Each year, thousands of teams at all levels will lose games or field position because of not fielding a punt or kickoff properly.
Catching a punt requires the returner to trap the ball between the body and the forearms, squeezing tight when it’s within grasps. The elbows must be tight, so the ball doesn’t go through your arms, resulting in a fumble.
We’re going to break down how to properly field a punt and kickoff to make sure catching punts and kickoffs is easy.
Catching A Punt
Teams will bring on their punt team on 4th down and 4+ and the 30> yard line. The purpose of punting is to flip field position and give the opponent’s offense a longer field to travel to score a touchdown.
Punting will also benefit the defense that will come on the field after, as if they’re able to make a quick 3 and out stop, forcing the other team to punt, they will get the ball back with great field position.
Field position is everything in football. Games are won and lost based on where teams can start and defend their drive.
A team can increase their chances of scoring a touchdown the closer they get to the end zone.
Punting and kicking are directly tied to field position. Here’s an example:
Let’s say Team A is punting the ball from the 50-yard line. Team B has their returner on the 15-yard line, as that’s how far they will anticipate the other kicker can kick it. The ball is kicked high and deep in the air. Instead of catching the football at the 15-yard line, the returner lets it roll to the 5-yard line, where Team A downs it.
Team A will bring on their defense, and Team B will bring on their defense. Good job by the returner, right?
Wrong. Team B’s returner costs his team a significant field position. As a fan or coach, you see it all the time. You may even be yelling to your players or son’s “Poison” or “Get away from it!”.
The real message should be to catch the football.
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Catching The Punt
In the above example, the returner, having his feet on the 15-yard line, means that he should catch the ball at least 15. Because he chose not to catch the football and just let it roll, Team B lost 10 yards of field position as the ball rolled all the way to the 5-yard line. 10 yards may not seem like a lot, but it’s 1/10 of the field. Even worse, it’s a full first down that was lost.
The reason we’re making a major deal about catching the punt is because of field position. The player who can catch punts in traffic, run, and has no fear, is the best type of punt returner.
10 yards of field position could be the difference between winning and losing a game. Catch the punts at all costs.
Understanding The Different Kinds Of Punts
Now that we’ve established why you should catch punts, let’s learn a little bit more about punts. There are certain types of punts that, as a returner, we need to be aware of. Not all punts are treated equally.
Here is a list of different types of punts that we’re going to cover:
- Spiral Punt
- Rugby Punt
- Drop Kick
- Knuckle Kick
- Left/Right Spin
This is the most traditional punt that punters at all levels are taught. It’s the most popular because its spiral motion cuts through the air, traveling farther. The punter’s main job is to kick the ball as far and as high as possible, giving his cover team the ability to tackle the returner as deep as possible.
Catching The Spiral Punt
The spiral punt will start with its nose up and will start to go “nose-down” when it hits its apex on the way down. The theme we’re going to use when catching all of our punts is “elbows in.”
Catching a pass and catching a punt are two different techniques. Here is our punt catching checklist:
- Elbows in
- Track the ball all the way in with your eyes
- Keep your shoulders & legs square to the football
- Secure the football first!
Here is a great video from Dick’s Sporting Goods on how to catch a punt.
The rugby punt is a new style of punting popular in the college and high school ranks. It requires a punter to catch the ball and immediately starts running at a diagonal toward the line of scrimmage.
When the defenders get close to the punter, he will kick the football. The purpose of this kind of punt is to allow the punt team to get downfield, not to allow a return from the return team. What’s different about this type of punt is it often comes off the kicker’s foot with a spiral, random rotation, or in a “knuckleball” rotation.
A Knuckleball rotation means that it hardly rotates in the air, so it moves side to side, similar to a knuckleball in baseball. These types of kicks are the hardest to catch.
Catching A Rugby Punt
When watching the opposing kicker in pregame or on film, find out which rotation style his kicks are. Our advice is if it’s a spiral kick or random rotation, attack it!
Especially if it’s a low kick, this is a great way to steal field position as the kicking team will often run the returner. For knuckleball kicks, however, we recommend the returner catches the football at a standstill.
It’s too risky to run forward and risk the gamble of a muffed kick. Remember rule #4, secure the football first! Here’s an example of Rugby Punts from ProKickAustralia.
The new style of drop punt came from football’s ancestor, Rugby. This type of kick is unique and typically happens inside the opponent’s 50-yard line. What’s different about this kick is it has backward rotation.
The ball hits the ground and immediately kicks back toward the punting team. Here’s a video to demonstrate the effect a dropkick can have if it’s missed.
Catching a Drop Punt
A dropped punt is one of the easier punts to catch. Its backward rotation will actually fit more smoothly into your arms if your elbows are tucked in.
As this typical punt happens when return teams are backed up, there’s a good chance that you’ll be fair catching this type of punt.
The left/right spin kicks are new in the punting world. They’re tough to hit, so they’re really attempted. Pro kickers like Sam Koch and Johnny Hekker often hit these types of punts to perfection.
It’s rare to see a high school or youth player punt like this, but we want to explain it anyways. Instead of holding the football vertically, the punter will hold it horizontally.
Kicking the ball in the middle-left or middle-right of the football will cause the ball when it hits the ground to take off that way. Here’s a picture of how the ball is held and dropped sideways:
Here’s another video from the NFL about the different types of punts that punter Sam Koch can hit.
Catching The Left/Right Spin Punt
Catching the left/right spin punt requires the same technique as catching a normal punt. However, judging the ball’s trajectory and fade/draw will help catch the ball cleanly.
Anticipate how the ball has traveled and been sure to square up to the football so it doesn’t slip off the side of your arm. To be efficient at catching punts, take hundreds if not thousands of reps before you actually take any in a game. The last thing you want to do is muff a punt because of your inexperience with catching punts.
Returners like Julian Edelman would take hundreds of punt returns a day to make sure he’d never fumble one in a game. We recommend you do the same!
Catching kickoffs is a lot like catching a punt. It has similar rules and principles, but there are a few things that we need to change. Here are a couple of key factors:
- Elbows in
- Track the ball all the way in with your eyes
- Keep your shoulders square to the football
- Catch the football with staggered feet and be prepared to run
- Secure the football first!
When catching a punt, the job is to catch the punt and not let the ball roll farther into your territory. The main job of a kickoff returner is to secure football and makeup as much ground as possible to give your offense a better field position to work with.
This is why we want our feet staggered, to catch the football and run as fast as possible. The more steps vertically = more yards gained.
Because kickoffs are kicked off of a tee, it’s extremely tough to alter the kick, like punts are altered. The kick that’s most often seen is the end-over-end, deep kick. Keep your elbows tucked in and catch it like a normal kick.
The ball will have the same rotation as the “drop kick” that punters use. When catching the kickoff, and we can’t stress this enough, time is what you’re fighting against.
The longer you wait to get upfield, the more ground the kicking team can cover. We want to catch the football and get north as fast as possible. Do not dance east and west!
Catching the punt is the number one priority. Don’t let the football travel any more distance and sacrifice valuable field position. Find a returner that is not scared to catch the football in traffic and with players around him.
It’s more important to have a returner who will actually catch the ball (and isn’t afraid) than a playmaker who will catch the ball 50% of the time. Coaches will often make this mistake and give up valuable field positions. Study the type of punter you will be facing and attack the football at the appropriate angle.
Whether it be a dropkick, knuckle punt, or a left/right spin kick, make sure you’re lining it up and are ready to secure the football. Treat kickoffs with urgency after securing the football. Get north as fast as possible to make up field position and give your offense a chance to work in 4 down situations!
Related Q & A
What Does Punting Mean In Football?
Punting is when the offense decides to kick the football to the other team to change the field position and pin the other team deep in their zone. Punting is part of special teams, which is all predicated on field position and making the other team’s offense drive all the way down the field.
Why Do Teams Kickoff In Football?
Teams kickoff in football to start a game, after halftime, or after a score. The ball is placed on a tee and is kicked to the returning team. The kickoff’s purpose is to pin the team into their own zone and force them to drive the full length of the field on offense. Kickoff is an essential part of special teams that often dictates who wins the field position battle.
Who Kicks Off First In Football?
Teams will meet in the middle of the field at the beginning of the game for a coin toss. The winner of the coin toss can choose to kick, return or defer to the 2nd half. If the team chooses to receive the football, the opposite team will kick and vice versa. If the team that wins the coin toss decides to defer to the second half, the team that loses the coin toss will decide to either kick or receive in the first half.
Can Any Player Fair Catch On Kickoff?
Yes. Any player is eligible to fair catch the football, not just the deep returners. This is good to know if the opposing team likes to do a sky kickoff. Protect yourself by waving your hand over your head and catch the football to end the play.
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