Making Oregon’s special teams special
For a football team to be successful, it requires being proficient in offense, defense, and…oh, what’s that other thing? Oh yeah, special teams.
It’s easy to forget about special teams and its importance in the game, as often anonymous players go through the motions of a kick while fans casually await the next offensive series to commence. But make no mistake, special teams play is as vital a cog as any in the deciding factors towards victory or defeat, be it a last-second field goal attempt or the game-long field position battle dictated by kickoffs and punts. It is often overlooked, yet as key as offense or defense in any game’s result.
For many pursuing dreams of a career at the next level, special teams is the best route to make a pro roster. Diversity is key in these days of shortened rosters and salary caps, so if somebody can snap, block, or cover on special teams their chances of in-game reps and pro opportunities increase dramatically.
In this oft-overlooked facet of football, Oregon fans for decades have been spoiled. The result of the continuity in top-tier coaches specializing in special teams nuance, Oregon’s special teams routinely is among the elite in the conference if not the country. Yet amidst the flash and high-octane bravado exemplified by the Oregon Ducks on both offense and defense, it is easy to neglect the stellar special teams play Oregon fans get to enjoy.
Yes there have been a few missed kicks, a few shanked punts, and a long return given up here or there this season, but lost in the 2011 Oregon Ducks offensive prowess is the appreciation for Special Teams Coach Tom Osborne and Strength & Conditioning Coach Jim Radcliffe and the jobs they have done to develop Oregon Ducks special teams into its elite stature. Simply put, Oregon’s special teams play all things considered is as good as there is in the entire country, and a big reason why the Ducks have been so successful for so long.
We’ve all heard the jokes (probably told a few ourselves) about how kickers aren’t real football players. The athletic equivalent of drummers a.k.a. people who hang out with musicians all day, kickers are often shunned or laughed at by commentators and fans alike for their short stature, tiny facemasks, special shoes, and often feeble attempts to make a tackle. Songs have even been made poking fun at the kicker stereotype…
But at Oregon, special teams are looked upon very differently, and it starts with the coaches. The Oregon Ducks are a program shrouded in outside misconception. Public perception nationally is that of a program built upon Nike money and flashy uniforms and facilities but lacking in the heart earned through talent and hard work, a manufactured powerhouse. Insiders and those in the know immediately point to the consistency in quality coaches over the years as the primary cog in Oregon’s success.
Certainly Oregon has been a “coaching factory” for decades long before the good times of recent years, as former players and coaches have gone on to tremendous success at the collegiate and professional levels after getting their football bona fides in Eugene. John McKay, John Robinson, Norv Turner, Tom Donahue, Dirk Koetter, Norm Van Brocklin, Chris Peterson, John Madden, Jeff Tedford, Al Borges, Gunther Cunningham, and Bill Musgrave are just a few of the prolific names who at one time or another wore a uniform or a whistle for the Ducks. But while these coaches left to pursue other opportunities, it is the experience in the coaches who have chosen to remain in Eugene focusing on special teams that have over the years made Ducks special teams truly special.
Oregon fans have witnessed premier talent participate on special teams, be it kickers and punters with legs like a John Daly drive off the tee or returners capable of going the distance at any moment. Ronnie Harris, Patrick Johnson, Keenan Howry, Steven Moore, Jonathan Stewart, and these days DeAnthony Thomas have thrilled us all with game-changing moments. For many, special teams is a place where backups get a chance to play, the Ducks being one of the few programs that often place starters and outright stars on special teams wanting to maximize the talent on the field.
A perfectly placed punt downed at the 1 yard line, a long field goal kick under pressure as time expires, or a timely block can alter the outcome of a game entirely, and few programs spend as much time perfecting the art of these skills more than the Ducks.
For many players, special teams is the first opportunity for playing time. Prove yourself on special teams, and there just may be a spot in the depth chart to get more consistent playing time. Shine on special teams, and there may be a career waiting in the NFL. It is a place for walk-ons to make their presence felt, but most programs look at special teams as an afterthought. Observers will often overlook special teams play until the final seconds of a game when it comes down to a final kick, not comprehending all that ensues during the entire game in special teams play that swings momentum to one side or the other.
For every field goal missed, the kicker takes the blame. But for that kick to be executed, there must be a quick targeted snap, a steady hold, synchronized blocks, and a perfectly timed swing of the leg all in sequence for the play to be successful.
For every punt, a lofted long snap must be accurate, while blockers plug lanes to prevent the rush, and the punter execute a proper drop to connect on his toe so that the ball not only travels far, but gives proper hang time for the coverage team to get downfield, or angled in such a way that it bounces to maximize roll while preventing the ball from straying into the endzone.
For every kickoff it is more than just the kicker booming it as far as he can, the kick must be directed in an angle while the coverage team sprints in their respective lanes and tracking the ball to its final location while trying to disrupt the blocking formation permitting a teammate or two to reach the return man to minimize the opponent’s field position.
A lot goes into special teams play, it requires endless repetitions to master the precise timing and technique necessary to be proficient. With it being such an important piece it seems obvious that it would be something practiced tirelessly, yet for many teams it is an afterthought, and the special teams coach is whichever position coach drew the short straw also having to teach that unit. But not so with the Ducks…at Oregon the kickers, punters, and special teams players are every bit a part of the team as everyone else, coaches make sure of that and the family atmosphere created leads to the ongoing success experienced on the football field.
THE COACHES THAT MAKE SPECIAL TEAMS SPECIAL
While Oregon assistant coach Tom Osborne also instructs tight ends, it is the special teams unit where his genius truly shines. “Coach Oz” is indeed a wizard, consistently his special teams units rank among the best in the nation in kick/punt return and coverage averages. Starting at Oregon in the mid-90s for a six-year stretch the Ducks were ranked first or second every season in the conference in kickoff coverage. During his tenure at Arizona State he led the Sun Devils to the only year when they were ranked top 10 in the nation in both kick and punt return average (2005). In 2003 Oz was named the Division 1A National Special Teams Coordinator of the Year. Following his return to Oregon, in 2008 he was also named one of the top five tight end coaches in the country by CBSsports.com. Every time Jackson Rice booms a punt with little or no return, or the Ducks pin an opponent deep in their own territory, or a successful onside kick or two-point conversion takes place, fans should both applaud and thank the special teams Wizard of Oz at Oregon pulling the strings.
The Yin to Osborne’s Yang is Strength & Conditioning Coach Jim Radcliffe, the short energizer bunny of a human being who works with every athletic program at the UO, but is always seen roaming the sidelines at Duck football games quick to help wherever he can. Ask anyone at the Casanova Center, and they will confirm that nobody is respected within the program more by players, faculty, or fellow coaches than Jim Radcliffe. The creator of plyometrics, Radcliffe has been the secret weapon for Oregon for many years ensuring that every time the Ducks take the field they are the better-conditioned team.
Years ago Radcliffe noticed that during practice the kickers and punters would be off to the side not doing much, and he took it upon himself to become an unofficial special teams coach for the team. His relationship with players not only in the weight room but on the practice field as well is a major reason why special teams at Oregon is indeed so special. It is his dedication in ensuring that players get as many reps as needed to be proficient at their job that makes all the difference. It is convenient that during the off-season while the coaching staff is not permitted to participate in player workouts, the strength coaches are exempt from this able to work with players daily. Coach Radcliffe has for years taken full advantage of this rule to Oregon’s benefit, not only improving student athletes 40-times and bench press figures, but helping them practice fielding kicks and other drills to improve their special teams skills. It is indeed rare that a strength coach can double as a position coach for a team, able to work with players throughout the year.
“Whenever I am in Eugene I always stop by to say hi to Coach Rad,” said Ronnie Harris, an Oregon wide receiver from 1988-1992 who excelled in punt coverage and as a returner, and enjoyed a lengthy NFL career predominantly playing special teams. “He’s the best coach I’ve ever been around as far as character. He’d demonstrate all the exercises for his players, and is so dedicated to his job. He taught me how to return punts, and that was my main ticket to get into the NFL. One of the things I remember most while I was at Oregon was all the time Coach Rad spent with me inside Autzen Stadium making me field punts over and over teaching me how to be a returner. There’s a unique thing at Oregon about the continuity of coaching, a lot of guys there now were there back when I was playing. So many football coaches are constantly moving, but at Oregon it’s really unique. It adds something to the university, hard to put your finger on, that intangible thing that makes it all function.”
“Coach Radcliffe spends the most time with the kickers than anybody else,” Josh Frankel remembers, a walk-on kicker at Oregon from 1996-2000 who became the full-time field goal kicker in 1999 and 2000 earning a scholarship in the process. “Having Coach Radcliffe work with kickers is a tremendous advantage, kickers used to not do much in practice except kick, but Coach Rad said why don’t I start working with them and the rest is history. He works not only on strength but flexibility and the mental side of the game. One of the first things Coach Rad ever taught us, he took the kickers into the locker room and drew a bunch of circles on the floor inside one another. He started with the bigger circle, ‘this is wind’ he said. Next circle inside that was bad snap, the next was bad hold, the next was bad block…the smallest circle in the center was you. His point was that you can’t worry about everything you can’t control, just control what you can but don’t get caught up with extemporaneous things. It’s a life lesson that has stuck with me ever since.”
Frankel continued, “Maybe 20 years ago it used to be that kickers were off in their own universe separated from the team, but at Oregon it was a team from top to bottom, it’s why I enjoyed playing there so much. If I’d never played a down I still would have loved every second of it. It’s the community, the coaches, key players like Joey (Harrington) who drove that culture, it is truly a family atmosphere. At Oregon kickers are very much a part of the team in every aspect from lifting to training, in the summer workouts we’re out there running and working on flexibility just like everybody else.”
A SNAPSHOT OF OREGON’S SPECIAL TEAMS THE LAST 20 YEARS
Under Head Coach Rich Brooks, Oregon had a tendency to pursue guys capable of both kicking and punting to cover both jobs. In the early 90s Tommy Thompson performed this task admirably, as one of the top kickers in the nation his powerful leg included numerous lengthy field goals and a 76-yard punt to his credit before a career in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers. A barefoot kicker, Thompson ranks third all-time at Oregon in career field goals.
Following Thompson’s graduation after the 1993 season, Rich Brooks brought in another player capable of both kicking and punting, Matt Belden. In his second season handling double duty Belden suffered a horrible quadriceps injury that ended his career, and into his multiple roles stepped the emergency backups, kicker Joshua Smith and punter Josh Bidwell.
In 1996 with Belden still sidelined, Smith and Bidwell assumed the jobs full time. Now under Head Coach Mike Bellotti, a different philosophy was undertaken with the new regime. Bellotti coached the kickers, working with them extensively on their step and drop for punters and leg swing for kickers, putting much more focus on special teams than under the Brooks era going over film with them to review proper technique and improve their mechanics.
While Smith at times struggled with kickoffs and field goals, Josh Bidwell became one of the most prolific punters in the country, which turned into a lengthy NFL career as one of the top punters, including a Pro Bowl selection in 2005 while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
While Smith was the primary kicker, joining him on the team was a new walk-on, a freshman from Pacific Palisades, CA, Josh Frankel. “I didn’t get any scholarship offers to play in college, but I was invited to walk-on at Oregon and loved every second of it. Had I never played a single down I would have done it in a heartbeat, the camaraderie and family atmosphere between the team and coaches is really special. But in 1996 Joshua Smith got hurt against Washington and I came in to kick two extra points. That cost me an entire year of eligibility, and I considered transferring because I wanted to play, but decided to stick it out because I liked the university and coaches and team.”
Smith would resume the kicking role while Frankel suffered several injuries that set him back over the next few seasons. Smith was injured late in 1997 which led to Frankel’s first extended opportunity to play in the final four games, but his kicking was inconsistent. In 1998 Oregon recruited a junior college All-American kicker named Nathan Villegas to replace Smith and coaches unsure if Frankel could be their main guy. Villegas was the top-rated kicker in the country coming out of junior college. Recruiting kickers can be a tricky position to recruit, as some handle the transition better than others. In high school tees are used when kicking field goals, and some are simply incapable of learning how to kick off the ground, or dealing with turf vs. grass, or the mental pressures of the game…but not Villegas.
Nathan Villegas was everything that had been hyped and more. In 1998 he had one of the most proficient seasons in team history for a kicker, and was given plenty of opportunities to showcase his powerful leg with the offense racking up the highest totals in yardage and scoring in school history at the time.
But in 1999 as a Lou Groza Award Finalist, the annual award given to the nation’s top kicker, a moment occurred that forever changed the lives of Oregon’s special teams unit for years to come. A hard fought game between the Ducks and Trojans was being played out at Autzen Stadium when young quarterback Joey Harrington led a late drive to set up a potential game-tying field goal. Villegas lined up and nailed the kick, but Joey being his typical overly-enthusiastic self celebrated a bit too heartily, jumping on Villegas’ back causing Villegas to tear his ACL. He was carried off the field by his linemen while both teams prepared for overtime.
In the first overtime barefoot placekicker Dan Katz came on the field to potentially win the game with a field goal. Josh Frankel recalls, “That was really tough seeing Nathan get hurt. Joey still takes a lot of crap for that to this day. Joey should be cutting checks for Nathan because he probably cost him an NFL career. Dan Katz came in before me for the first overtime. He was one of the best pure kickers I’d ever seen, but that moment got to him I guess. Kicking is such a mental process.”
Katz missed his opportunity to win the game and take over kicking duties for the injured Villegas with a wounded duck of a kick, further raising doubt that maybe Oregon couldn’t pull off the victory against the Trojans with their All-American kicker sidelined for the foreseeable future.
The teams exchanged touchdowns in the second overtime, pushing it to a third OT, and Josh Frankel was called to step in rather than Katz.
“I replaced Joshua Smith the last four games of the 1997 season, and missed a few kicks in the Las Vegas Bowl unfortunately. I guess kicking is not about how many you make, it’s when you make it that counts. For that 1999 USC game my dad had flown up from L.A. hoping to maybe see me kick-off one time, but being a third-string walk-on kicker I thought I was going to have as much to do with the outcome as anyone in the stands. I had redshirted in 1998 when Nathan Villegas was brought in, and I even started playing some scout team wide receiver to help out. My family was watching on live TV back home but not expecting to see me whatsoever. It was very surreal, I savored every second of it, though I did apologize to my dad afterwards that he never saw me kick-off.”
While he may not have kicked-off in the game, Frankel in triple overtime entered the history books by nailing the game winning field goal and being carried off the field by teammates.
With Villegas sidelined, Frankel assumed the role of kicker for the Ducks while Dan Katz, possessing the stronger leg of the two, took over kickoff duties. It was similar to the position battle at quarterback for the Ducks that year, with AJ Feeley being the starter until injury prominently placed Joey Harrington in the spotlight and he never relinquished the starting role, so too did Frankel outperform Katz to assume the starting job in lieu of Villegas.
Several weeks later Frankel again came through with a field goal vs. Arizona in the final minute of a 44-41 victory. “That was truly a magical season, every game came down to the final minute,” Frankel recalls. “The team these days haven’t had many games like that, you have to learn how to win those late games. It’s all about taking advantage of your opportunities when they come your way.”
Josh Frankel holds an interesting footnote in Oregon history as quite possibly the only player who has been honored on senior day twice. Following his senior season of 1999, the Ducks pursued and received a special waiver from the NCAA for an additional year of eligibility, and Frankel returned to the team in 2000, again being recognized as a senior a second time. The Ducks made it to the Holiday Bowl that season, in part thanks to Frankel’s clutch kicks, including two career long shots of 46 and later in the same game 47 yards in the snow at Washington State to preserve an overtime victory.
In 2001 Coach Osborne left Oregon to join former Oregon offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter as assistant head coach at Arizona State. The Ducks under new special teams coach Robin Ross turned to a rotation of kickers until again a last-minute victory over USC at Autzen Stadium would determine the kicker going forward, this time with Jared Siegel assuming Frankel’s role as the underdog hero. Siegel would over the next few years demonstrate one of the most powerful legs ever at Oregon, highlighted by a key 59-yard field goal vs. UCLA in 2002 before halftime in a game the Ducks won 31-30.
Punting duties meanwhile fell upon a junior college transfer from Van Nuys, CA named Jose Arroyo. Arroyo was like many of Oregon’s kickers from the past, not offered scholarships coming out of high school but given the opportunity to play would prove themselves as a lethal weapon in Oregon’s special teams arsenal.
“I didn’t touch a football until the 9th grade, I played soccer since I was five so I always had it in me, but I just really started enjoying the game,” said Arroyo.
“I was a mess the first game, it was against Wisconsin, I was all nerves, I couldn’t focus, but the first punt I got out of there was a 60-yard bomb. I had a great first couple of games, I got all the nerves out, my average was a little low but I had a lot of redzone/coffin corner punts.”
In fact the coffin corner punt, an often lost art these days of angling a punt so that it goes out of bounds as close to the endzone as possible without being a touchback, was a skill that Arroyo excelled at during his time at Oregon.
If football is a game of inches, where field position makes all the difference, than having a punter capable of pinning an opponent deep is a tremendous asset. For two years Arroyo and Siegel were a fierce tandem helping push Oregon towards a Pac-10 title and Fiesta Bowl berth.
Amidst that run though was a moment that sticks out in Oregon history, a time when special teams clearly failed and with it cost the Ducks a game. For those who claim special teams is not as important an element as offense or defense, point to the 2001 Stanford-Oregon game as proof to the contrary.
The Ducks led at the start of the 4th quarter 42-24 appearing to be able to cruise to another win on their undefeated season. But two blocked punts, the first blocked punts in Arroyo’s career in either high school or college, spurred the Cardinal’s unlikely comeback. A tipped pass for an interception led to another score, and Oregon’s dreams of an undefeated season and national championship shot was dashed in a 49-42 loss at Autzen Stadium, ending the nation’s longest home winning streak.
“I had two punts that were blocked in that Stanford game, I’d never had a punt blocked before in my life so that was a real surprise,” Arroyo recalls. “We play as a unit, so as a unit we failed, it was just a blocking assignment that was missed twice and we paid the price. I was a two-step punter and that helped a lot to get the ball out quick, but I guess not quick enough.”
The following year, Arroyo’s senior campaign featured some off punts early in the season but he quickly became a stable and formidable asset for the team.
During that 2002 season Arroyo also had a moment of infamy while playing Washington State, proving that at least at Oregon you don’t mess with kickers. They may endure jokes from time to time, but make no mistake that Oregon kickers and punters are athletes, capable of making a big tackle, forcing a fumble, or even lowering the boom.
With Arroyo’s departure following the 2002 season, kicker Paul Martinez was converted to be the punter while Jared Siegel remained the field goal kicker for the Ducks.
The early 00’s was a time where the Ducks slipped a little following the successful 2001 season, part result of replacing a senior-heavy roster, part a victim of their own success, and part adjustments due to coaches leaving the program. In particular special teams lagged badly with Coach Oz now tutoring the Sun Devils. For years the Ducks had won games with superior special teams, but now all too often punting and special teams coverage was more keystone cops than artistry in motion. While there were highlights on special teams like Kenny Washington’s long kickoff returns and Keith Lewis’ remarkable knack for blocking kicks, the overall performance averages dropped from first to worst in the conference. It was during these years too that Oregon’s record suffered with disappointing seasons.
Oregon special teams lacked consistency for many years until Coach Osborne returned to Oregon in 2007, and with it came an immediate boost in performance. That season Andiel Brown led the Pac-10 in punt returns, Jonathan Stewart ranked 3rd in kick returns, and the Ducks finished 2nd in kickoff return average in the Pac-10 conference. The following year Oregon ranked 16th nationally in punt returns. 2009 the Ducks ranked 17th nationally in kickoff returns, while kicker Morgan Flint was as clutch as it gets converting on 88% of his kicks. Oregon special teams’ prominence had clearly returned.
Today while fans may still lament about the missed field goal attempt two weeks ago as time expired vs. USC that failed to push the game to overtime, the Ducks continue to reap the benefit of some of the best special teams in the country. Punter Jackson Rice is one of three Ray Guy Award finalists, a prestigious award given out each year to the top punter in the country. Rice has placed 16 punts inside the 20 and Oregon ranks 2nd in the nation in net punting (41.85). In addition Rice has both rushed and passed for two-point conversions as the Oregon special teams units in the Chip Kelly era not only are technically proficient in their coverage, but dazzle in their innovative two-point conversion attempts. Thanks to the hard work of Coach Osborne and Coach Radcliffe, along with the dedication of Oregon’s special teams players to master the game from both a physical and mental level, the Ducks will continue to make special teams special.
TECHNICAL ASPECTS OF THE SNAP AND BLOCKING
Proving that there is much more to special teams than just kicking a ball, former players provided some interesting insight into the technical aspects of special teams play.
With both field goals and punts, the success of the play initially depends on the proficiency of the snapper. Long-snapper is a position of anonymity, a thankless job where if that player’s name is being mentioned or is known by the fans, it is probably because they screwed up.
An errant snap can lead to a game-changing turnover, look no further than the 2008 Oregon-Cal game for proof of how bad snaps can affect an outcome. In that torrential downpour in Berkeley, CA the Ducks had a field goal blocked and a punt snap airmailed above the punter’s head, the two key plays that resulted in a narrow defeat to the Bears.
Mike Belisle knows all too well about the intricate subtleties of the snap. An Oregon lineman from 1998 – 2001, Belisle doubled as a snapper for the Ducks, at first both on field goals and punts though later exclusively handling field goal and extra point duties. Belisle shared his intricate knowledge of the nuances involved that come with the position.
“Most think that it’s the same as a shotgun snap like they’re throwing a football between their legs, but this doesn’t create a tight spiral or any velocity. With field goals it’s important to get the ball back as quickly as possible. Imagine taking a football in your hand then cocking your wrist so that your hand is on top of the ball with the ball on the ground. Then place your left hand flat so that your index finger is pointing to the tip of the ball, placing your hand on the opposite seam of the football. The top hand pressure creates the velocity and tight spiral.”
“Really what you’re doing is bending over and sticking your hands over your head, putting pressure on the ball to load it and the cocked wrist fires the ball backwards on movement. It’s like trying to throw a spiral upward with both hands raised over your head. This is something snappers actually do in practice to warm up, tossing a ball back and forth above our heads to get the snap motion down. It’s a small window to aim through, trying to hit the kneeling holder in the hands so they can quickly place the hold for the kicker. Your thighs dictate where the ball will go, when you’re in pads you can’t get that much reach, and your leg pads will make the gap even smaller. It’s all about aligning your legs right.”
“Long-snapping is a little different from playing center on the offensive line. At center you can have a nose guard right on you, but when snapping on punts and field goals the defender can’t hit the snapper until his head is raised up, so teams usually blitz the gaps instead. A lot of times this results in the center coming free. It’s fun as the snapper because you quickly learn that on field goal attempts if you’ve got a guy running and jumping to block a kick you’ve got a free shot to do whatever you want to their lower body, and next time they may not be so quick to want to leap high. Generally you’re going to get one step forward and slightly to the side so that your feet interlock with the blocker next to you protecting your interior gap, so that you can seal the gap to prevent penetration. Staying low, keeping your weight forward, and everybody else absorbs the rush while the center gets to hit the free guy.”
“It’s muscle-memory repetition. You don’t see the ball when it goes back, it leaves your hand and it’s gone and you’re already up looking to see who’s coming. Make sure the stroke feels the same every time. If you put the ball on the holder’s hip he’s not going to catch it, so align the legs right and get it to his hands. Before a snap I would always make sure my feet were set, angled the right way, grip the ball, cock the wrist, fire it fast, snap the wrist like throwing a spiral, making sure my index fingers always finished in the same place because where the fingers point is where the ball will go. Really it takes practicing it again and again to get the muscle memory repetition down. If you align correctly before the snap then theoretically nothing should ever go wrong with the snap itself. There are factors to be wary of, such as the difference between grass and turf, sometimes the ball can catch the surface, but with repetition and making sure you are aligned properly before the snap then everything should be like clockwork. If the starting points are always the same, the finishing point will always be the same.”
“There isn’t as much pressure on snappers than there is kickers or punters, it’s a more compact confined movement and pads limit the range of motion, the biggest variable is how far above your head are your hands. There is no cadence, the holder gives a hand flick and then it is up to the snapper to determine the play start, and all the blockers just wait on first ball movement. With the punt snap the stroke is longer because the ball has to travel further but with more of an arc, with field goals the ball is hitting the holder in the hands as fast as possible. Joey (Harrington) used to complain all the time about how my snaps were too hard, they kept hurting his hands, it’s like catching a hard chest pass while on your knees.”
“I will say though that snapping was one of my favorite parts of football, because as a lineman it was the only time I got to touch the ball. You don’t want anyone to know who you are though, if they do then it means you screwed something up. Do your job, and be anonymous.”
TECHNICAL ASPECTS OF THE PUNT
Jose Arroyo shared detailed insight into the preparation and execution of a proficient punt.
“Preparing as a punter is completely different, it’s a lot of mental preparation rather than physical. You workout the same way as a defensive back or wide receiver in the weight room, then out on the practice field it’s all about reps with the position coach, and the rest is all mental work to ensure that the technique is proper. If you’ve practiced enough once that snap hits your hands the technique will take over, I’d say it is 80/20, 80% mental.”
“From a kicker’s point of view the ball is always being kicked from ground level from the same spot theoretically every time, but for a punter your drop point of the ball determines your trajectory. It varies based on the punter’s height, if I’m taller then my drop point will be higher, a 6’5″ punter will hit the ball higher than a 5’10” punter will. I was a two-step punter, worked with Coach Bellotti a lot on modifying my drop and the way I held the ball when I dropped it. It’s really important to modify your hold of the ball as necessary to make sure that when you drop it the ball will consistently be in the same spot, moving just two inches to the left or right is major for the punter.”
“In game the preparation to take the field is totally different. On first down that’s when a punter starts warming up going through the routine to prepare for a 4th down kick. So with every first down made by the offense you need to start over again warming up preparing for a a possible 4th down. Probably my most embarrassing moment came against USC when I overdid my warmups on the sideline and I cramped up as soon as I ran out onto the field and we had to call a timeout.”
“For punting it’s not only about how much distance you can get on the ball but height is just as important, hang time gives your coverage team time to get down the field to tackle the return man. In addition you need to angle it to the side to give the returner less space to work with, how you manage to do all of those things is determined by the way you drop the ball on your foot. If you drop it a certain way and it meets at the right angle you can do anything you want with it, it’s all about the angle the ball meets the foot. You can aim high and give it spin so that it comes backwards when it hits when dropping a ball near the endzone, or strike it so that it spirals and gets maximum distance. But with the way the ball tends to bounce it’s usually 30% skill 70% luck as far as getting a good roll as long as you get it high and long enough.”
“Then on those occasions when coverage misses and the punter has to make a tackle, we train a lot in preparation for that. We practice on ourselves proper tackling technique, always practicing the angles to take to force returners towards the sidelines and then how we should tackle when we’re near it. We would practice that once a week on the other kickers and any guys that were injured also would become our tackling dummies.”
TECHNICAL ASPECTS OF THE KICK
Josh Frankel provided insight into the skills and preparation required as a kicker.
“Kicking doesn’t seemingly belong in football…you have all these rough and tough guys, big strong fast and nasty, and kickers are generally very good athletes but need to be much calmer, because their line of work requires them to be calm under pressure. The best ones around, no matter what the situation is, they remain calm. Kicking is 90% mental, people never give football players enough respect for their intelligence, but I’d say football is still 50/50 except for the kickers where it’s almost entirely mental.”
“With kickoffs it all starts with where you want to kick the ball. Oregon always tries to place the ball outside the numbers to reduce the amount of field the returner can work with, and the coverage teams are designed to always cover outside, so if a kick goes down the middle it can be trouble. Angle the ball to the side you want, then the coverage team needs to find the ball and track it to the returner.”
“For field goals, it is a matter of timing. It starts with the snap, then the hold needs to be quick and in the same place so that when you plant and swing you connect the same way. It comes down to repetition to get the timing right. Think of your leg as a golf club, and that pendulum swing of the club is how you get your drive on the ball. The saying goes ‘bad snap, bad hold.’ It’s all timing, if the snap is off then that will cause the hold to be off and likely the kick will be off too. It requires focus, being mentally prepared to block out all other factors and focus on the repetitions in practice. So much of it is mental attitude, knowing that if you follow through with confidence you will succeed. There’s a famous saying, ‘whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right. That is very true with kicking. I always compare it to the film “For The Love Of The Game” and the ‘clear the mechanism’ technique, blocking out all other distractions and focusing on the pendulum swing of your leg connecting with the ball with confidence knowing that it will be good.”
The ‘clear the mechanism’ technique featured in the film For The Love Of The Game can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SuXWrXA8l8
“I think the effect of ‘icing’ the kicker truly depends on the kicker’s confidence and the difficulty of the kick. Kicking is such a mind game, that a small interruption can make a big difference. The kicker needs to stay focused and not let something he can’t control interfere with his success. Also, I don’t think icing just impacts the kicker. The snapper, holder and blockers all need to be prepared for it as well. That’s why I think every time a team lines up for a kick, they should kick the ball regardless of if a timeout is called. Every kicker has a slightly different approach when he is iced. Some kickers run to the sideline, then back to the field – mostly to stay within their routine. Some kickers stay on the field to enjoy the moment, while others chat with their teammates or coaches. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to handle it, just what’s most comfortable for the kicker. I never liked being by myself in those big moments…always preferred talking with Bellotti, Coach Rad or Joey. Bellotti would always tell jokes or ask you to tell a joke to lighten the moment.”
Mike Belisle also chimed in regarding the all-too-common practice of ‘icing’ the kicker. “I guess it could effect a snapper as well. Pads limit the range of motion, you’re in a compact space. As long as you make your pre-snap alignment, assuming your set points are right, things should be smooth. Screw-ups occur more from a pre-snap issue than from the snap itself, so don’t over-think it, just align proper and fire.”
And finally, as for the odd sight of barefoot kicking, a somewhat lost art today but remembered fondly at Oregon with players such as Tommy Thompson, Matt Belden, and Dan Katz; Frankel added his thoughts. “I tried to kick barefoot, you probably do get a little more distance because you’re hitting the ball right off the bone in your foot and bone-on-ball contact will send the ball a little bit harder. That’s why they do it. I tried it until I kicked the tee once instead and crushed a bone in my foot, I kept a shoe on from that point, especially in the cold it could cause damage. You don’t see too many guys doing it now, perhaps the shoe technology has gotten to the point where it’s unnecessary with shoelaces off to the side so you’re going to get a very soft surface. If you develop your foot long enough it’s not as painful as it seems, it hurts a lot the first few times, but you will get a little more distance on your kicks. Dan Katz for example would kickoff with a shoe but tried field goals barefoot to get a little more distance. Then of course there’s always the potential for getting injured if somebody steps on your foot.”
Jose Arroyo was a junior college transfer from Pasadena City College, he was the starting punter for Oregon in 2001 and 2002. Born in Guatemala and raised in Van Nuys CA, Arroyo is now a proud father of two and resides in Tulsa, OK.
Josh Frankel went from third string walk-on to starting kicker for two seasons earning a scholarship along the way, and remains in the top-10 in scoring all-time at Oregon. He chose not to pursue kicking opportunities in the professional ranks and joined the business world. Frankel works with Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and lives in Portland, OR with his wife Amy and their beloved dog Rocky.
Mike Belisle was a Parade All-American lineman in 1998 from Coos Bay, OR when he joined the Ducks, but numerous injuries plagued his career at Oregon. Following a foot injury that ended his career in 2001, Belisle decided to pursue a career in law, graduating with a BA in Political Science in 2002 and a JD from the University of Oregon School of Law in 2005. He is now married and a proud father and works as an attorney with the law firm Kilmer, Voorhees, & Laurick, P.C. in Portland, OR.