WATERTOWN — A football field is a 100 yards long, but the Watertown Red and Black defense spent the majority of its win over Tri-City having to defend only half of that.
Six of the Spartans’ offensive series began between the 40-yard lines despite solid kicking from the Red and Black’s Eric Beyler. But the Watertown defense was up to the challenge of playing on a shortened field, particularly toward the end when it prevented Tri-City from scoring in the final minutes, despite starting on the Watertown 48-yard line.
The number of short-field situations was the result of special teams play, a facet of the Red and Black, which hosts Glens Falls (2-5) at 7 tonight, that defensive coordinator Jon Bannister agrees needs work.
“The biggest thing is really learning the fundamentals for special teams,” Bannister said. “Special teams is a really fundamental game, 100 percent. If you’re not practicing the fundamentals or doing the fundamentals in the game, that’s where you start messing up and you start losing in other areas.”
At the semipro level, and most levels of football, players aren’t trained to perform specifically for special teams. It’s generally a mix of offensive and defensive players who often aren’t premier starters. So, teaching the specifics of special teams when it’s not what a player has specifically trained to do is challenging.
“It’s a tough situation, special teams is such a big part of the game, too, it’s at least 25 percent of the game,” Bannister said. “If you’re not actually working on it, it’s hard to know what to do. Some of these guy, unfortunately they don’t think of special teams as being that important.”
Emphasizing that importance is a key part of practice for Bannister. Often times, the Red and Black’s practice begins with some kickoff or punt situations.
Practice also serves as an opportunity for Bannister to figure out who fits best on special teams and who can take control during those chaotic 10 seconds of game time.
“It’s very difficult because you don’t want to wear out your starters on offense or defense but you also want to have your best players on the field at the same time,” Bannister said. “So, it’s tough balancing that act.”
Bannister hasn’t seen any players separate themselves as special teams play masters, he said it’s still very much up in the air.
Receiver Chris Furr serves as a kick returner as well and he has played on numerous special teams squads in his time with the Red and Black (4-3). In his experience, the success of special teams varies from year to year.
From a returner’s standpoint, there are many unique challenges that comes when playing on special team. In the end, it’s pure chaos — it’s two groups of 11 players running directly at each other while one person picks a ball out of the sky and attempts to navigate.
“That’s when the receiver instinct comes out, as a receiver you have to find the opening and you have to see where the defender is at all times,” Furr said. “If we don’t have the blockers, that’s when our receiver instincts kick in and that’s when we find the hole to get that separation or to get at least more yards that we need to get.”
Sometimes multiple returners are placed on the field to cover the zones where the ball may be caught. In the case that Furr is not the one returning the ball, he must turn his attention to becoming a blocker, a role he doesn’t often play on offense. Figuring out who to block to create those holes for the returner is one of the hardest tasks.
“I don’t want to say that it’s necessarily a challenge, it’s just finding that right person that will give us that opening to where the one who has the ball can spring through,” Furr said. “That’s the challenging part, is finding that person, once we find the person it’s up to that return man to get through that hole and go where he has to go.”