Whichever way it happens — on a punt, field goal, or an extra point — the blocked kick is one of the most exciting plays in football.
And sometimes, it can change the course of not only a game ...
... but a team’s season ...
... and an entire city’s morale.
Of football’s most impactful sudden change plays, the blocked kick is twice as rare as an interception, relative to the number of opportunities for each.
- Of the 31.1 times college football teams passed per game in 2017 — a total of 51,312 times — defenses had 1,456 interceptions, picking off 2.8% of them.
- There were 16,514 total PATs, field goals, or punts in college football in 2017, and 234, or 1.4%, were blocked.
And it can have a more devastating effect than any other play. Blocks are guaranteed to happen behind the line of scrimmage, rather than somewhere downfield. This is an added yardage bonus against an opponent already willing to cede possession. It’s a titanic change in field position versus what’s expected. And that’s before even negating the one or three points the offense might’ve been hoping for.
To figure out the how and the why, I spoke to three special teams coordinators: North Texas’ Marty Biagi, whose schematic ingenuity produced this incredible punt return; USC’s John Baxter, 2011 winner of Football Scoop’s special teams coordinator of the year award; and Cincinnati’s Brian Mason, who learned under Urban Meyer, one of the most special teams-minded head coaches in football.
So how does a team make the decision to come after the specialists?
“A lot of people don’t understand — it’s not just that we’ve blocked a punt, we may have forced the punt that went 32 yards or less,” Biagi said. “Well, that’s equivalent to a guy who punted it 42 yards and we got a 10-yard return, everyone’s fired up. It’s not always just the fact that you blocked a punt, but you’re also factoring in all the shanked or poor hit punts that resulted in a flipped field position.”
Special teams might be thought of as the third unit on a team, but the best outfits put many of their best players on the unit. Baxter does this — starting cornerback Iman Marshall was on USC’s punt team at the time of our interview — and Baxter isn’t worried about elite recruits scoffing at special teams.
“Most of that process is done with the social nature of how teammates interact,” Baxter said. “Early on they learn — probably in the locker room — hey, special teams is something we all do. It’s something we all take serious.”
Meyer’s teams were notable for doing this as well. His special teams players were in an elite club in which punt team eats first at the team meal, for instance, and it made the roles desirable.
“If you can put your faster, more athletic, or better players out there that can put pressure to disrupt the punting unit, they’re obviously gonna be more worried about blocking,” Mason said. “The punter is gonna be more worried about pressure in his face. That’s in turn gonna lead to more erratic kicking, which is certainly gonna disrupt their gameplan and allow for more opportunities in the return game if they’re more focused on blocking.”
The theory behind a blitz is to affect a quarterback. If you can sack him, great. If you can hurry him off of his spot to make an off balance throw, great. If you can force him to make a rushed decision and throw into coverage, great. If you get a pick, it’s icing on the cake. Special teams are the same way.
Just like any other phase, scheme is important.
“It’s almost like a chess match or a checkers match,” Biagi said. “Like any part of football, unless you’re playing 1-on-1, how can I do a technique, or how can I get a group of people to do a technique, and get an advantage? Whether it’s getting 2-on-1 to the left, 2-on-1 up the middle ... it’s finding out schematically, where can I gain a plus-one advantage?”
Biagi says that heading into a week of practice, he knows whether his team’s going to be able to come after a punt. During the week with his punt return team, it’s about determining the opposing team’s looks. A punt team can set up with different assortments of players in shields or used as gunners on the outside.
The most basic alignments are the spread punt and shield punt.
But there can be variations.
“So if they are a three-shield team, you want to find out what’s the way that you can get four guys free to the shield,” Mason said. “If they’re a two-shield team, meaning they have two people back their protecting the punter, you want to find out: what’s the way I can get three guys clean back to the shield?”
Those punts where it looks like someone just waltzes through the middle untouched? That’s by design. Take Steve Gleason’s epic block.
There is initially a 4-on-4 matchup to the right of the long snapper. New Orleans has one player, initially lined up between the right guard and right tackle, slant hard across the guard’s face and into the gap between the guard and the long snapper. He occupies both the guard and the long snapper this way, and then the other three Falcons must block the other three Saints.
Then, Gleason darts from the opposite side of the line and into the vacated gap. The Saints created a 5-on-4 on the right side.
“You’re either picking on the structural weakness of a scheme with a numbers game, or you’re picking on a player that you think that you can take technical advantage on,” Baxter said. “[For example] you’ve got a guy who plays in the front line that just consistently takes a false step. It’s usually really small things.”
Biagi’s team found a 2-on-1 advantage when he was a special teams analyst at Notre Dame. In the 2016 opener against Texas, the Longhorns scored a go-ahead touchdown. But instead of going up three thanks to an extra point, the game tied because two players double teamed #63 and got enough push.
The Irish returned it for two points, and the game went to overtime because of it.
The 2-on-1 tactic also created one of the biggest blocked field goals in the history of football.
Scheme and raw athleticism came into play on Corey Lynch’s incredible play.
“The night before every game we would look at the special teams for the other guys,” [Pierre] Banks said. “Coach Wiley (John Wiley, the team’s defensive coordinator) and I saw that in their kick protection, their wing went to block the end guy on the line, leaving a direct path for the guy right beside him inside. We looked at each other and said, ‘We can get that.’ For Michigan’s first extra point, I was right there, but it kind of went through my hands. I just wasn’t as skilled at doing it as Corey.”
Lynch said he almost blocked a punt earlier in the game. When it came time to block the potential game-winner, he was ready.
“I had blocked a field goal against Furman the previous year, and it was the same exact thing. We said, ‘Let’s just run the Furman block and see if it works again,’” Lynch told ESPN. “[App State’s] outside guy goes to get the attention of the outside man on offense. And if the second man will not look at me for a second, I can squeeze through that gap. I was so fast, I almost overran the field goal block.”
Consider the window. We’re dealing with fractions of a second to exploit the Operation Time — op time for short.
That’s the time it takes from the snap until the specialist puts their foot through the ball.
“If you’re seeing a lot of people going off the edge, [the blocking team] probably believe that the operation from the snap to the kick is not at the speed that it should be,” Biagi said. “Some people say we only have to protect for 1.4 seconds. Those one hundreths of a second, or tenths of a second, if you actually look at the math, that is a big amount of time in terms of the fingertips of a block.”
Typically, the op time for a punt is about 1.9 or two seconds flat. An extra point or field goal is about 1.3. If a field goal’s op time is right, it is very hard to get a block, per Mason.
“You watch baseball coaches in spring training and they all have stopwatches and they time the pitchers’ step,” Baxter said. “They want to know if they can steal. Op time is part of every sport. It starts and stops before every play. The two sports that come to mind is baseball and football. Every pitch is a new play in baseball. Every down is a new play in football, and op time is part of getting sacked for a quarterback. Good quarterbacks don’t get sacked because they unload the ball.”
The things that affect op time are often small, but something like the punter mishandling the snap can be disastrous.
Baxter was the special teams coordinator for Michigan that night, the one he calls the worst moment of his 38 years coaching college football.
“First of all, it didn’t get blocked, the punter dropped the ball,” a frank Baxter said.
When Blake O’Neill mishandled the ball, all bets were off. Baxter doesn’t teach his punters what to do if you drop the ball, because that would create doubt in their mind. Michigan State had 10 of its 11 players come to block, and Michigan had a contingency. The plan was for the punter to shorten up his motion, take one step, and get rid of it.
“I remember Jim Harbaugh and I for the next three days talked about what kind of protection can we be in? How can we protect it better — this and that,” Baxter said. “I finally told him, coach, there is no protection when you drop the ball because that op time we talked about is no more.”
It was the only snap O’Neill dropped all season.
Beyond all of that, there’s a human element to blocking a kick.
The record for blocked field goals and extra points is six, set by Kentucky and Duke respectively. The field goal record was the sole contribution of UK’s Lonnell DeWalt, who blocked all six by himself in 2004.
He was a 6’6 wide receiver with a 38-inch vertical leap — which, for reference, would have been top-10 at the 2018 NFL Combine — who went to UK because he was promised a spot on the basketball team as well. He blocked all those kicks like this:
“The first thing I do in the offseason is I go find out from our strength coach who has the best vertical, and then who based off their height who would be able to do that,” Biagi said. “For me it doesn’t matter what side of the ball you’re on because special teams still involves everybody.”
Florida doesn’t win a national championship in 2006 unless Jarvis Moss’ 6’7 frame can jump at the exct right moment.
Alabama doesn’t win a national championship in 2009 without Terrence Cody bulling through the middle of Tennessee’s protection in a 3-on-2.
But there are personnel drawbacks.
“You put a receiver in there and the [opposing] coach starts to notice they’re not used to playing defense,” Biagi said. “You have to be alert — are they gonna run a fake?”
And that’s a reason why, to answer the basic question, you don’t try to block every kick
“I guess it’s kinda like ‘well we should be able to throw the deep ball every play,’” Biagi said. “But still from a schematic standpoint you can’t do that every single play. And you kinda have to be a smart coordinator and say what’s the situation in the game? What if you’re up by a lot? Down by a lot?
“It also kinda depends on: do you have the guys on your team that have shown you throughout the week that they can do the drills so they don’t rough the punter? There’s nothing more frustrating than you get a third down stop and you’re roughing the punter.”
When a roughing does happen, it’s all the evidence that a conservative head coach needs to tell his coaches not to block. On the flipside, when you’re too safe and bail out, you leave yourself vulnerable to the fake.
“Nobody’s gonna come after it every time,” Mason said. “Usually it’s gonna be, depending on the team, anywhere from 30-60% of the time they’re gonna be a block team. More teams are in that 30% range.”
There are ways for the protection team to make it easier.
The rugby punter is en vogue, the mobile QBs of the punting world. Biagi wouldn’t go in depth into how his team works to stop rugby punters, but his North Texas unit did block one in 2017.
Their mobility changes the block spot, or the point where a blocking unit is aiming. With a traditional punter, the block spot is straightforward, a few yards right behind the long snapper.
“If you know that that block spot is gonna be rolling out or moving over to the side of the punter’s foot, that’s where you’re gonna be able to manipulate or get your rush guys,” Mason said.
Regular punters can also shorten their steps from catch to kick or just have a natural motion that’s as efficient as possible, something Biagi — who punted when he was in college — works with his specialists on. But not every college team has a dedicated special teams coordinator, and even the ones that do can leave their specialists alone to goof around during practice.
“Any coach that says they care a lot about special teams, but you look over and their guys aren’t with a coach — they’re off on some field by themselves — you can’t expect them to have the max amount of performance a quarterback would who’s getting coached every single play,” Biagi said.
Both sides gain advantages from the fluctuating rulebooks.
The NCAA and NFL outlawed leaping in 2017. It’s now a penalty to run toward the line of scrimmage and jump in the air over blockers.
But one rule is actually good for a team trying to block a field goal — the rules protecting long snappers. In the NFL, a defender must line up completely outside of a the long snapper’s shoulder pads. And long snappers are untouchable when in their stance for the first second in college football.
So blocking teams don’t even worry about them, and as far as they’re concerned, it’s a numbers advantage.
“That can help coaches a lot when they’re game planning, trying to get a plus-one,” Biagi said. “Now it’s a snapper and a punter, so now they’re only down to nine in the protection, but as long as you only have one returner down there, you have 10 who could be doing other things.“