An Interview with a Special Teams Assistant (Part I)

BERKELEY CA - NOVEMBER 13: Brock Mansion #10 of the California Golden Bears throws the ball against the Oregon Ducks at California Memorial Stadium on November 13 2010 in Berkeley California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Here at the California Golden Blogs, we try to provide our readers with interesting interviews from all aspects of a sports program.  We've brought you interviews with current and former players of many sports.  We've brought you interviews with coaches.  And now we're starting to bring you interviews with some of the men and women who help run these sports programs.

In this next segment, the CGB is going to take you even deeper into the Cal Football program and give you an unparalleled look behind the closed doors of Cal Football.  Here and now, we present to you an interview with not only another former Cal Football Hydro Technician, but also a person who was a former Special Teams Assistant.

This man goes by the name of "MrBearister" on CGB.

Without further ado, please welcome MrBearister to the stage.

How did you get involved in Cal Football? What was the process advancing from hydrotech to special teams assistant? Is this a career path to pursue football operations?

I first got involved with Cal Football as a Hydration Technician in the end of the 2006 season. My first day was winter workouts as players were coming off Christmas break and actually the first day a tree sitter climbed up the Oak Groove. I played football in high school and considered playing at smaller colleges, but choose Cal instead and always wanted to be involved with football. After working for two years almost exclusively with the offensive line as an HT, I wanted to get more involved in football in general. I knew that the chances of someone with no collegiate football experience would have very little to offer, but I was persistent. I scoured the Bay Area high schools and colleges with resumes and references and offered to help the program in anyway I could. Luck would have it that Cal needed a special teams assistant and thanks to the Cal staff’s watchful eye, Coach Tedford saw my resume and I got an interview. The rest was up to me.

At the time I did not know much about what a Director of Football Operations did, let alone what each coach was responsible for (much more than just coaching players, that’s for sure). Some people who have been in similar positions to mine have gone on to coaching, DFO’s or other managerial paths. One warning for anyone aspiring to coach, …it’s all about who you know. If someone can speak on your behalf, you automatically have an edge. That’s why you’ll almost never see a college coaching job on Craigslist.  What many fans don’t realize is the amount of time coaching takes. 12 – 17 hour workdays, 7 days a week for roughly 8 months and then traveling for recruiting, and playing games on top of that.

What do you cherish the most about this said experience?

The 8 months that I got to live my dream as part of the team were some of the best in my life. I always wanted to be a part of something larger than myself and being part of the 2009 Cal Football Team gave me that. The friendships I made, the memories I created, and the skills I gained will be invaluable to me for the rest of my life.

Do you think the coaches still remember you and would make recommendations on your behalf?

Absolutely, Coach Tedford wrote me a recommendation for law school and Coach Alamar and I still keep in touch and have become good friends. The wonderful thing about a coaching staff is we are more than co-workers, we are family. For a majority of the year you spend more time together than at home and become like a band of brothers. 

You worked with the team when Alamar was the special teams coach, so we assume you have familiarity with the schemes and techniques he taught his players.  What is your impression of how things have changed under Genyk?

What has been interesting to see is the development of younger talent into special team standouts between Alamar and Genyk’s year.  If you notice that the overall improvement in quality of players helped Genyk, but their coaching techniques are not all that different.  Scheme for KO and KOR seem relatively unchanged, directional kicking and directional returns. The coaching staff as a unit under both Alamar and Genyk work together as special teams coaches. Certain coaches would coach certain special teams positions just as they would coach a certain offensive or defensive position.  I would like to see how year two goes for coach Genyk, as he has had a full year to implement his coaching philosophies into the Cal Special Teams canon.

The most noticeable change in technique and scheme is the change from the traditional base punt formation (under Alamar) to the “Shield of Death” under Genyk. Each formation has its pro’s and con’s, such better coverage/ higher risk of kicks being blocked with the SOD vs. better protection/ longer hang time required for your coverage unit to get down field with the traditional base formation. With each school of punt formation thought, certain blocking, coverage and kicking skills are involved.


Why do you believe the coverage teams have struggled throughout the Tedford era?

That is a tough question. One might argue inadequate coaching. Another might argue poor player performance. A third might argue the inconceivable athletic efforts of an opponent ala (2005 Maurice Jones Drew) which could coincide with better talent level of players/ better scheming of coaches combined. In order to be successful in coverage you must have the right equation. The coach must select the right play with the right players, those players must execute to the best of their ability, and more times than people realize, a little luck.

Tell us how special teams reps work: if a player plays on both the return team and the kick coverage unit, when would he practice on one as opposed to the other? 

Before I was a Hydro-Tech I often wondered this too, and after actually planning the practice reps as a Special Teams assistant, the answer is fairly simple. Special Teams practice are split up into periods for each of the 6 teams (KO, KOR, Punt, PR, FG, FGB with players organized into groups, just as first team O and D are split for their respective periods. Because some players are on multiple teams, they would usually not have the 1st Team KOR vs 1st Team KO.  The 1st Team would go against Scout teams, and then the 2nd team would rotate in. Some people might disagree with this method, but the limited amount of reps encourages the 1st Team players to do their jobs correctly while also motivating the Scout team players to prove their worth. You’d be surprised how many times a Scout team player who wants some ST team time will bust his butt and end up making the 1st Team player better.

Do the special teams coaches time how long it takes for the long snap to get back to the punter / holder?  What is considered a good time?

That was one of my first jobs as an assistant and the times are either recorded by a coach or by players. (We had 4 kickers with 4 snappers and 4 holders so players not participating in the rep would help out).  A good Snap to Kick time for a FG is under 1.3 seconds. A good STK time for a punt is under 1.75 seconds.

Cal has had great long snappers in the Tedford era.  Is that a function of luck, recruiting, or coaching them up? 

It’s a combination. Long snapping done correctly takes an incredible amount of skill, which good Cal special teams coordinators have a knack for recruiting, as well as improving upon their technique.  Before coach Genyk’s switch to the SOD punt protection, the LS had a key role blocking, where as now they must be great coverage players. I wouldn’t be surprised if I see a crushing tackle by Matt Rios sometime this fall.

What can you tell us about the coaching staff's philosophy with regard to having the best players play on special teams, regardless of whether they are starters on offense or defense?

The philosophy was fairly straight forward. The best players for each position available would play.  Quite often the depth chart changed (I know, I was the one making those huge laminated cards you see coaches showing the players before an ST play). Coaches were prepared for injury, fatigue, change in player personnel or any scenario we could think of.



What was the most embarrassing moment in hydrotech history?

The most embarrassing moment in my hydrotech history came on my first day. It was January of 2007 and the team was having their first spring practice. As a passionate fan of the team, I relished the opportunity to be close to my idols. When preparing for a water break, I set up a large row of Gatorade cups filled with water on a table.  As the players made their way to get water, former Cal Tight End Craig Stevens came over, grinned and with one giant swing of his arm batted away 25 cups of water from the table.  Something with an expletive was said and I felt like Ashton Kutcher was going to jump out from the Gold Zone and say “Oh you’ve been punk’d”. Craig clearly knew it was my first day and the players around him had a good laugh. 

Given everything you've learned, how would you advise current and perspective hydrotechs to quench their thirst for football knowledge?

Not just hydrotechs, but for fans in general, take a moment to think about  the 5 W’s of any information you discover about football.  Football isn’t just X’s  and O’s, Gameday mash ups, Monday morning quarterbacking, or even journalist observation. Learn to see with your own eyes and interpret what is going on for yourself. Many times people just leap on to speculation and rumors without any valid reason.  Study the game. Watch film. Watch practice. Listen to experts (people who have played and coached) and then challenge them. If possible…ask questions.  One of my greatest joys for 3 years was knowing what play was going to happen before anyone else because of a certain formation or play signal that was made.  The reason I knew was because I was a student of the game.

Out of all the teams you've worked with, which players stood out to you the most and why?

I have a few favorites mainly due to the respect I had for them as individuals as well as players.

Justin Forsett (RB) – The smallest guy in physical size, who played like he was giant among children.

Norris Malele (G) – Other than Alex Mack he was the best O-Line man Cal had during my time. If it wasn’t for bad ankles he’d be playing in the league. The guy was smart, aggressive and did what it took to get his job done.  Many people draw the lack of offensive production in recent years to the absence of good O-line play since the loss of Mack, but few make the extra step to include Malele.

Alex Mack (C) – A two star recruit, who was a National Football Foundation Player of the Year , that would read law books while sitting in ice baths after practice. The man was a perfectionist of technique and would never stand down from a challenge.

Giorggio Tavecchio (K) – For all the flack he’s taken from thousands of people that have nowhere near the talent he does, he smiles and continues to get better. Only a select few can attest to how hard he works to improve himself everyday. For a scranny little kicker, he’s got the heart of a champion.

How do you make your assessments of who will be a good kick returner or punt returner?  How do they differ (ie, what attributes does a kick returner need that a punt returner may not have, and vice versa)?

 For starters a punt and a kick off are traditionally two different types of kicks to be received. A punt has a high hang time that usually requires a returner to judge depth and has very little end over end rotation (i.e he might have to back up or come forward to make the catch and return it). A kick off has an end over end rotation that is much easier to track and can usually allow a returner to gain momentum as he returns kicks. A perfect example, ever wonder why Jahvid would return kicks only and DeSean punts? Look at their skill sets, although similar, their strengths are slightly different. As a kick returner Jahvid could gain acceleration and make his moves at top speed. As a punt returner DeSean could maneuver with no speed (ala Tennessee 07) and would tend to run freely once in the open.

A returner no matter what kick must have good eyes, good hands, and a good head. NEVER fair catch inside the 10 yard line, make sure you catch the ball before you run, and be patient to let your blocks develop.

What traits must a punter have that a kicker won't necessarily need (and vice versa)?

Similar to the answer above as far as styles of kicks, a punter needs a strong vertical push on the ball the requires a high hang time. Depending on coaching style the punt could be a high directional kick (Alamar style while at Cal), or a low bouncing rugby kick (Arizona 2009 for example), or a mid range kick that requires more hang time than a directional kick but will most likely be fair caught (SOD/Genyk). Hangtime with over 4.2 seconds is good.

A kicker on the other hand will need a different type of control. The majority of kickers in college and the NFL have the ability to kick the ball directionally and place the ball within a certain range ( let’s say a 5 yard x 5 yard box), that allows the coverage unit to run down their coverage lanes and predict where the kick should be going. Hangtime with over 3.8 seconds is good.

What was the typical day like for you as a Special Teams Assistant?  What were your duties and responsibilities?

As a special teams assistant I had a variety of duties that included all opponent, team, and scout video break down including diagramming, cataloging and organizing film high lights, play sheets, depth charts, player personnel sheets, kick times and statistical tendencies. During the office hour days of the football season (7am to 3pm, 6pm to mid-night or later) I was essentially the assistant that did whatever task was necessary to prepare the coordinator for the following day and week’s practice and game.  As a student I was not allowed to coach players, so many times I assisted coaches in running special teams meetings, sat in on offensive, special teams, and team meetings and activities.  I travelled with the team and assisted them in whatever way I could.

During practice I was both the Offensive and Special Teams Assistant for the Tight Ends and Special Teams Coach. I helped set up drills, tracked play calls, reps, catches, drops, and monitored special team player performance during ST practice periods.

During games I assisted with Special Teams personnel, scouting and play calling recognition as well as Offensive Player personnel identification for the defense (Taylor Tedford did this last year for the D-Coordinator, as you can see him holding up a binder with a personnel calls on it, such as 2-2 which would mean a 2 TE , 2 RB personnel.)

Did you have to have any prior football experience or specialized football knowledge to obtain your position as a Special Teams assistant?

I played football in high school, lettering and earn the National Football Foundation player of the Year Scholarship for the LA Area (similar to Alex Mack’s Drady Award). When I first played, I would sit in the library at lunch and read books from the 1950’s on the Wing-T and Wishbone offense. I had some opportunities to play at smaller schools, but Cal was my best choice.  I also took every available chance I could get to be around football, be it clinics, books, video, film break downs, you-tube videos, old playbooks, what ever I could get my hands on.

Can you give us some insight into what were Alamar's strengths as a coach?

I think many people saw the coach who had poor coverage units and inconsistent kickers as a poor coach. While he had those diffcultites at Cal, Alamar is a great coach. Alamar is a student of the game and constantly finds ways to improve his players and himself. He understands how special teams can impact a game and instills that learning in his players. He is a player’s coach that gave his heart and soul to the program.  He is also in my opinion one of the greatest tight end coaches in the country, teaching his knowledge of the west coast offense, blocking techniques and route running to future NFL players Cameron Morrah, Craig Stevens, and Anthony Miller.

Many Cal fans felt that Alamar should have been fired long ago.  Did you have any sort of feeling that he was on the proverbial "hot seat" with Tedford?  If so, how did you get this feeling?  

First to Cal fans reading this. I was one of you. I felt I knew enough. I read every blog, watched every highlight, tracked every website I could find. My passion for the game and love for my university gave me the conviction to say, “I am right…I know what is best.” But sadly, that thinking is incorrect. It does not make you an expert on the inner workings of Cal Football or collegiate football in general. 

Fans must understand this -Every year, every coach is on the hot seat and has requirements he must attempt to perform. Every coach is under contract and is fighting to maintain their job. Some coaches have more security than others, but it doesn’t mean they are staying put. Find a multitude of websites that show the rumor mills of coaches moving and getting fired during every off season. That is the nature of the business and one reason why I did not continue. The prospects are horrible as thousands of coaches are looking to fill a hundred coaching vacancies or less.

Coach Alamar was the Special Teams Coordinator at Cal from 2003-2009, A seven year stint that lasted many ups and downs. A seven year period at one school in the collegiate coaching world is longer than most coaches have in their careers, let alone a career that spans over 25 years.  

There was no more pressure to succeed in 2009 than any other year. Every year, every coach is on the hot seat to perform, and anyone who thinks that coaches who have it made won’t get reprimanded if they don’t succeed are kidding themselves.

Coach Tedford allowed me to work with Coach Alamar because every coordinator needs an assistant. The offensive and defensive coordinators have both a GA and an assistant, simply because there is too much work to be done for one coach alone. The assistants work and time spent over the menial tasks of film breakdown and playbook making allowed the coordinators to focus on the more important tasks.

Back in the 2008 Big Game, Cal appeared to run a fake-PAT against Stanfurd.  After Nate Longshore received the snap, he rolled out to the offense's left and looked to pass the ball.  However, the rest of the offense looked genuinely surprised as to what Longshore was doing.  Was this a fake-PAT?  Was it a botched play?  Or did Longshore go rogue and try and do something on his own without informing the rest of the PAT team?

Since I was only an HT at the time, I cannot say for sure, but I am fairly certain the center- holder exchange was not perfect, so Longshore, thinking that a kick would be unsuccessful audibled out of the play as it was happening (hence why he was rolling). But as with many emergency play calls, it rarely has a chance to succeed.  As the other Hydro Tech , Ken Clampett, was saying earlier, there are many things that go on in practice that never make it to the game. Emergency field goal/PAT audible are one of them. It’s no secret, just standard procedure that every coach has in his arsenal.

As a final side note, there has been a lot of hype about the Fresno –CAL game, but I haven’t seen any mention of Coach Alamar, who is the ST coordinator there. I am looking forward to what happens on every special teams play and how Cal fans react. I think a lot of “trickeration” and sneaky play by the Bulldogs are in store. I hope our Golden Bears are ready.

________________

This is the first of a three part series where the CGB interviews MrBearister. 

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