Just How Special are Special Teams?

When you think about football, your mind probably doesn’t automatically land on special teams as a focal point. Most people don’t even know the role of special teams players; they see them as the players who kick the balls. But they play an important part in the momentum of the game and their impact, though quiet on the field and in the box score, is massive.

“I talk about it with the guys all the time: We are either going to give our offense good or bad field position and the same thing with defense as well,” Marist football’s special teams’ coach Cam Gibson said. “If we don’t give them good field position every time we go out on the field and we don’t make our kicks and field goals, then, more likely than not, we are going to lose that game.” 

If you’re a Marist football player, hard work pays off. Gibson singled out two freshmen — Kyle Coffindaffer and David Torres — as two of the more productive, hardworking players on his special teams’ docket. “[They] did so well on scout team that I moved them up to starters on the special teams unit,” he said. 

Special teams players have to be fast, strong and smart in order to excel in their role. Most of what they do includes running full speed down the field trying to make open-field tackles and trying to cause turnovers. As for the importance of kickers, a game-winning field goal as time runs out on the clock is just about as special as it gets. There’s nothing like a large crowd screaming at you to get the ball through the uprights. Miss the kick and that crowd just about despises you. Make it, and the whole stadium goes crazy.

The team’s starter this season, redshirt freshman Luke Paladino, hasn’t kicked any game winners quite. His consistency, though, indicates that stadium pandemonium induced by a Paladino-winner wouldn’t be too far fetched. This season, he finished 11-of-14 on field goals and 28-of-29 on PATs. His season-long field goal — a whopping 49-yards — is tied with current Seattle Seahawk Jason Myers for the longest in school history. 

Paladino started kicking his sophomore year of high school on his junior varsity team before getting moved up to varsity. “I learned to kick on my own,” he said. “I kind of just taught myself how to do it, me and my dad worked on it.” 

He explained that, though it certainly isn’t an easy craft to master, the kicking game isn’t too complicated once you work at it. With a smile on his face and a little laugh, Paladino said, “Anybody that works on it could actually kick. I don’t think it’s really that hard. But I think to get to [college level], it takes a lot of work and I wouldn’t say that’s easy.” 

Paladino is no stranger to struggling; he’s aware of the weight his job carries, and it took a great deal of refinement in order to reach his current level and confidence. “I feel like there was a point in my career where I was really struggling,” he said. “It kind of just clicked one summer… I started having a better rotation and better swing through, I got stronger.” He’s now at the point where walking up for a kick involves razor-sharp focus, even if he doesn’t “think about anything.” He explained that, though it’s weird, he has “nothing going on. I’m just focusing on my breathing.” He’s also always sure to roll his shoulders and swing his arms “one or two times” before the kick. “I’ve done that pretty much every kick this year.”

Paladino believes the chemistry between the long snapper, holder, and himself is very important, not just for him, but for the sake of the entire special teams’ core. “There’s been a couple times where I haven’t had a lot of confidence in my holder and it’s not good,” he said. “I don’t hit a good ball when I’m not confident in my holder. But when we’re feeling it, it’s perfect.”

The kicking skills don’t start and stop with Paladino, though. True freshman Dominic Donohue won the starting punter job this past season.

“Before practice one day, I was messing around, kicking the ball when my youth coach saw me and believed that I could make a good kicker,” Donohue said. “He gave me a chance.” Donohue started kicking and punting in eighth grade and has been the starting punter for Marist this season. He has a long punt of 62 yards.

Prior to his kicking career, he was a soccer player. Apparently, the rumors about the transition between the sports can turn out to be true.

“Dom has stepped in and done a pretty good job for us,” Gibson said. “We went into camp and we didn’t know what to expect. We were sitting in a meeting one day and we weren’t happy with some of the punts so we said ‘let’s give Dom a try.’” That try ended up being Donohue’s audition for a starting role. Gibson said, “we agreed that this guy looks like he’s been here for three years.”

He hasn’t, obviously, but the true freshman sees having such lofty responsibilities as “a pretty cool experience… It can be nerve-racking but it’s fun. All the guys trust me to get the ball down the field and I also have trust in them to make the tackle.” 

Before taking the field, Donohue first gets practice snaps on the sideline with long snapper Joe Giordano. He says, “The drop is one of the key components to kicking.” It’s the key to ensuring that he “get[s] it away before anyone blocks it.” 

In order for Donohue to get a good punt off, long snapper Giordano has to get the ball back quickly. 

“My average time is .70,” Giordano said. “That’s like my best time, my most consistent but usually it’s anywhere from point .70-.79,” explains Giordano. 

As it turns out, the trend of starting late persists with Giordano: “Freshman year I was actually the holder for special teams and they needed someone to long snap on varsity the following year,” he said. “So I just started doing it with my dad and training every day.” 

Giordano sees the role of special teams as, naturally, crucial. “Just like Coach Cam always talks about, there are three aspects of the game: offense, defense, and special teams,” he says. So when it comes to winning games, I think it’s really important to put all three together. Everybody has to take it really seriously, and here everybody does. It’s definitely a big part of the game.”

Edited by Dan Statile & Will Bjarnar

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