Film Study: LSU Football's Odell Beckham and the Art of the Punt Return
The Odell Beckham Jr. experience has just begun in 2013.
Beckham Jr.'s best game in an LSU uniform was against UAB on Saturday Night. He dazzled Tiger Stadium with silky creativity every time he touched the ball.
Beckham Jr. finished the game with 331 all-purpose yards. The Blazers had no answer for his speed and quickness.
The junior was exceptional as a returner on special teams. When given proper real estate and a few blocks, he created magic.
Beckham Jr. raked in four touchdowns on Saturday night. Three of those were off the hot hand of Zach Mettenberger, another was a missed field goal he returned 109 yards on the last touchdown of the game.
But he was also impressive on plays he did not score, including a punt return that left the Blazers' heads spinning.
UAB is forced to punt deep in their own territory. They run a "shield punt" formation, popular among teams recently.
As the ball is snapped, the Blazers begin their journey downfield to tackle Beckham Jr. The punt coverage team is already two yards downfield before the ball is kicked while maintaining great lane discipline.
There are three different colors of dots on the screen. The red dots represent UAB's gunners. They are usually the players on punt team with no blocking assignment. Their main goal is to get to the returner as fast as possible to make an immediate tackle when the ball is caught. They also, to an extent, have "contain" responsibilities; this means the returner should be, at the very least, forced inside of them.
The blue dots show the middle members of the punt coverage team. Their job description speaks for itself: Do not let the returner blast through their lane up the middle. They are the ones who usually make the tackles. For the sake of this study, players labeled with blue dots are also feasible tacklers at the time of the run.
Last, but certainly not least, is the yellow dot: It represents the deep snapper. They are usually the slowest member of the punt coverage unit and are usually left unblocked. Notice how on this play every player with a dot is being watched or blocked by an LSU player, except the deep snapper.
As the ball is still in the air, the blue dots remain lane disciplined. The two blue dot players further back are a little close to each other but are still making great headway downfield.
Notice the yellow dot is lagging behind. This is further proof why the deep snapper is left unblocked.
The red dot players (gunners) are still doing a great job. For the sake of the return, the red dot is moved to where Beckham Jr. wants to run and where UAB needs to contain him.
He loves to run at an angle into the open field.
UAB has a great start to the play in coverage while the punt only travels 41 yards. But Beckham Jr. receives the football with plenty of breathing room because of the line drive punt.
UAB head coach Garrick McGee says punter Hunter Mullins "did not execute the game plan," via Drew Champlin of AL.com.
Beckham Jr. begins to make his move into the open field for a punt return to the right. By doing this, the three UAB defenders located outside of the hash marks to Beckham Jr's left are essentially nullified. They are still running too fast downfield to change direction and have no chance of catching Beckham Jr. anytime soon.
Now it is up to the only two blue dots left on the screen. After being too close before, they begin to take great angles toward Beckham Jr. Their secondary goal of the one further upfield, if he is not able to make the tackle, is to force Beckham Jr. inside to trailing tackler close by.
Beckham Jr.'s amazing ability to cut on the dime helps him avoid one blue dot (No. 22), who actually wins a small battle in forcing him inside where more help is located. But because Kwon Alexander hustles downfield, he is able to block the trailing blue dot just enough to help Beckham Jr. split the two blue dot defenders.
The key to a great punt return is breaking the first wave of tacklers, which Beckham Jr. does brilliantly here. After that doing that, there will be plenty of space to work with to shake and burn tacklers.
The red dot now shifts back to UAB's (No. 11) Calvin Jones. Jones now has "contain" responsibilities for the play. His job is to not have Beckham Jr. go around him to the sideline, which is why he remains to the outside shoulder of his blocker.
The Blazers run an interesting punt coverage. They know by watching Beckham Jr. in the past he loves to get to the sideline. So far, they are not in full disaster mode.
Jones player does an excellent job of staying outside his blocker. But Beckham trusts his speed, balance and elusiveness to get around him.
This is where Beckham Jr. takes a calculated risk. He has 10-to-15 sure yards if he runs directly towards the Eye of the Tiger graphic at midfield. He also knows if he gets to the outside, he has the chance to accumulate a larger amount of yardage and quite possibly a touchdown.
If Beckham Jr. gets tackled by Jones, he would ignore his blocker and fall down at his own 40-yard-line. This would cost LSU valuable yardage.
Jones continues to play his role as fundamentally sound as possible. He does a great job taking a flat line to catch the speedy Beckham Jr. But unfortunately for UAB, he stiff-arms Jones to the ground rather effortlessly.
Now this is where Beckham Jr. is his most dangerous. He loves the sideline and has a wave of blockers in front of him.
The next blue dot he locates downfield is next person he feels has a chance at tackling him. No. 6 Craig Loston, after a somewhat lethargic effort off the snap, now has a full head of steam as a lead blocker.
The blue dotted player for UAB now makes a smart decision. He knows he has no chance of making a clean tackle on Beckham Jr., so he crashes to the sideline in a last ditch effort to force him inside.
Beckham Jr. does a great job of weaving his way through foot traffic and eventually takes a route toward the sideline again.
Now Beckham Jr. looks upfield to the next tackler with his wave of blockers behind him. All he needs to beat now is the punter Mullins. Freshman linebacker Duke Riley is in the process of lifting Mullins off his feet at a high speed.
At this reverse angle, it is evident Beckham Jr. sees Mullins in the air. He feels good enough the block from Riley will get him into the end zone.
Miraculously, Mullins is able to spin out of the tackle, keep his feet and shove Beckham Jr. out of bounds. He would have probably cut back in easily, but already made his mind up he was going to ride the sideline into the end zone. By the time Mullins landed, he was traveling too fast for him to be able to change direction.
Overall, UAB did not play this punt terribly. Their lane discipline was fine and they extended the play by forcing multiple cuts from Beckham Jr. It was just a line drive punt to a superior athlete who was in a groove.
Even though it was not a touchdown, this return showed the brilliance of Beckham Jr. His ability to glide around defenders is astonishing.
LSU special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey deserves plenty of credit. His return schemes are not complex, usually consisting of man-to-man blocking, which gives talented returners more freedom to do what they want.
McGaughey had to help develop Beckham Jr. quickly after Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team before the 2012 season. Beckham Jr. answered with a touchdown against North Texas in last season's opener.
The Tigers punt team is relentless. Once they make a block, they are always looking downfield to make another one. The above study shows safety Corey Thompson and others are excellent at reading returns and finding blocks.
There are multiple reasons why Beckham Jr. loves running down the sideline on punt returns.
Not only is it safer running down the sideline, but there are less variables to tackle and/or cause fumbles out of Beckham Jr.'s peripherals. If a player cuts hard at Beckham Jr., his quick feet allow him to cut inside and dodge the blow.
Beckham Jr. also runs the sideline like Nik Wallenda walks a tightrope. He reads defenders and blockers well in tight spaces. He creatively stays on his feet when tacklers are not able to square themselves up and masterfully "cuts against the grain" opposite the defender's momentum.
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Blockers also love when punt returners cut across the open field, as defenders are prone to bone-crushing blindside hits. As much as players preach how they want the game to be safer, they love even more to knock the snot out of somebody.
LSU should be known as "PRU", a.k.a. Punt Returner University for its amazing run of game breakers at the position under Miles. Chad Jones, Patrick Peterson, Skyler Green, Trindon Holliday and Mathieu would all be proud of what Beckham Jr. has been able to accomplish.
Do not forget, Beckham Jr. is not too shabby on kickoff returns. He forms a formidable duo with Jarvis Landry on the outside for the LSU passing attack as well. No. 3 has also rushed for 33 yards on three carries this season.
Beckham Jr. has already cemented himself in the minds of LSU fans everywhere for his returning prowess. The path of his punt return against Ole Miss last season mimicked LSU's only Heisman winner Billy Cannon in 1959.
If he keeps playing at this level, Beckham Jr. will continue to rewrite the history books.
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