COACHES CORNER: The importance of special teams

Carroll’s Sebastian Lopez kicks off during a September 9 game at Northrop. (Photo by Leverage Photography)

Most football fans have heard the sayings before.

“Offense sells tickets.”

“Defense wins championships.”

They have been said in team meetings, debates on message boards and conversations in the bleachers. But I would like to add a third saying to that mix.

“Special teams is one-third of the game…people forget that.”

In fact, it is an often overlooked and underappreciated unit especially at the high school level.

In this week’s Coaches Corner, I want to look at some aspects of the forgotten third of the game that can separate good teams from great teams, and even great teams from championship teams!

Special teams can be critical as well as highly impactful on a team’s success on Fridays. It is a very important component of the game when talking about the field position battle, as well as overall momentum. It doesn’t always need to be a huge kick return for a touchdown or a blocked kick to give a team a spark. It could be something as simple as a great punt that pins your opponent deep and makes it tougher on the offense to score.

A bad special teams play can be very depleting to a team and really slow their momentum down. A bobbled snap or shanked kick can turn the tables quickly. This unit has to be a key emphasis when building the culture and overall philosophy of a program. So many teams put a lot more energy and effort into their offensive and defensive schemes and don’t spend nearly enough time on special teams. That can become very evident to fans and opposing teams.

It is a must that players know the significance of this unit. We see it across football at all levels, special teams can separate a team from winning or losing a game. From missed extra points and field goals to blocked punts and muffed punts and kick returns.

In many cases at the college and professional level, your best players play special teams. There are certainly some high school programs that mimic this. I remember when NFL scouts used to come in to visit with players when I was at Indiana State and the first question they would ask coaches is, “What special teams units does this player play on?”

Athletes sometimes don’t see the value in the special teams units and oftentimes just go through the motions if they are placed on one of them. It is the coaching staff’s responsibility to get the players to buy in. If a high school player has dreams to play at the next level, it is very important that he is versatile. Sometimes the best ability is availability. Showing the willingness to run down on kickoffs or cover punts can be the difference in how a player can get into the game and excel.

In my opinion, if a team is not executing on special teams, a team is not playing to its full potential and most likely are not winning the close games. Very often the close games come down to special teams play or lack thereof.

As the playoffs near, we will continue to see some games come down to the execution of special teams! Keep an eye out for special plays to be made on that overlooked “one-third of the game” when it counts!

Coaches Corner appears weekly at Outside the Huddle. The author Wes Painter played football at both Snider High School and Indiana State University. Following his playing career, Painter coached defensive line and special teams for the Sycamores before moving back to Fort Wayne. He served as an assistant coach at North Side from 2019-20.

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