uw football

Badgers football: Kickoff coverage improved to point of no return

2012-11-16T05:00:00Z 2013-11-11T16:49:43Z Badgers football: Kickoff coverage improved to point of no returnTOM MULHERN | Wisconsin State Journal | tmulhern@madison.com | 608-252-6169 madison.com

Sophomore wide receiver Kenzel Doe wasn't sure what to make of it, the first time in a University of Wisconsin special teams meeting room when he was asked to read the "kickoff constitution."

But it didn't take Doe long to become a believer in the creative approach of new linebackers coach Andy Buh, who has turned around the formerly woeful kickoff team.

"At first, you're like, 'I haven't ever seen a constitution for kickoffs,''' Doe said. "But as you start reading it and you start seeing everything he's saying in the constitution applies to kickoffs, you start to believe in it."

Details were hard to come by, since UW players were reluctant to divulge too much about what goes on in the meeting room.

"It stays in the room," backup running back Kyle Zuleger said solemnly when asked to explain the kickoff constitution.

It's all part of Buh's innovative approach to coaching special teams.

"Coach Buh has got an unbelievable personality," fullback Derek Watt said. "He's very energetic."

Meetings start with Buh asking five questions to get the players going.

"He sets the tone," Zuleger said. "Each meeting, he asks us if we're ready to make the play, if we want to make the play and if we believe. It's a mindset."

After that, Watt said, players stand up and read the constitution in a loud voice.

"Everyone that's in the special teams meeting has to stand up and repeat it, even if you're not on kickoff," Doe said. "It's a good thing."

According to the players, principles of the constitution include making full-speed decisions, not stopping their feet, keeping the ball in front of them and playing with their eyes.

Then it comes down to winning the one-on-one battles. "Ultimately, you've got 11 guys on the field, but you have to win that one-on-one," Zuleger said.

Buh said he was trying to make the game fun for players and keep their attention.

"We're kicking the ball down the field and running down and tackling," he said. "It's not rocket science.

"Our motto is: Have a simple and effective scheme, kick it to a third of the field and squeeze and constrict those spaces so we can make plays. It has been working. Yeah, I'm pretty proud (of the players)."

It helps if the players believe in what they are doing and Buh definitely has them believing.

"We understand where he's coming from with that (constitution)," Doe said. "It's nothing silly. It's important. If you read it every day, when you're out there, you might think about the constitution and think, "OK, I've got to make full-speed decisions and I've got to beat my guy.' It helps out a lot."

Kickoff coverage might be fairly basic, but UW struggled with it for years, ranking 12th in the Big Ten in 2011, ninth in 2010, sixth in 2009 and ninth in 2008.

Enter Buh, who came to UW from Nevada. His first full-time college job was coaching defensive backs and special teams at Nevada in 1999. He described special teams as his favorite part of the job. "That's like recess for me," he said.

UW ranks third in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage this year with a net average of 40.5 yards, just 0.3 behind Minnesota, which is first. The Badgers had one poor game against Purdue, which had long returns of 57 and 44 yards. But they fixed those mistakes and have been solid in all other games.

During spring practices, Buh introduced a one-on-one competitions known as "combatives" to identify candidates for the kickoff team. After grading the film, Buh gave players a plus-1 or minus-1, based on who won the matchup.

"Everyone wants to basically be the top dog," Zuleger said. "You don't want to be the guy at the bottom who has one or two points."

The drill appeals to the competitive nature of players and also simulates the intensity of a game. That can be difficult to do in practice, since coaches rarely have live kickoff drills because of the injury risk.

"It's as much game-like as you can get in practice," Watt said.

Last week against Indiana, with the help of a strong kickoff performance from Kyle French, UW limited the Big Ten's top kickoff return team at the time to 90 yards on five returns (18.0 average).

Afterward, UW coach Bret Bielema described it as a "Bad News Bears" collection of players on the unit, given the lack of recognizable names.

It's a group that will be in the spotlight again on Saturday against Ohio State.

Kickoff returns for touchdowns played a big role in two of the past three meetings: Ray Small had a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Ohio State's 31-13 win in 2009; UW's David Gilreath returned the favor with a 97-yarder on the opening kickoff, which sparked the Badgers' 31-18 victory in 2010.

"It's always either the first play of the game or the (second) half," Zuleger said of the kickoff unit. "It's a tone-setter. We want to go out there and set the tone for the game."

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(2) Comments

  1. j6b
    Report Abuse
    j6b - November 16, 2012 9:36 am
    why is saturdays came starting at 2:30am ?
  2. bpro
    Report Abuse
    bpro - November 16, 2012 6:56 am
    Hope the good play continues, however both the Buckeyes & Nittney Lions have real good athletes included on special teams vs the soft clubs of the conference. Let's see how it goes??

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