'Shield' punt formation is simple, provides coverage
Published: Friday, September 30, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 30, 2005 at 12:00 a.m.
Eric Wilbur has his own personal shield. It weighs close to 900 pounds.
That seems like enough protection for a punter to get off a kick. But it wasn't during the Gators' 49-28 win at Kentucky last Saturday.
Kentucky's Jacob Tamme split Florida's three-player "shield" punt formation and blocked Wilbur's kick in the opening minutes of the game.
The block - and many like it across the country this season - have led to many questions: What is this new punt formation? Where did it come from? And why are so many teams across the college football landscape, including Florida, using it?
What is 'the shield?'
The shield formation
consists of seven players on the line of scrimmage and three large blockers forming a "shield" directly in front of the punter.
The advantage of the formation is not about protecting the punter. It's about helping in punt coverage.
After the ball is snapped, some or all of the seven-member line run downfield to cover the punt while the three-player shield protects the punter.
"The No. 1 thing is the (punt) coverage," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "The No. 2 thing is its simplicity."
Indeed, the formation is simple and requires little instruction. Coaches say traditional punt formations can burn up precious hours of practice time.
"You get in that traditional punt formation and you spend hours trying to pick this up and that up," said former South Carolina coach Lou Holtz, who used the shield formation in his final years at South Carolina. "We didn't spend one-fifteenth that time in our spread-punt formation."
The shield comes
Meyer said he adopted the shield formation while at Utah during a visit by Holtz. Meyer brought it with him to Florida.
So far the formation is doing what it is intended to - limit teams' ability to return punts. At least it is statistically.
Florida gave up an average of 14.7 yards per return a season ago, including two that went for touchdowns. The Gators are giving up an average of just 6.9 yards per return this season.
The formation has played a role in Florida forcing one big turnover this season in addition to one setback.
The formation's success was best illustrated against Tennessee when Vols returnman Jonathan Hefney fumbled a third quarter punt while under heavy pressure from Florida's cover team. But Hefney wasn't being pressured by one of the fast "gunners", who are part of a traditional punt coverage team. Instead, it was Florida longsnapper James Smith, a Buchholz High graduate.
Smith sprinted downfield immediately after snapping the ball and was just yards from Hefney when he botched the kick, which the Gators recovered.
Last week, however, the shield revealed its weakness - protecting the kicker. Offensive lineman Phil Trautwein, the middle of the three blockers in Florida's shield, missed his block on Tamme resulting in a blocked punt that set up Kentucky's first touchdown.
The block, Meyer said, wasn't due to the formation. It was the result of a missed blocking assignment. Trautwein said he missed the block on Tamme because he was trying to block another Kentucky player, but that player fell down.
Holtz agrees with other coaches who claim that it is no easier to get to the punter in the shield formation than a traditional one.
"It's sound," Holtz said. "Nobody ever blocked us because of a scheme. They might have blocked us because we didn't block somebody."
The formation has backfired on other teams this season as well. One of the more notable instances came during LSU's season opener at Arizona State. LSU's Jacob Hester ran through ASU's shield formation to block Chris MacDonald's kick in the third quarter. The blocked kick was returned 29 yards for a touchdown by Craig Steltz and helped ignite the Tigers' 35-31 comeback win.
LSU coach Les Miles uses a traditional punt formation. And even though his team cracked the Sun Devils' shield for a big play, Miles still endorses it.
"I think it's a good formation and I think it's obviously something a lot of people are going to at this time," Miles said. "I certainly understand it. But I don't think it's something that would work for us."
So where did the shield formation come from, anyway? The modern-day brainchild of the shield formation is believed to be Mike Ayers, head coach at Wofford College in South Carolina.
Ayers used the formation when he played high school football in the 1960s in Cincinnati. He's been using it at Wofford for about eight years now.
The formation gained national exposure after Wofford appeared on ESPN during the 2003 NCAA Division I-AA national semifinals. Following the game, coaches from all over the country were calling Ayers to talk special teams.
"There were tons of them (calling)," Ayers said. "We've had schools (call) from the SEC, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West ... all the conferences."
Holtz, who claims variations of the formation were used in the 1950s, may have been the first coach at a big name university to use it in the modern era. It happened in 2003 when the Gamecocks played back-to-back games against two dangerous returnmen - Kentucky's Derek Abney and LSU's Skyler Green.
"We decided we couldn't (cover punts) with two sprinters," Holtz said. "So we said, 'Let's get seven sprinters going off the line so we can cover them.' "
Holtz called it the "Purdue Punt." He said interest in the formation started ballooning after he began using it at South Carolina.
"We had a lot of people call us," Holtz said. "And a lot of people we played, they were all the sudden using it the next year."
Holtz, though, refused to take credit for its widespread use today.
"Give credit to Wofford on that," Holtz said. "We didn't run it until several years after (Wofford)."
Inside the shield
So who are the "big three" responsible for making up Florida's punt shield? Together, it's one big unit.
Florida's shield consists of 6-foot-1, 282-pound defensive tackle Clint McMillan, 6-6, 310-pound Trautwein and 6-1, 290-pound defensive lineman Lutrell Alford.
That's an 882-pound shield in front of Wilbur. Florida has also used 6-2, 275-pound defensive tackle Joe Cohen in the formation.
So what's it like to be a member of that giant wall trying to fend off punt blockers as they scream toward you?
"They put a lot of pressure on us," Trautwein said. "It's a tough job."
Wilbur said he has a special relationship with his teammates blocking for him. One built heavily on trust.
"I just have to trust the guys in front of me to do their job," he said. "It's still a little new to us, but we're getting better each week."
Wilbur admitted there is one disadvantage for the punter in the shield formation. The punter can't see a potential blocker until he is right there. That's what happened Saturday. Wilbur said he never saw Tamme until the punt was blocked.
"I'd say that was a little easier (in the traditional formation)," Wilbur said of picking up punt blockers. "But with this (formation) we get a lot better coverage and that's the goal this year."
You can reach Brandon Zimmerman by calling 374-5051 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florida's Eric Wilbur punts in the third quarter of the win against Wyoming on Sept. 3 at Florida Field.
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