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The Playbook: String Concept on Special Teams

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Coach Roc Bellantoni joined the Villanova football program as the defensive line coach and special teams coordinator this off-season after spending a decade as the defensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. His work helped EIU win their way to five Ohio Valley conference titles during that time and he brings a wealth of football experience to the Villanova sidelines, practice field and meeting rooms. VUhoops is grateful to have @CoachRoc contribute his expertise for our readers.

By Rocco Bellantoni

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A special teams play can appear to resemble a scene from the movie Braveheart to the naked eye. There are 22 players flying down the field fighting for field position. The players on our return teams are told to "block forever, time = yards." They are also told to use good judgment when deciding to block the opponent. "Sometimes the best block is no block" is a phrase we use when deciding if a block will be legal or illegal on these plays. While the fastest players make up the best special teams players, special teams is more than just playing with speed and aggressiveness. Whether we are covering a kick or returning a kick, we use our string concept in trying to defeat blocks.

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In the diagram above, the Blocker (BL) has an imaginary string between himself and the Kick Returner (KR). His string will be based on the direction we are trying to return (right or left). The blocker must do all he can to "protect his string." If he can keep his body between the returner and the cover guy (CG), we have a chance to be successful.

He must "block forever" and give the returner a chance to get as much of the hidden yardage in a football game that he possibly can. If all ten of our blockers have proper leverage and protect their string against ten cover guys, it will be up to the returner to make one player miss on the cover team to score.

We want to keep our body in position to make these blocks. Low pad level, good hand placement and moving our feet are key to making these blocks. We teach our blockers to "squeeze grapes" when blocking. They must keep their hands inside the breastplate of the man they are blocking and simulate squeezing grapes under their armpits to maintain a power position with their hands.

They finish blocks with their feet, moving them like pistons, short, choppy steps.

If we are the coverage team, we want to do everything we can to "cut the string" of the blocker. If we cut his string, the only way he can block us is to clip us, blocking us in the back.

We want to beat the blocker to either side and get on top of him, cutting that imaginary string in essence. There are two ways to cut his string. We can avoid to the blockers rear-end side, which we call "whip", or we can beat him with speed across his face, which we call "flash."

If a blocker is trying to block you to the right, the return is going to the left. If we try to get to the left in this case, that would be whipping him. That is the best-case scenario because we are defeating the block to the side the opponent is trying to return the football. However, it isn't always that easy.

The opponents know that you want to beat the block by whipping them. Sometimes, they will set their angle so hard inside that you cannot whip them. In this case, we will try to "flash" them. That is, we try to beat the block with speed, running by the blocker when he sets up to block us. The danger in flashing a blocker is that you can run yourself out of the play if you continue down the field. That's why it is imperative to cut the blocker's string to get back into the play and have a chance to make the tackle.

Whether you are going to whip or flash the blocker, you must set the block up to make him think you are going one way or the other. The faster we can avoid these blocks, the faster we can make a tackle and eliminate some hidden yards for our opponent.

This is just a peek into how we teach our players. There are many small, technique-oriented terms and strategies that go into a football play. It may appear at times to be simple and a battle of wills, where the stronger and faster team will always prevail. Size and speed can often be negated by using proper technique. When all eleven players execute with better technique than the opponent and sound strategy, size and speed does not matter as much. My hope is that you look at a kickoff or punt a little more deeply the next time you watch one. Playing the game in a fast and physical manner is a big part of football, but it goes much deeper than that.