Tag Archives: Special Teams

The Tao of Frank Beamer’s Special Teams

Coach Beamer interviewing with Erin Andrews. Photo by Erich Geist (http://www.flickr.com/photos/virtee/)

 

“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.

Garo’s Gaffe

To honor the 40th anniversary of the ’72 Miami Dolphins’ famous undefeated season, let’s talk about that team’s most famous (or infamous) moment: Garo’s Gaffe.

Garabed “Garo” Yepremian was the quintessential European kicker. Armenian by ethnicity, Cypriot by birth, and almost elfin in stature, the soccer-style kicker came to America with his brother, noticed the sport of gridiron football, and thought, “Hey, I can kick that thing.”  With his brother as an agent, the hopeful went about visiting NFL teams with a traveling salesman’s sense of determination.

Garo Yepremian.

The scheme worked.  The Lions picked him up, and along with the Dolphins he later played for the Saints, Bucs, and a Continental Football League squad.  He was hated by many of his opponents for being seemingly antithetical to the sport: foreign and lacking any of the brutality, athleticism, or bulk found in his teammates.  I’ll argue that in some ways, this disregard led him to becoming perhaps one of the toughest kickers in history, as teams routinely went headhunting for the 5’7″ Yepremian.  (He also served in the Army during a year-long hiatus.)

He was the league’s most-accurate kicker for several seasons, amassed over a thousand points, made two Pro Bowls, once kicked a record six field goals in a single game, and was named to the NFL’s All ’70’s team.  Not a bad career for a guy who once explained his enthusiasm over a made XP by saying “I kicked a touchdown.”  (He told this to Alex Karras, which, if you’re read my earlier piece on the Lion DT, you know was asking for the decades of jokes the comment led to.)

Yet he’s best known for a near-disaster.

The year was 1973, the scene Super Bowl VII, the stage LA Memorial Coliseum.  The undefeated Dolphins were two minutes away from blanking the Washington Redskins.  Yepremian was setting up for a 42-yard field goal that would ice the victory for Miami, while a simple miss would have given them at least a half-field of cushion and a favorable kickoff return situation.  Then everything went wrong.

Now you might say things actually went wrong before the ball was snapped. Garo’s kicks had been a little low all game.  Miami Coach Don Shula had put him on the field only because the idea of his soon-to-be 17-0 squad winning the Super Bowl by a 17-0 score had a nice ring to it.  Up by two touchdowns that late in the game (and in the ball control-minded 70’s) nearly guaranteed a win. A conservative punt might’ve been a better choice.  That said, though, punting later proved to be a risky option itself.

Getting back to the action, the ball was snapped and Garo launched into it.  Instead of clearing the line, though, the kick went straight into the back of blocker Bob Heinz’s head and bounced backwards to the Dolphins’ right side of the field.  Washington DL Bill Brundige erupted past a whiffed block and blew through the middle line in pursuit of the ball.  Yepremian, meanwhile, followed his tumbling folly to the fifty-yard line, where instead of falling on it, he made history.

“On the blocked kick, I was lucky,” he recalled.  “The ball just came into my hands. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve thrown a pass before in practice. I’ll throw it downfield.’”

The wind-up.

Yepremian never got a good grip on the ball—in the 5’7” kicker’s hands it could as well been a watermelon.  His arm moved downfield, yet the ball popped free and fluttered around his earhole, not moving forward in the slightest.  Fortunately for Yepremian, he was by default the closest player to the ball, and still capable of grabbing and falling on it.

But he didn’t.

Yepremian swatted the ball.  On film, it almost looks like a volleyball bump or someone recoiling from a snapping snake.  He says he was trying to bat it out of bounds, though he was twenty yards from the sidelines and ended up batting the ball forwards, anyways.  As it happens, he batted the errant kick/pass/flail right into the hands of Washington CB Mike Bass, a former teammate of Yepremian’s from their days in Detroit.  Bass caught the ball in stride and took it down the sideline (because he had plenty of room) and straight to the end zone for his squad’s first score of the game.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oh45VfGFRiU

There were two minutes left and suddenly the ‘Skins were back in it.  George Allen’s subsequent deep-kickoff gambit nearly paid dividends with a blocked punt, though unlike Yepremian, this special teams attempt escaped without a turnover (or errant passes) and Miami wrapped the game shortly after.

Yepremian was worried sick over the play, to the point he was almost physically incapacitated well into the evening.  He credited an encouraging post-game letter from Don Shula for turning around his psyche and allowing him to continue with his successful career.  In true Yepremian fashion, the letter turned out to be written by the coach’s wife.  Neither Shula nor Yepremian knew until Garo thanked a confused Shula for it years later.

I don’t want to turn this into a punching bag story—Yepremian was an excellent kicker who overcame hardship and doubts, and he now runs a charity for brain tumor research.  Even his greatest humiliation was a sting only in itself, as Miami still won the game, and it took both a questionable decision to kick along with poor blocking to even put Yepremian in such a situation.  That said, it’s funny as all get out, and the good-natured kicker turned his error into a late show circuit where he amused the likes of Johnny Carson.  All’s well that ends well, right?