“I think the kicking game is one of the most important parts of football. I personally believe the kicking game is just as important as offense and defense. I have believed that since my college days.”
That’s a quintessential Frank Beamer quote showing just how important a place special teams hold in the coach’s heart.
Except it isn’t a Frank Beamer quote—the author is Jerry Claiborne, Beamer’s coach at Virginia Tech, a special teams guru in his own right, and a major influence on the winningest active BCS coach in the game.
I grew up in southwestern Virginia and played high school ball at a time when “Beamerball” was becoming a nationally used term. I remember coaches coming back from Hokie clinics with packaged punt rushes and techniques like practicing kick blocks with Nerf balls.
Beamer’s “secret,” though, was never about tactics or coaching techniques. VT’s tremendous special teams run of blocked kicks and returns for touchdowns was the result of Beamer’s managerial skills. He took Claiborne’s emphasis and magnified it to a degree probably not seen before in major football.
First, Beamer invested his coaching staff in the philosophy. If you watch a VT game on television, you’ll hear at some point that Beamer is the squad’s “Special Teams Coach,” and that he takes personal responsibility for the performance of his kick units. This isn’t the easiest responsibility in the world—just ask Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson how his stint with special teams went.
What you don’t hear as much is that each of Beamer’s assistants is responsible for a particular aspect of the kicking game. Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster, for example, coaches the punt- and kick-blocking teams.
Even more important, though, is how he gets buy-in from the players. To give a frame of reference, most teams (at every level of play) don’t pay much attention to the kicking game, with the following habits being pretty common:
• Special teams practices are squeezed into short sessions at the end of practices, or held before or after the main practice block.
• If you have a role on a special teams unit, it likely means you don’t have what it takes to contribute to offense or defense (even at tiny high schools.)
• The kickers wander off into an empty field away from the rest of the team to kick and send text messages.
• Players run through the drills at half speed because they don’t want to be killed in the conditioning sessions that often follow.
• Film sessions ignore kicks that don’t result in points or turnovers.
Add these practices to the fact that special teams wreak havoc on the body and it’s easy to see why they don’t have much allure.
Beamer flipped this trend on its head and put Claiborne’s mantra to work. He schedules special teams work for the middle of the practice day. He often puts his best players on special teams—it’s still a common to see Tech’s best DB, receiver, or tailback returning kicks. Beamer promotes these duties as a way to playing in the NFL, where low-ranked and undrafted rookies often have to play their way from the kicking game to having a shot on offense or defense.
The placekickers also have the importance of their work elevated by a “one-kick” drill. For this drill, held often during the week, the kickers are given a single shot at making a field goal from a given spot on the field. No do-overs or excuses. The entire team stops to watch the kick, which ratchets up the tension and simulates a game day experience.
Beamer also gives out benefits and attention normally lavished on important starters. Units that spend their time running up and down the field are excused from a number of sprints and conditioning drills. After games, Beamer names both a special teams player-of-the-week as well as a “Kahuna” moniker for the special teamer with the biggest hit. During the week, all the units meet regularly and get timely feedback on their practices.
Finally, Beamer sets the same kind of clear and measurable special teams goals that offenses and defenses have been assigned since the game began. For 2011 some of those goals were:
• Average 10 yards per punt return
• Return kickoffs to at least the 28 yard line 60 percent of the time
• Block a punt, field goal or extra point, or force a bad kick at least once a game
• Gain 20 yards of comparative field position in the punting game each game
Goals like these have been met with success. Since Beamer started at Tech in 1987, his special teams have tallied 19 punt returns for TDs, 17 blocked punts for the same, nine kickoff returns for scores, four TDs from blocked kicks, and even returned a fumble for a score. Altogether, that’s 50 special teams touchdowns.
It’s true that other teams have learned from Beamer’s example, and the Hokies no longer hold the undeniable edge they once did. Opponents put better players on the field, and the shield punt has taken away VT’s aggressiveness much the same way the spread and option games have dialed back the ferocity of their defense. Looking at intangible items, it seems the Hokies now endure a counteraction to everything good they do in the special teams game. A strong return team will be balanced by weaker kickers. Odd breaks (such as Michigan’s fake field goal in the Sugar Bowl) feel tilted against the squad.
Even playing their most talented players yields mixed results. Return man Dyrell Roberts nearly saved a Hokies contest versus the Crimson Tide, though playing that same role led him to endure two nasty injuries he never seemed to recover either physically or mentally from. Conversely, a phenomenal talent like David Wilson never consistently lived up to the promise of his athleticism.
Unsurprisingly, Beamer’s reaction has been to redouble his efforts with the special teams, including using more scholarships for stars and recruiting harder for both the blue-chippers and the hidden gems who often walk on to football squads. He’s thrown several tactics at the shield punt, and he’s solidifying his kicking group. While I don’t think Tech’s special teams (or any other school for that matter) will soon reach the same apex reached during their days in the Big East, I imagine we’ll see marked improvement over the next few seasons. And that will give opposing coaches something to worry about.