Day after day for the majority of the 2012 season, the Morris football team has been putting 20-30 minutes in on the practice field perfecting the nuances of the third, and most forgotten, phase of the game: special teams. Whether it’s “Thumper” – their pooch kickoff – or their reverse return, the ‘Skins are always looking for an angle that gives them an edge in the kicking game, and thus far, it has paid off in the 2012 IHSA State Playoffs.
“We didn’t really change much (heading into the playoffs),” Morris offensive coordinator and resident special teams guru Bill Lauer said during a practice Wednesday. “We take 20 minutes every day and work on two or three of our special teams concepts each day. When those other teams are out there putting more emphasis on their ‘O’ and ‘D’, that’s when we feel like we can take advantage.”
Against Rich East and Urbana in the first two rounds, the Redskins forced multiple turnovers with their kickoff team by dropping short looping kicks in between the return team’s first and second lines. It gave the Redskins early momentum and ultimately helped lead to blowouts in both contests.
“A lot of teams really want to set up their middle wedge and their walls, and they’re dropping guys back. They got their front five and four deep, so we thought we could take advantage of what we call ‘Thumper.’ We just kinda chip it over that front line and we got guys flying down to the ball and trying to cause havoc,” Lauer said.
Special teams would also play a huge factor in Saturday’s quarterfinal against the Washington Panthers, specifically in the kicking game with Washington’s kicker suspended for having chewing tobacco on school grounds. Not only was Morris’ kicker dressed, senior Fernando Del Toro had a big game, nailing all four extra points, including the PAT in overtime that won the game for the Redskins.
“I have a lot more time just to work on my kicks this season – work on my kicks, work on kickoffs, extra points, field goals and everything,” Del Toro said after the win Saturday about quitting soccer to focus on football. “My job is to make kicks, and I did that today.”
The Morris special teams unit has also been the benefactor of a dynamic return game throughout the season, with seniors Jake Hogan and Collin Grogan, as well as junior Kyle Hill, all having their moments throughout the course of the season. Hogan has already returned a pair of kicks for touchdowns on the season, while Hill has averaged just under 30 yards per punt return on his last four fielded kicks since the DeKalb game.
On Saturday, it was Grogan’s turn to make the difference in the return game. Trailing by two touchdowns late in the third quarter, Grogan fielded a kick and raced up the Washington sideline as blockers walled off the Panthers coverage team, hurdling a defender on the way to a 67-yard run back that gave Morris the football at Washington’s 17-yard line.
Morris was unable to capitalize with a score, but with a vicious wind in switching into their favor at the start of the fourth quarter, Grogan’s return flipped field position dramatically and ultimately started a sequence that ended with the Redskins scoring 14 points in 47 seconds to tie the game.
“Our guys on the return really take pride and they work hard on our walls and our middle wedge, and we know that (our return team) is a huge part of momentum. It brings the emotions out in our players,” Lauer said. “For some reason, they get really jacked up to go out there and hit someone, and they know that one play can make the difference.”
This week, the Redskins host Springfield Sacred-Heart Griffin in the semifinals of Class 5A, and special teams will probably play a major role again. Former Morris assistant and current history department chair at MCHS, Dave Auwerda, is in charge of quality control for SHG’s special teams unit. For Lauer, who also works in the history department, that could mean bragging rights are at stake.
“We walk into the teacher’s lounge at the same time every day. There’s no bad blood. We know there’s two good teams out there, but we poke at each other every once in a while,” Lauer said. “We also understand that when it comes down to it, the 11 guys on the field are the game-changers. Not us."