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An Interview with a Special Teams Assistant (Part II)

Continuing on with our interview of MrBearister, the former Cal Hydrotechnican and Special Teams Assistant.  In case you missed our previous segment of this interview, you may read Part I here


Why is the new punt formation called the "shield of death"?  Is there a specific story which brought about this name?

The less catchy name for the new punt formation, at least the way we identified it was a spread punt formation. Most fans don’t realize that just like offense and defense, special teams have various formations with individual strengths and weaknesses.  

The spread formation was coined the “Shield of Death” because of its risk. Unlike a traditional punt formation that has at least 5 blockers on the line of scrimmage including the center, plus two or three blockers in the backfield, the SOD just has 3 backfield blockers. Those 3 blockers are the ONLY line of defense usually, so they must be stout. (Just take a look back at the 2009 Cal –Utah bowl game, Utah had 2 OL and a DT).  The “Shield” is created by these 3 blockers walling off any threat. If these blockers get beat or miscount who is coming to block a punt, the odds are much better for a blocked punt.  

The premise behind this risky thinking is that the spread of SOD formation allows for the coverage unit to have more room to get down field and forces the punt return team to spread out as well, discouraging any cleaver punt return schemes, like reverses or fakes. The SOD also increases the initial number of coverage players who immediately release down field. The traditional punt team usually has only 2 “gunners”, where as SOD can have as many as 7. The punter in an SOD must have a quick snap to kick time, because the “Shield “ usually will not hold up as long as a traditional tight punt formation.

The SOD creates a lot of problems for opponents because the punt return team has to either gamble and go for a block by sending more defenders at the Shield, or attempt to set up a return, knowing that the punt team’s coverage unit has more space to cover more lanes and evade the punt return team’s blocking unit.



You alluded to the fact that you knew some plays before they happen because you can recognize some signals.  Were you taught these signals as a part of your job?  Or did you just pick them up on your own?  Are these signals something your lay fan can pick up on from watching a game on TV if they tried hard enough?  What are some of the signals which you know?

As a HT, I was always working with the Offensive Line so once I saw the team practice as a whole unit, if there were any trick plays or special formations that were practiced, I would be on the lookout for them in the game. Once I was an assistant, I was part of the Offensive meetings, so I actually understood what play should be called, not just what might be. Depending upon defensive alignment, down and distance, field position, and the offensive coordinator’s preferences, I knew what was most likely going to be called. But this was because I was an insider on the staff.  I learned the signals that we signal our play calls to our QB, most are indistinguishable to the naked eye, but a few are fairly obvious. (Just think Varsity Blues final “Hook and Ladder Scene with Paul Walker”)

If an opponent wanted to steal our signs, they could try, but more than likely by the time they digested what the play call was, the play would have already happened. That is why stealing signs rarely works. Coordinators are much better off understanding the statistical tendencies and personal preferences of opponents. If for example we know that on 3rdand long, a defensive coordinator goes to a Nickel package 75% of the time against a certain personnel group and formation, we will call a play that works best against the Nickel, but still give the QB an option to adjust the play if he sees some other defense.

As just a spectator, I tried to pick up on Oregon’s card signs, since they were on TV so much, but had very little luck. If you were an avid Cal fan and had spent your entire season solely watching the signalers, you might pick up on some basic plays, but they would be off very little use.  Play calls get changed week to week. When you see our QB looking at his wristband, it’s a numbered play chart that is never the same.  Heck, you might even know what play is coming because of obvious tendency, hell you might even be told “we are going right here”…you still have to stop us.

Were you taught any offensive terminology as a part of your job?  If so, is this something which you just were told over time, or were you handed some sort of playbook?  

My first week on the job was the week before summer/fall camp. I was given a copy of all the materials that the players got. It was my bible and I scribbled every note or question I could and studied it cover to cover. Thanks to help from the GA’s, coaches and players, I was able to understand the terminology fairly quickly. I was in every offensive meeting, so whatever the players and coaches knew, I tried to know.

You mention having to break down opponent film for tendencies.  Can you please describe what exactly you're looking for, and what this whole process entails.  How many hours of film do you usually watch for a tendency report?  Are you looking for team specific tendencies or also player specific tendencies too?

This was a large part of my work as an assistant. Because I worked with all 3 phases of football in some respect, I had to be aware of the film breakdowns for Offense, Defense, and Special Teams. The Off GA and Assistant would break down opponent defense, Def GA and Assistant would break down opponent offense, and I would break down ST’s. Essentially when Cal Football would get opponent and practice film, it would come just as a video of the full game/practice from a variety of angels. We would have our film department break down and edit the film into 3 categories, O,D and ST.

From there, the assistants would use a special computer program and watch each play a few times and identify basic pieces of information that would allow us to classify the play, for example down and distance, yard line, hash, opponent and team formation, type of play, gain or loss, any types of shifts or motion and result of the play.

For offense and defense film breakdown, the assistants would watch the play and identify the offense first and then ID the defense – that way, if a coach wanted to know what defense was run in 3rd and long, we could pull up all the plays of their 3rd and long defense.

 For special teams we would identify the type of special teams play, the snap to kick times, the hang time, the direction and quality of the kick the resulting return and any other pieces of information that might be relevant. We would also identify the personnel.

After identifying every play, we could run special programs that would give statistical tendencies for what ever regressions we wanted to run. If we wanted to know how many times they ran a 4-3 defense against our base formation, we could do it. If a coordinator wanted to see what their goal line defense looked like with all the highlights from the last three weeks, it was done. As a student of football, the video program was like the holly grail to me. I often spent my lunch breaks re-watching old Cal games, going back and forth for every highlight.

For special teams, we ran the same types of regressions and video highlights so players and coaches could easily see certain play situations. We also ran player specific analysis for kickers, or blockers, or centers, to see if there was any advantage we could get. For example, if a PP (personnel protector) would ALWAYS have his mouth guard out before he called for the snap, and then would put it in and call the cadence, we could tell our punt return team what to watch for it.  We would also watch to see if certain blockers had poor footwork, or returners who only liked to return one direction, little things like that.

For anyone who hears about coach Tedford and staff going over film and talking about watching film for hours, it’s all true. I would say coaches watch at least 5 hours of film per day, assistants more like 8. Although we might have word of mouth reports, or happen to watch another opponent live, film is the only source material we have to prepare for an opponent. Coaches will watch themselves as well.  Coaches only have selective short/long term memory by nature (they like to remember the good stuff like the game winning TD 5 years ago, but try forget the nasty interception that their QB just threw). Film is the only way coaches and players can make thorough, visual analysis of their performance and improve.

As a Special Teams Assistant, did you have to sign some sort of confidentiality agreement or other contract with the team?  What in particular did it say, if anything, that you couldn't disclose?

Because my arrangement was as a volunteer and I was a student, I do not recall signing any formal paperwork as an assistant. I was not compensated monetarily, but was given the access similar to a student equipment manager.  I have chosen only to reveal things that are relatively common knowledge amongst the football community. I have not said anything that is top secret or damaging about our program because I believe and appreciate Coach Tedford’s wishes to run his program his way.  I know that when Coaches and paid assistants sign contracts, they must not take any material with them that is University property (like playbooks and high-light films), and tend not to reveal team secrets in public because a) it’s not good form, b) you never know who might hire you c) those team secrets might be beneficial to you further down the road.

As a special teams assistant, what do you do during halftime?  Does special teams have a meeting like the other positions?  Likewise, what do you do during pre-game?  

Ah, the question I was hoping you would get to. This is an insider’s look into how the scheduling of football works, which I think is pretty darn cool. Basically, a football team is like an army, we have a regimented scheduled with precise deadlines and objectives. The Head Coach is the President. Whatever he wants, he gets. The DFO is the General in charge. It is his job to get everything in order.

I will start with a Pre-Game to Post Game timeline for an away game. Starting on Friday the team will meet in the morning, have breakfast and get on charter buses for the plane ride. Once in the opponent’s city, depending on time scheduling we will either go straight to the stadium to do a quick walk thru or meet at the hotel and then walk thru. After the walk thru, teams will have position meetings and then have a pre-game dinner. After dinner players can relax and coaches can have final preparation meetings and actually a little time to themselves.

During game day, players get up, have breakfast and get ready for the game, sometimes with meetings in between. Once at the stadium players and coaches change into their uniforms and start getting hyped up. There are various highlights, rituals, songs and other superstitious events that happen…but those are secret.

During pre-game warm ups, I would be with the other assistants and GA’s scouting opponent kickers and snappers, to see if there are any changes in our assessments of them based on film. Maybe the long snapper is injured, or maybe the kicker is planting only on one foot. Whatever last minute pieces of information we can gather, we use, because as a coach you are always looking for an advantage.

During halftime, the assistants will go with the coaches to discuss a quick strategy and progress reports (just like in the middle of war) and then report the modifications to their players. Every group will meet (O, D and ST), as well as position groups. Players will get treatment for injuries, rehydrate and energize and get ready for the second half… For anyone who has played football, they might understand how a halftime setting looks like. I was surprised to see very little difference between high school and college half time locker rooms.

Lately, due to the lack of success on the football field, more and more Cal fans are criticizing Tedford's every decision -- everything from who should be starting QB to what type of offensive plays the team should run.  Having seen what is involved in running a football team, what do you have to say to all the Cal fans who think they know better than Tedford and always criticize every little decision he makes?  Can your every-day fan really have a better idea of whom is the better QB, or what type of offensive plays the team should be running?  Should Tedford be listening to the fans for ideas?  

I touched on this aspect a little earlier, but Cal fans…we’ll we’re just too smart for our own good. For the young fans, especially the fans that never experienced anything other than Tedford, they are spoiled (and I am one of them). I have seen a 7-5 team that went to a bowl game, and was disgusted…and that is not normal, but neither are Cal fans. We tend to have incredibly high expectations, especially with all of Coach Tedford’s early success, so we are very loquacious in our dissatisfaction with play calling or QB choices.  Having seen what is involved in running a football team, and seen what is involved in running a “Cal Football Team,” fans have every right to say that they know better than Coach Tedford, but what they say, doesn’t really matter whether or not if it is true.

If a fan thinks that they know something that Coach Tedford or anyone on the coaching staff doesn’t, they’re fooling themselves. Every thought about who should QB, which play should be called, etc. etc… Coach Tedford has already had the thought. He and his staff are the one’s that watch every play, make every move.. that’s why they get paid. Some fans think that utilization of certain players, or situations aren’t taken, and that might be true. But people need to realize, this is Tedford’s team. His philosophies and decisions have brought the program to a high level. Having growing pains now is hard for many to deal with and you can tell that in his recent off-season staff changes, he understands the need for change to further improve. Those changes, I guarantee you we NOT because he “listened to the fans.”

 And if for some miraculous reason, a Cal fan is privy to some insider information from another team, then maybe..just maybe they might know something the coaches don’t. But if they were smart, they would film the secret play, or copy the playbook and email it to the Coaching staff, instead of remarking “ Well I KNEW Andrew Luck was going to do that, why aren’t we playing better.?” Or “How come Coach Tedford doesn’t call this play, I would have.”  If you really love your team, you’ll make constructive criticism and offer points of advice, that’s what a smart Cal fan would do….Wait is there any other kind of Cal fan?

And trust me, coaches, no matter how hard they try to avoid the every-day fan’s gripe and insistence on superiority of coaching intellect, they do hear it. ESPN is always on, the hallowed walls of Memorial stadium are thin, and assistants occasionally monitor blogs and rumor mills such as CaliforniaGoldenBlogs to see if there is any info out there. Fans words don’t fall silent, but they are taken for face value.

One of Tedford's biggest criticisms is that he never fakes a punt.  This has been the source of much anger for a lot of Cal fans.  Can you please shed some light on perhaps why Tedford hasn't tried a fake punt more often?  Cal does have a fake punt play in its playbook, right?

Historically speaking, yes, Tedford is a conservative play caller when is comes to special teams trick plays. We have run occasional reverses and fakes on returns, but the fake punt has rarely happened. In 2009, we had a fake called against OSU, but a timeout by OSU allowed them to change their personnel from a regular punt return team to their defense, which forced us to switch out of the fake. In 2008 a botched fake that involved a direct snap between PP Worrel Williams and LS Nick Sunberg furthered Coach T’s conservatism, and here is why. Fake punts work when the probability of success is high (that seems obvious, but just bear with me). Most people think, “well Cal NEVER runs a fake punt, so the opponent would never see it coming.” (This also seems obvious). But opponent expectation is not the only thing that goes into deciding to fake. Field position, momentum, period of the game, and player execution are also taken into account.

Let’s say our offense is playing a tough defense, take Cal vs. Oregon 2010. We could have gone for a fake punt a few times with 4th and medium/ short. But why waste one of Cal’s most valuable assets, our punter, in a close game? For the last few years we have been bitten with inconsistent kickers, but our punting has been strong. When Cal punts, we are able to pin the opponent back and allow our defense to get the ball back to our offense, without running the risk of giving our opponent an advantage of a short field.  People will immediately notice this is a conservative, field position, view point. - one that I myself do not believe in, but I am not the ST Coordinator or Head Coach. Also fakes can lead to injury of our punter who is usually not asked to perform normal football moves like passing the football. If you remember Michigan State 2008, Anger was injured after bobbling the snap and having his kick blocked. Imagine what would happen if ASU’s Vontaze Burfict was trying to sack him?

As the ST assistant I had the most fun designing punt fakes. Every week we would go over hours of film and put in at least one punt fake with possible variations week to week, depending on what we saw with our opponents. Coach Tedford wanted to have every possible situation covered and we would practice those fake punts every week. It just so happened that we did not call them because the situations did not have a high probability of success.

As a side note, and perhaps a sad note to future Cal fans that hope a change in ST coordinator strategy will lead to more fake punts, historically speaking, the SOD formation lends itself to less opportunity for fakes. The formation usually has 3 less athletic lineman in the backfield, and only two eligible receivers (the outside gunners) that are WAY to far away for our punter to throw too so IF a fake punt where to happen out of the SOD…it would certainly not be expected. Although I would love to see Brian Anger run for a first down behind Kapp, Rigsbee and Tyndal. He’s one of the fastest guys on the team and prances like a gazelle.