HELENA — Special teams play an important role for any football team.
They are opportunities for big plays to break open a game for a team.
Of course that can work against the team, too.
They also are opportunities for younger players to get game experience before being a starter on offense or defense.
The Carroll College football team used its special teams in both ways.
While the Saints are still looking for the game-changing big play this season, at least there hasn’t been any coverage breakdowns that have hurt them.
“We’ve been pretty consistent,” coach Mike Van Diest said. “The kicking game has not lost any games for us. Against Linfield it gave us great field position and helped us win that game.”
It’s easy to see how the kicker, punter and returns are doing. They take the spotlight when they enter the game.
Josh Kraft from Billings has been steady in his place-kicking. He’s 7-for-8 on extra points and 3-for-4 on field goals with a long of 26 yards.
He's been consistently kicking the ball deep on kickoffs. Van Diest was concerned about that aspect of the game, but he's happy with what Kraft has accomplished.
Punter Matt Kvech has been the most pleasant surprise for the Saints. He’s normally a safety but averages 39.1 yards on 36 attempts with a long of 61 yards.
“The scenario I was worried about was we lost a great kicker and punter,” Van Diest said. "Kickoff coverage, Josh Kraft has done a great job on kickoffs. That was a real concern, but he worked his tail off this summer. Matt is doing a nice job, but he’s getting too much work. You want three or four punts a game, not eight or nine.”
Kickoff and punt returns are where the big plays commonly happen. Ryan Beaulieu averages 10.9 yards on punt returns with a long of 20. His goal is to average a first down.
Ryan Arntson averages 23.5 yards on kickoff returns, while Shane Sipes averages 18.9. The longest return is 37 yards by Sipes. They’ve been able to find openings, but are still looking for the long one into the end zone.
“We still have to improve on that,” Van Diest said. “We need to get the ball in our play-maker’s hands. We want Shane Sipes to break one.”
Sipes feels the blockers have been doing their job, it’s just that opponents are doing well containing the returners.
Every week there’s a new coverage approach by opponents, so every week the Saints adjust their blocking.
“Each week we have more to improve on,” Sipes said. “The schemes we are looking at are different on kick returns, so (for the) the most part we are doing good. It takes just one to get a big play going. It takes one block or one missed tackle for those big plays. We are still looking for that, and I think it’s there.”
Working on those blocking schemes and coverage schemes are challenging for any team. The Saints work on it each practice.
Balancing which players to use on the special teams to block and cover is always a question. Some coaches just keep the starters on the field, while others do mass substitutions with younger players to rest the starters.
Van Diest does both.
He leaves his starting defenders on the punt cover and starting offense on punt. He does the same thing with field goals and field goal blocks.
Van Diest doesn’t want to get caught in the middle of a mass substitution on punt return, and sometimes teams use the quarterback to quickly punt or a team fakes a field goal.
“I feel that’s the biggest momentum change in a game, if you get a punt blocked,” Van Diest said. “I want my best players out there on those plays. You want to keep that stout.”
It’s during the kickoff and kickoff return he uses younger players, but they are players he trust. It’s not an opportunity to play everyone.
He wants younger players to showcase their skills. Van Diest finds out about the personality of the players and their ability with how much effort they put into these plays.
Besides resting starters on the kickoffs, Van Diest finds playing younger players there keeps them engaged and part of the weekly video study if they have something to study.
“Coach Van Diest does a great job with kickoff,” Sipes said. “We have enough players being safeties and the right guys making the right block, and getting to the ball. The redshirts on the fence of redshirting or playing, it’s a good opportunity to get game experience and get more familiar with the college level.”
Coordinating all the special teams is a full-time job, but the Saints don’t have a special teams coordinator. They split up each play to different assistants.
Offensive coordinator Nick Howlett handles kickoff returns, offensive line coach Tony Arntson and Alex Pfannenstiel deal with field goal plays, Kaden Glinsmann works with long snappers and Van Diest works with the punting and punt coverage.
“We all split it up,” Van Diest said. “Everybody pitches in, if they have expertise from somewhere.”
There are some players who love the special teams plays and don’t want to take a break. Van Diest takes them out of defensive or offensive plays to give them a break during those times in the game instead.
Sipes is an example. Besides returning kicks, he loves to be on the kickoff cover team. His speed helps him get down the field quickly to make plays.
“Ever since I started playing football, my coaches emphasized the importance of special teams,” Sipes said. “You can always get big plays. So any play I can be out there to make a big play, I’m interested.”
Other starters who love the special teams are Tony Madsen, McBride Galt, Chase Bowen and Reece Quade. Quade enjoys being the punter’s personal protector and Troy Arntson is the holder on place-kicks.
Backups who are taking advantage of their opportunities are Kyle Harrington, Rex Irby, Brian FauntLeRoy and Isazah King, Van Diest said.
“You can see the excitement when you see some success there, those guys take it personal,” Van Diest said. “We’ve had great guys who have been on those teams three or four years of their careers.”