Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The 8-2-1 Kickoff Return

For most of my coaching career, I have been a 5-4-2 kickoff return guy.  It's just what I was taught and how I did things when I got my chance to coach.  Now I've had teams in certain years that had kickoff returns for touchdowns here and there, but the most in a single season was only two.  There were several (and I mean SEVERAL) seasons where we had none!  Anyhow, I went and watched a local high school play in a playoff game last season, and I saw something I had never seen before.  They had eight guys on the line with only three guys being back deep!  Now I thought maybe their opponent was known for onsides kicks or something.  I watched the entire game as the opponent kicked the ball deep and gave up good returns for great field position.  The average starting field position that particular night was the 38 yard line.  Now these were on deep kicks too, the opposing team had a kicker that could put the ball consistently inside the five yard line, so as you can see the field position stat was pretty good (also considering one went for a touch back).  Lucky for me I don't go to too many football outings without my handy flip video, and so I recorded these kicks.  The following week this very same team was playing nearby so I traveled to see them again, and sure enough, they were still using the same kickoff return scheme.  After that, I just knew I had to find out more about it, and I did what any good, persistent, nagging football coach yearning for more information did, and I called a member of the coaching staff.   I ended up getting the specifics of the scheme and even got to look at (but unfortunately not keep) some more film of the scheme.  So back home I go and I delve into making this thing work on my middle school football team.  What sold me was when the coach told me they had been doing this for the past two seasons (now going on three), and their "block percentage" had increased almost three times!  I asked "block percentage", what the hell is that?!".  As it was explained to me, that is the number of your players making contact and maintaining contact during the kick return versus the total number of defenders being used on the kickoff team.  He said prior to running this scheme, their average block percentage was around 25 percent.  That means out of 11 players on the kickoff team, only three of them were being blocked.  His team's average starting field position was the 26 yard line, and they had not returned a kick for a touchdown since the 2006 season.  Upon installing the 8-2-1 scheme, here were the new numbers:
  • Block percentage went up from 25% to 73% in first season and 79% in second season.
  • Field position increased to the 32 yard line in the first season and the 39 yard line in the second season.
  • The first year they installed the scheme, they returned a total of four kickoffs for touchdowns and had 14 kick returns cross midfield that season.  The second year of the scheme, they returned 6 kicks for touchdowns and had 17 kick returns cross midfield.
I was hooked, but was still unsure if it would work at my level.  I brought it back to my head coach and he nixed the idea almost immediately.  The reasoning he gave is that teams would pooch and sky kick you to death, which is a fair assumption seeing as how much open space there is.  So we enter this season, with me being an interim head coach and after the third game of the season, I thought to myself, hell if this is my ship, I'm going to do things MY WAY!  I installed this in one practice and we stayed in it the rest of the season.  Here were our numbers for this past season:
  • Block percentage increased from 22% to 70%.
  • Field position increased from the 37  yard line to the 49 yard line (we don't get too many deep kicks).
  • One kickoff return for a touchdown increased to six kickoff returns for touchdowns (seven total on the year, a school record by three).  We had 1 kickoff return cross midfield in the first three games (the one returned for a touchdown) and that number increased to nine by the end of the season.
Now that I've shared with you the numbers, let's talk about the scheme and installation.


Most of us have grown out of having linemen on special teams (I'm not a hater, hell I'm a former OL myself), but for those that do, now's the time to evolve.  This scheme is made for mostly defensive backs, linebackers, running backs, wide receivers and the occasional athletic defensive end.  The front eight need to be able to run and cover a guy man to man, but only for a short period of time.  The upbacks need to be fearless guys who are not afraid to catch a kick in traffic.  A good idea here is to think punt returner.  The upbacks do need to be able to block in space, but don't sacrifice blocking for being able to catch the football in traffic.  The returner, can be your typical kick returner, but he doesn't need to be a "missile", he needs to have the ability to read "cloudy" and "clear" and know how to run to daylight based on the blocks occurring in front of him.

8-2-1 Alignment
Ok, the front line is a mirror of four players, there are two guards, two tackles, two ends and two wings.  They align about two to three yards off the 50 yard line and are facing forward looking at the kicker and the football.  There are two upbacks, whose depth depends on the kicker's ability and whether or not the opposing team likes to sky kick or not.  As a base rule at the junior high level, I aligned my guys and the 35 yard line (this is assuming we knew nothing about our opponent's kicker).  The middle returner aligned at average kick depth based on film or pre-game scouting.  If we didn't know anything about the opponent's kicker then we aligned him at the 25 yard line.  Remember, you will have to adjust these some for high school ball, so bear with me.

Width alignments had the guards between the hash mark and the middle of the field with both tackles aligning on the hash marks.  The ends would align halfway between the hash and the bottom of the numbers.  The wings would align just off the bottom of the numbers.  The Upbacks basically stacked behind the ends, splitting the difference between the hash and the bottom of the numbers as well.  The returner would align in the middle of the field, splitting the hashes.


Blocking assignments were VERY simple.  The blockers would begin their count from the closest sideline(this is assuming a middle return, which is all we ran last season, however the sky is the limit when it comes to the types of returns you can run), and would count until they got to their number.  The way it worked was this, since the the right tackle for instance (RT in the diagram) was the fourth player from the right side, he counted out four men and that was his man.  So for the Right wing, he would have one, the right end would have two, the right tackle would take three and the right guard had four.  We did not count the kicker in this scheme, the returner has to make the kicker miss.  Now I know what  you are saying, that leaves, two players unaccounted for, well how this works is that the upbacks are always responsible for the fifth guy from their respective sideline.  Here is how it looks on paper.

Middle Return

The technique the front wall blockers use is very similar to the shuffle technique used by defensive backs or basketball players.  The player will open in the direction of his man (or zone if using a zone scheme) and will shuffle out, staying low and keeping a good wide base and low center of gravity.  As the defender "eats up" the blocker's cushion, and declares which side he is going, the blocker will then turn and run with the defender.  If the defender decides to try to switch lanes, the blocker will simply flip his hips, much like a defensive back doing a zone turn would and then "wall off" the defender from the other side.

Blocking is not a great word for the exactly what the blockers do.  These players are quite simply put, "in the way".  I coached my guys this past season, to get on a hip and stay on a hip, but most importantly "be in the way" during a return.  In some of the video clips you will see, we don't do a very good job of blocking, but we are in the way enough the defender loses lane integrity and a seam is opened up for the returner.

Speaking of the returner, when teaching this guy how to return, patience is key.  He needs to have a good burst of speed, but does not need to be a "bottle rocket".  I link the type of running he does to that of a good zone tailback, in that he gets the ball and lets the blocks set up and lets the defenders declare where they are going to be.  Once this occurs the returner simply "runs to daylight", finding a seam and exploding through it.

Other types of Returns

Two other returns are left and right, and are blocked in this manner.  The side away from the call will block as they would in a middle return (shown above), and the call side, will begin their count in negating the first two men from the sideline. 

As you can see here's how the new count works for a return called to the right.  The right wing (RW) is going to block number three, the end has number four and so forth, while the upbacks pick up the one and two on the called side.

There are also zone returns, where each player blocks a gap in one direction much like a slide protection would work with the upbacks blocking the first defenders to show.  The possibilities are endless here as you can have the front eight block the gap to their right, left, inside or outside, depending on how you want to handle the return.  The zone returns are a great way to handle teams that like to cross their players to confuse the man scheme and it is recommended to have both schemes in place.

Dealing With the Bunch Attack

What do you do when dealing with the bunch attack?  This is pretty simple, and is handled by the front eight as well as the two upbacks.  The upbacks and wings drop back 10 yards off the ball, the wings are centered between the hash mark and the top of the numbers,while the upbacks are inside the hash marks.  The front eight, will align over the ball, but now the guards and tackles will be inside the hash marks, with the ends aligning on the hashes. 

If the kickoff team then spreads out, the kickoff return team will simply align as they normally would against a regular kickoff.  It should be noted that when facing teams that do this type of kickoff scheme, it is better suited for a zone blocking scheme rather than man.

Concerns about the 8-2-1

Some concerns many coaches have about the 8-2-1 is all the open field that it presents when you look at it on paper.  Many coaches elect to sky or pooch kick to try and put the 8-2-1 in a bind, however this is easily negated.  First, the upbacks handle all sky kicks, and they do so by giving a "sky" call to the front line.  Once a sky call is heard by the front line, they quit dropping and put their foot in the ground and begin to block.  Now the returner does not have a defender bearing down on him while trying to receive the football.  When in doubt the upback should always fair catch any sky kick.  I made this mandatory last season, and it worked quite well for us.  Later in the season, I gave my guys a bit more freedom to do what they wanted with the ball and it worked quite nicely.  One thing to note is that when an upback gets the football, the returner should replace him in the blocking scheme. 

Advantages of the 8-2-1

Players seem to "fit" better into this scheme more than any other I've run.  I always seem to have a bunch of leftover defensive back/wide receiver type players who one way or the other don't get much playing time.  Here is a way to get those guys on the field.  Remember the blocks are the greatest and all they have to do is "be in the way".  Most of those kids can and will do that job quite effectively.

It makes the "wedge buster" obsolete.  No longer can guys run down field and simply "tee off" on your wedge players.  This in turn could help lead to a reduction in concussions (Thanks Coach Hoover), which as we all know in college and the NFL this has been a serious issue that has changed the standard kickoff over the past few seasons.  When I asked my guys at the end of this past season what they liked about the 8-2-1, the majority said that they no longer felt like a "target", which made enough sense to me to stick with the scheme.

Onside kicks are immediately negated.  First you are basically playing with your hands team out there.  Since most guys are skill position, handling the football is the least of their worries.  The eight men on the line also immediately reduces the kicking team's chances of a successful recovery.

The kick returner can treat the return similar to a zone tailback.  No longer do you need to look for that kamikaze returner who is fearless and will run full bore into traffic.  Now all you need is a runner who has good vision and can cut off blockers.

Sorry it has been so long between posts, I'm still trying to get my ducks in a row, and really hitting the book hard after such a grueling season.  I do have a request to make, if anybody can give me a hand with wanting to share any of their 46 defense resources, please hit me up at footballislifeblog@yahoo.com.  I'm in need of some major improvements coming into next season, and I'm always willing to look at new ideas.  Hit me up and we can talk.  Hope all that are in the playoffs are still working hard and motivating those young men to do their best.  This can be one of the most trying times of the season, but remember...IT'S WORTH IT!!!