Why special teams creates a gap between NIC-10 football haves and have-nots

Boylan's Joey Appino saves a touchdown by tackling Edwin Kosla after a long kickoff return in the third quarter of their game on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, at Boylan Catholic High School in Rockford.
Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

Belvidere North remains in contention for its second NIC-10 football title in school history, in large part, because of special teams.

North (4-0) edged East 14-12 in its opener on a pair of extra points. “We don’t have a kicker. They beat us by field goals, pretty much,” East defensive back Samuel Young said.

North then snapped Boylan’s 18-game conference win streak, winning 20-6 thanks to a long kickoff return by Edwin Kosla and another great game by kicker Aiden Montes, who had two field goals to account for all of the first-half points and repeatedly made Boylan start at the 20 with touchbacks on his kickoffs.

“I have never seen that in high school, ever,” North quarterback Mason Weckler said.

Hononegah (4-0), Boylan (3-1) and Belvidere North are all traditional powers — and all three seem to have a large gap between their special teams and those of their rivals. Even bigger than the gap on offense and defense.

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Hononegah this year had two special teams scores in a 30-7 victory over Guilford. A 37-8 win over East started with two snaps over the punter’s head for a Hononegah TD and safety and a 9-0 lead. In a 49-24 win over Freeport, the Pretzels shanked their first three punts. And the first time they got off a long kick, the punt was returned 71 yards for a touchdown.

Dan Appino, who coached Boylan to two state titles and then took over an Auburn program that had lost 27 games in a row, said special teams is the biggest gap of all between more affluent, successful schools and inner city schools that have had a history of losing.

“At those types of organizations, special teams get little or no attention, and it’s a huge problem for them to be successful against good programs,” Appino said.

Here are four reasons why special teams can be such a problem for every school in the NIC-10 other than the traditional big four of Boylan, Hononegah, Harlem and North:

Opportunity

Guilford, Jefferson, East, Freeport and Belvidere haven’t won a playoff game in over a decade. Auburn had won two in history before winning four in Appino’s six years. At those schools, it’s easy to imagine yourself as the team star. At the loaded schools, special teams might be the only place many players can star at.

“Kids who come up through programs with low numbers, they just dream of being the star running back, quarterback or receiver,” Appino said. “They may also play on defense, but they take their breaks on special teams.

“Then schools like Boylan or Hononegah, kids are fighting to get on the field any way they can. So, yeah, they’ll try to be long snappers or holders or place kickers or cover on kickoffs. They are dying to play for a really good program that has intense internal competition.”

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Rest

The schools with fewer numbers have a lot more two-way starters. Those players don't see much time on special teams. If you do see someone standing out in all three phases, it’s probably a star at one of the four powers, like all-conference defensive back/running back Joey Appino of Boylan, who ran Kosla down from behind on that long kickoff return to open the second half against Belvidere North.

“If you have a kid playing two ways, are you really going to trot him out on kickoff teams?" Guilford coach Tony Capriotti said. “When are you going to keep him fresh?”

“You have to give them some time off,” Freeport coach Anthony Dedmond said. “And then when you try to rest them, you are scrambling.”

Head coach Brian Zimmerman runs a defensive blocking drill during practice on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, at Hononegah High School in Rockton. Hononegah is an annual NIC-10 football power in large part because it always seems to have large and talented offensive and defensive lines.

Money to specialize

At the bigger, more affluent schools, players not only specialize, they get trained to specialize.

“Kids with means can afford to go to specialized camps in the summer and talk to college gurus and get better that way,” Appino said.

Maybe the best example of specializing is Hononegah having three former players who earned NCAA Division I scholarships just to be a long snapper: Seth Combs (Illinois State), Kelly Mason (Kentucky) and Nate Durham (North Texas), who was a finalist for long-snapper of the year.

Long snapping can be huge. That is the part of special teams that can often go the most wrong.

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“Go back to our Harlem game two years ago; we don’t win that game (33-30 in the final seconds) if they don’t snap the ball over their punter’s head and we kick a field goal to win,” Hononegah coach Brian Zimmerman said. “That’s one I will absolutely never forget, but even this year we’ve got a touchdown and two safeties because of bad snaps in back-to-back weeks.”

Bad long snaps have long been a bad dream for NIC-10 have-nots. In 2006, an Auburn team that had lost 20 games in a row had a chance to pull a huge upset at Hononegah. But two bad punt snaps helped Hononegah to a 20-0 win. The first gave Hononegah the ball at the Hono 11. The second was recovered in the end zone for a TD and a 14-0 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

And Appino, who led the Knights to their only two NIC-10 titles in the last 50 years, was repeatedly burned by snaps over the quarterback’s head in his first two years after switching to a shotgun spread offense at Auburn.

Freeport's head football coach Anthony Dedmond debriefs his team after their 16-12 win over Guilford at Freeport High School Friday, April 9, 2021, in Freeport.

But kicking and snapping never seem to be a problem at Boylan, North and Hononegah.

“We have the luxury right now of having a punter (Zach Luker),” Zimmerman said. “That’s all he does. And that’s all he wants to do. He works on his punting all the time.”

North has a long history of soccer player/football kickers. The first of those two-sport fall kickers, Luis Garcia, once had soccer and football playoff games the same day and made it to kickoff on time after being flown to the game in a friend’s private plane.

That doesn’t happen at Freeport and Jefferson.

“Not a plane. Not even in a car,” Freeport’s Dedmond said. “They have those luxuries and it can make a difference.”

Time

Zimmerman long ago extended Hononegah’s time for practicing special teams from 10 minutes to 20 minutes at each practice. “We really stress that to the kids, what a difference-maker specials can be,” he said.

North coach Jeff Beck charts a targeted starting position for each drive by the Blue Thunder and their opponents. Each yard better for North — or worse for its opponents — gets counted as hidden yardage. The goal is to top 100 yards of hidden yardage every week. So far North is 4-for-4 at that — in part because 11 of 14 kickoffs by Montes have been touchbacks.

“We chart that each week,” Beck said. “That’s huge. We talk all the time about how the chances of scoring change with field position.”

But while Hononegah and North coaches are concentrating on field position, sometimes schools with poverty issues are working on things Appino calls “player management.”

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“Getting to class. Getting home. Getting fed,” Appino said. “You don’t get to work on the little things. So what happens is they concentrate at those schools on just offense or just defense, the things they think make the biggest impact. They just don’t have enough time in the day to work on important special teams because they are so busy being social workers as opposed to football coaches.”

Gary Griffin, who has led East to the playoffs two of the last three full seasons after the E-Rabs had 15 losing seasons in a row, thinks his team has done fine on special teams. But he does say it is more difficult.

“It is harder for us to do anything than it is for the other schools,” Griffin said. “We have done well on a lot of different things with special teams, but if our kids didn’t have to worry about the nine million other things, we’d be even better at football.

"They have to worry what they are going to eat for dinner. They don’t have to worry about those things at Belvidere North and Hononegah. They just have to coach football. We have to coach life.

"But we took our jobs knowing what we are going to be doing. I wouldn’t trade my kids for nothing.”

The end result is special teams help keep the haves on top of the have-nots in NIC-10 football.

“It’s a big difference," Appino said, "especially when you get talented teams that play each other."

Matt Trowbridge: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge