to an offense to know where they need to get to put points on the board.
Another aspect involves a kickers ability to boom the ball on kick-offs. If he’s only kicking it to the 30, it will constantly be giving the opposition reasonable field position. Conversely, if the kicker has the ability to kick it near the goal line or out of the end zone, the defense is in a better position to start the following drive.
While kickers don’t always get the respect warranted, I’m sure many coaches would tell you they’d love to have an elite one on their roster.
Here Coach Mike Hollis, a 9 Year NFL Veteran Kicker and All-Pro teaches the proper way to kicking.
Source: 9 Year NFL Veteran Kicker Mike Hollis – Kicking and Punting Course
As with kickers, punters don’t usually get the respect they deserve. However, just like kickers, the difference between a good one and a bad one is substantial. There are many skills that will allow a punter to have a positive impact on a game. Punters must be exceptional at angling the football and increasing the hang time of each kick.
Without decent hang time, it will be incredibly difficult for the punter’s teammates to get down the field to stop the returner from a solid gain. Some of the all-time greats, like Shane Lechler, also possess the talent to affect the spin of the ball, thus increasing the likelihood of a muffed return. This trait will take plenty of practice, but is yet another way for punters to make a name for themselves.
While I’ve always been aware of the gunner position, it was the New England Patriots’ Matthew Slater that perfected the position. Likely the best gunner in the NFL, Slater was a borderline roster invitee as a receiver, but his skills at the gunner position are evident. Although he didn’t come into the NFL as a special teamer, he quickly learned how to become one.
He told Boston.com, “I just tried to be a sponge and learn as much as I could from a guy (Larry Izzo) like that. I just looked at the way he practiced, the way he mentally approached the game, and I tried to learn as much from him as I could.” Not a lot of players take up this position, so it’s vital to learn from those that have.
Essentially, a gunner’s primary responsibility is to get down the field as quick as possible after a kick to make the tackle. Speed is vital to get down there, but physicality is needed to get past the jammers. There will either be one or two defenders trying to inhibit the gunner’s path to the returner. If successful, gunners can make a bevy of plays to impact the game, including forcing a fair catch, making a tackle, or even knocking the ball loose for a fumble.
Based on a term that originally came from rugby, onside kicks are basically a shot in the dark. They are not usually overly effective, but are often used when there is no other choice. Despite being such a low-percentage play, there are ways for a coach to train the kicker and recovery team proper ways to increase these odds. One of the first focal points is to make the ball bounce early. The ball has to bounce at least once before you can hit the returner. The two most likely methods used for onside kicks are the following:
- End-over-end kick – This is basically self-explanatory, but it plays to the shape of the football. Due to this, you are more likely to get either a tricky bounce or a surprisingly high one that creates a difficult play for the opposition.
- Single one man out – Here, the kicker will choose one player on the returning team and kick it hard right at him. If he is unable to secure it cleanly, there is a chance to recover the fumble.
It’s a long shot, but these methods should increase your odds of a turnover. If you are able to surprise your opponent with an onside kick set-up, they likely won’t have their hands team out there and will either have to burn a time out or risk it.
Here Wes Anderson, the Special Teams Coordinator and WR Coach at 3x State Champion New Palestine HS discusses options for the onside kick.
Source: Special Teams A-Z course
No one gets more love in the special teams’ unit than the return man. Guys like Devin Hester, Josh Cribbs, Jacoby Jones, and Dante Hall have all carved out meaningful NFL careers through mainly being a dominant return man.
While some teams will have different players for kicks and punts, it is possible for the same player to handle both duties. Usually the returner is one of, if not the fastest players on the team. This speed allows them to hit holes quicker and get the ball down the field. Likewise, this player is often a back up at his respective position to prevent an every down player from taking too many hits.