Football, like all sports, is a blend of athleticism, knowledge of the game, schematic or game plan execution, and technique.
The best players and the best teams mix all four of those traits, and others, more efficiently than the rest.
West Virginia didn’t have the right blend last season when it came to special teams. Despite being a top-20 team in the country in kickoff returns, and above-average in defending punt returns, the Mountaineers ranked in the bottom half of the Big 12 Conference in multiple other facets on special teams.
So, Neal Brown said, “We got to be better.” In the eyes of special teams coordinator Jeff Koonz, the way to get better is by being much more sound in one area specifically: technique.
“At the end of the day, for us in teams, we are going to be a technique unit,” Koonz said on Monday.
Koonz gave a hypothetical example of drawing a special teams assignment in the dirt mid-game, and telling a player to run to a specific yard line while using a specific technique. In Koonz’s mind, the schematic part of those instructions – where to line up and where to run to – isn’t nearly as important as the technique being used to get the player where he needs to be.
“The schematic part of it is really irrelevant if you’ve got everybody working and doing the same techniques, and doing exactly what they need to do within it,” said Koonz.
West Virginia looks at special teams as a team-wide investment. A “next man up” approach can only work if the next man has an understanding of the assignment.
The main assignment this fall, at least on special teams, has been learning the techniques to make the Mountaineers a well-oiled machine.
“There’s times when we’re in here as a team and we’re watching it, so the offensive linemen are in here watching special teams. The quarterbacks are in here watching special teams,” said Koonz. “That creates an extremely high buy-in from everybody in the program. That’s even emphasized more this year than in past years.”
Koonz understands the value of not only younger and special-teams-only players understanding what to do in that phase of the game, but the established, start players in the program knowing what to do, as well.
“I think I pulled up o-linemen in a special teams meeting last week, and I had them demonstrate a special teams technique. Well, he knows it, because he’s been in here and he’s listened to them,” Koonz said. “That just shows the younger guys in the back of the room, the freshmen and those guys coming in, how important it really is when I can pull Zach Frazier up here and put him in a stance and he can do it right. That says a lot.”
West Virginia’s head of special teams says the Mountaineers have invested as much or more time on special teams as any team in the country. That includes full-speed, live, 11-on-11 reps, as well as controlled, man-vs.-open-air reps.
While players have had, and will continue to have, plenty of opportunities to display how quickly they can block for or defend against a return, Koonz is more worried about the technique his players are using.