Changes In Kickoff Return Scheme Equals Results
AMES, Iowa – Iowa State’s special teams has been a bright spot for the Cyclones this season. It’s been evident with the outstanding punting from All-America candidate Kirby Van Der Kamp and the kickoff coverage unit which ranks in the top half of the Big 12 Conference.
The most impressive part of ISU’s special teams play has been its incredible improvement in kickoff returns. Twice this season, the Cyclones have returned a kickoff for a touchdown, one of seven teams in the nation to take two kickoff returns to the house this year.
When putting in perspective ISU’s history on kickoff returns, it’s an astounding stat. The Cyclones went 19 years (Troy Davis in 1994) without having a non-onside kickoff return for a TD until Jarvis West finally broke the drought with his 95-yard dash vs. Texas Tech. The Cyclones hit the jackpot again four weeks later when DeVondrick Nealy juked and bulled his way for a 98-yard TD return vs. TCU.
The last time ISU had a pair of kickoff returns for a TD in a season was in 1963, and only two teams (Rutgers) in FBS this season can boast having two different players with 95+ kickoff returns on the year.
While luck will certainly come into play on successful returns, you also have to give credit to the scheme. It takes a combination of athleticism and decision-making by the returner and sound blocking by the other 10.
Iowa State assistant coach Shane Burnham leads the Cyclone special teams units. Building an excellent blocking scheme on kickoff returns takes time and practice. ISU’s success is no accident. The team works on its assignments weekly, tweaking the scheme by viewing opponent tendencies on film.
“After last year, we made a wholesale change in our scheme,” Burnham said. “The first thing we did was divide up our units on special teams. Coach (Todd) Sturdy took over kickoff returns and he studied film all summer and focused on finding the right people and working on a scheme that we thought would give our kids a better chance. As coaches, we needed to put them in a better position to make plays.”
Finding the correct scheme is important. It takes all 11 guys to make it work, but as Burnham readily admits, the 11th guy (the returner) is the most important piece of the puzzle.
“I think we got some dynamic guys back there with Jarvis, DeVondrick and (Aaron) Wimberly,” Burnham said. “You see that in practice all the time. We feel like we’ve got some special guys back there. I think when you look at those units, and as much as you want to talk about the blocking up front, it does take 11. But what you really need is that 11th guy who can make a play for you. We have spent a lot of time on this new scheme and the guys have gained a lot of confidence with the technique. I think once you have some success early in the season, everyone starts buying in.”
The Cyclones also initiated an incentive point system to help create more of a team aspect on kickoff returns. The plan seems to be working.
“In the offseason we decided to put in a reward system with points for the special teams,” Burnham said. “There is a point board in the locker room and you get points for maintaining the block. We break it down, whether it’s negative or positive. The board is up there for everyone to see. There is a lot of pride in the locker room and it’s helped everyone buy-in to their responsibilities.”
Burnham sat down with Cyclones.com and dissected both returns.
Jarvis West 95-yard kickoff return at Texas Tech (Oct. 12)
Notes- ISU’s first non-onside kickoff return for a TD since Troy Davis did it in the final game of the 1994 season, a span of 19 years and 221 games.
Burnham- “We actually had two guys miss a block, but Jarvis made it right. He made them miss. It’s kind of like having a mobile quarterback. You can afford to miss a block, because a mobile guy can make it right. I remember Jarvis making two unbelievable cuts. We made a lot of nice blocks to set up a 35-or 40-yard run, which we would have been happy with. But he took that 30 to 40 yards and made the last couple of guys miss with some nice cuts to get to the end zone.”
DeVondrick Nealy 98-yard kickoff return vs. TCU (Nov. 9)
Notes- After going 221 games without a non-onside kickoff return, the Cyclones did the trick four games later when Nealy rambled 98 yards en route to the second-longest kickoff return in school history (Troy Davis- 99 yards at Colorado). It was the first ISU kickoff return for a TD in Jack Trice Stadium since Luther Blue had a 95-yard return vs. Nebraska in 1976.
Burnham- “DeVondrick ran through two tackles. He’s a powerful runner. It really helps when you’ve got special guys back there. Jarvis and DV are dynamic, slash-style runners. We are lucky to have them back there.”