Florida State Special Teams Disaster Part 1: The Punt Block

Although the Florida State Seminoles emerged victorious against the Florida Gators, they committed egregious errors on special teams. In Part 1 of this two-part ST disasterpiece, Chuck Zodda looks at the University of Florida’s punt block.

There is no doubt that the Florida State Seminoles won the national championship last season. It is in the record books. It is over. It is done. This year’s squad is ranked third in the College Football Playoff poll, but questions remain about how good they are. A number of close games to inferior competition have cast doubt on whether the Seminoles actually belong in the playoff. And, as viewers witnessed on Saturday, their special teams play is just as much of a question mark as their offense and defense.

The Setting

With one minute remaining in the first half, the Seminoles held a 21-9 lead over the Florida Gators. After a dismal series highlighted by two Jameis Winston incompletions, a false start penalty, and a three-yard run by Dalvin Cook, Florida State brought on their punt unit. There are two goals for the punt team – get the kick away and then get downfield to make the tackle.

The second is obviously dependent on the first. Basic order of operations.The Florida State special teams unit appeared to have forgotten this, as their punt protection on this play was absolutely abysmal.

Punt “Shield”

The Seminoles lined up in what is known as “punt shield” protection. Punt shield protection differs from traditional punt protection, known as “punt spread” in a number of ways. Whereas punt spread protection looks very similar to a normal offensive line, punt shield protection places much bigger splits between linemen – typically two to four yards depending on the school. This creates a much wider formation.

The second major difference is that there are no distinct gunners in punt shield protection – every man on the line is a gunner. NCAA rules differ from NFL rules in that there is no penalty for a lineman being downfield illegally. Punt shield protection seeks to take advantage of this by placing all linemen in a situation where they can quickly make a block while moving forward, and then get downfield to make a tackle. It started to make inroads around 2005, and in recent seasons has seen widespread usage across the college landscape. The result is that the percentage of punts that returned has dropped from just under 50% in 2004 to just above 35% in 2013, with no major change in rules during this time.

The third primary difference is that instead of one personal protector situated behind the line of scrimmage, there is a wall of three larger players. Ideally, these blockers form a wall to catch defenders coming through the A-gaps. Once these threats are dispatched, these players get downfield as well.

Florida State uses a fairly standard shield formation:

Block1

The snapper fires the ball through the gap in the wall (indicated by dotted red arrow), which then closes the middle gap (indicated by red solid arrows) to prevent up-the-middle pressure. Florida attempts an all-out block deploying ten men along the line of scrimmage, noted with orange circles.

Florida gets off the ball quickly:

Block2

Punt shield protection deliberately leaves players up the A-gaps unblocked at the line of scrimmage. Indicated by orange arrows, Florida pushes three players through the A-gaps, and one more through the right B-gap. These rushers should be blocked by the wall behind the line of scrimmage. However, issues start to appear in this wall immediately.

DeMarcus Walker (#44) is the man who is the left blocker in the wall. Circled in red, he takes a big step to his right to attempt to fill the gap in the wall; all of his momentum is heading in this direction. With the ball on the right hash mark, punter Cason Beatty (#38) is also now lined up on the right hash mark.

However, the snap takes Beatty back to his left:

Block3

Notice how Beatty is no longer just inside the hash mark, but now several feet further to his left. His wall has slid over to the right, leaving him vulnerable to pressure from the left. Unfortunately for Beatty, 6’6” 245 lb. defensive end Alex McCalister (#14) is screaming through the left A-gap directly at Beatty.

However, there is something positive to point out for Florida State here. On the right side of the still, highlighted in the red box, Quinton Dunbar (#1) gets a perfect chip on his man, Michael McNeely (#31), on the right edge. This is exactly how punt shield blocking is supposed to work on the front line – a quick chip to disrupt the rusher and push him outside, and then immediately turn upfield to find the returner and make a tackle.

This does little to deal with the other problems the Seminoles are facing:

Block4

Beatty has corralled the ball and is starting his approach. Just seven yards from him are McCallister and the left end for the Gators, left unchipped at the line. In the center of the screen, circled in red, Walker is now reaching out as McCallister flies past him. Walker provides absolutely no protection for his punter, despite the DE coming directly through his assigned gap.

On the right side of the screen–highlighted by the red box–McNeely is moving towards Beatty, though significantly to the outside of the punter at this point. His route to a potential block is much longer due to the chip from Dunbar, nicely highlighting what the blockers are supposed to do in punt shield.

As the play continues, the outcome becomes clear:

Block5

Circled in red, Beatty now has McCallister and another Gator nearly on top of him as he drops the ball to punt. Although Beatty is facing away from the camera, we managed to digitally reconstruct the photo with his face at this exact moment in the above image.

McNeely, highlighted by the red box, is still too far from Beatty to make any impact on the play. This play is a perfect teaching tool for coaches to use when demonstrating proper blocking in punt shield. McNeely is unable to create any pressure due to Dunbar’s initial chip, whereas the left end for the Gators is nearly on top of Beatty.

And as we know, any time a punter takes on a real football player, it never ends well for the punter:

Block6

Beatty makes no attempt to even kick the ball, deciding to avoid a potential injury. McCallister doesn’t really care and blocks the ball with his chest before tackling Beatty along with his teammate. The ball pops out just behind the punter

The downside of punt shield protection is that in the event of a block, nearly every player on the punting team is already downfield. The result? A Gator party at the ball:

Block7

This play was an example of terrible execution by the Seminole punt unit. Their blocking was inconsistent at best and directly led to the McCallister block. Unfortunately for Florida State, it is not just execution that was their undoing on special teams but play-calling as well. We’ll take a look at that in Part 2 of Florida State’s Special Teams Disaster.

Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.

Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.

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