Jeff Kolpack, Published December 06 2012
Wofford's punt coverage scheme sticks at NDSUFARGO – It was sometime in the late 1990s and Wofford College was having trouble covering punts.
“Next thing you know, here comes that punt return guy coming right down our throats,” said head coach Mike Ayers.
So, at a small private college where academic entrance requirements are stringent, the Terriers football staff put on its collective thinking caps. What they came up with has, in the last few years, revolutionized the American football punt coverage scheme.
In essence, the front line players line up in wide gaps with the main blocking unit a three-man “shield” in front of the punter. North Dakota State took note five years ago and on Saturday, the teacher and the student of the punt scheme will meet in a Division I Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal game.
“I didn’t know it would turn out the way it did,” Ayers said. “It comes down to coverage. That’s the big thing about it. You can protect and cover.”
NDSU installed it when assistant coach Tim Polasek traveled to Wake Forest and got a three-day tutorial from the Demon Deacons football staff.
The connection is Wake Forest assistant Tom Elrod, who spent one year at Wofford as the offensive line coach. Elrod essentially opened his punting playbook to Polasek, who returned to Fargo and began radically changing NDSU’s punt coverage unit in the spring of 2008.
A blocked punt at South Dakota State led to NDSU’s only loss of the season in 2007. A blocked punt was big in a 2005 defeat to California Davis.
By 2010, NDSU was leading the FCS in net punting (kick minus return) with an average of 39.1 yards. The theory of the system is not so much with fewer punts being blocked, but in the ability of players to get down field and make a tackle.
Still, no NDSU punter has a blocked punt on his statistics sheet since 2009.
“Knock on wood there,” said NDSU punter Ben LeCompte, who had the same scheme in high school in Barrington, Ill. “Being able to do that my sophomore through senior year in high school and then coming here and having the same concept helped a lot.”
Polasek said it’s important to stay within the rules and principles of the punt, which the Wake Forest staff emphasized was crucial. It’s to the point now that the only Missouri Valley Football Conference teams that do not use it are South Dakota State and the University of South Dakota, who both use the pro style punt coverage.
“It’s now getting to be the traditional punt in the last five, six years,” Polasek said. “I tell high school coaches in this area, Wisconsin and Minnesota, that if you’re not doing this, you’re missing out.”
Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia