WASHINGTON - Assistant Coach Kevin Doherty and the Georgetown University football team are building a new culture on special teams and it is showing on the field. The Hoya special teams units, which have blocked three punts over the past two games, lead all FBS and FCS programs with four this season. They rank second in the FCS with seven blocked kicks overall, trailing only Monmouth which has eight.
“Head Coach Rob Sgarlata has done a great job allocating the resources and making special teams a priority - and has had the faith and trust in the staff to get this started,” said Doherty, who serves as the team’s special teams coordinator. “We have made progress with each unit but the challenge is to unite six phases into one working unit. We keep things simple for the players, have a philosophy and give our guys the tools to be successful.”
Building a culture begins with players buying into it. Being on a special teams unit is generally not a position that is sought after, but rather seen as a chance to give a starter a quick rest and for non-starters to get on the field. For the Hoyas the opposite is true, for a player to appear on any of the special teams units, he must first prove himself on either the offensive or defensive side of the ball.
“Our players understand the importance of the 30 or so plays in winning a football game,” said Doherty. “We use our best players without overworking them. We elevate the status of players that start on multiple units and with each week, we are getting more and more to buy in.
“The most significant moment for me was having our players, guys that start on defense or offense, asking to contribute. It reinforces that we are on the right path, that they are ‘All In’. That conviction has helped lead to some spectacular moments on the field.”
Two players who have completely bought in are fifth-year senior Hunter Kiselick (Nutley, N.J./Bergen Catholic) and freshman Khristian Tate (Warner Robins, Ga./Covenant Academy). The duo is currently tied for the national lead, both in all of FBS and FCS, with three blocked kicks apiece, combining for six of Georgetown’s seven overall blocks. Kiselick has blocked three field goal attempts while Tate has gotten his hand on three punts. Two of Kiselick’s blocked field goals came during GU’s 20-17 win at Marist on Sep. 10, including a block late in the fourth quarter to preserve the three-point lead.
“Hunter uses his experience, knowledge of football, and his motor to be an effective kick blocker,” Doherty said. “His blocks are on plays that players often do not give full effort because the odds of blocking a kick are low. He makes the most of every snap and his motor is his greatest asset.. Without his production on this unit I doubt we win the Marist game. His example is great for our young guys.
“Tate is a guy that we recognized early that showed power, size, and explosion. We made his role very simple. He is very difficult to block because he can overpower you and is deceptively athletic. The skill that is tough to teach is extending your arms and getting a hand on the punt. That takes both poise and toughness and he has obviously demonstrated both. He is only a freshman but people are going to have to game plan him, which should create opportunity for the other guys on the unit.”
The players are not the only ones buying into the culture change. While Doherty is the special teams coordinator and oversees all facets, each special teams unit is led by a different member of the coaching staff and the success can also be directly attributed to them buying into the culture as well. Doherty works directly with the punt team while Assistant Coach Maurice Banks oversees the punt return unit. Assistant Coach Thurston Childrey is in charge of the kickoff return squad while Assistant Coach Alex Kolt manages both the kickoff return and blocking units. Assistant Coach Brian Miller coaches the field goal and PAT teams
“Our coaches do a great job taking ownership in their unit but we always maintain a united front,” said Doherty. “We work extremely well together, which is a testament to Coach Sgarlata, Thompson, and Neuberger. We have more work to do but the bottom line is the details stress player development for future success of special teams.”
To help measure success, Doherty has outlined three “musts” the special teams units must achieve. First, the Hoyas must ‘own the possession’. Ball security, protection, no penalties and discouraging fakes are examples of how they can ensure negative plays do not happen.
Georgetown has been nearly perfect in all of those instances. While the Hoyas have seven blocks to their credit, opponents have not gotten a finger on any of GU’s kicks, nor have any of the first eight opponents attempted a fake punt or field goal. Credit must also be given to senior long snapper Robert Longwell (McLean, Va./McLean), who has provided perfect snaps on all of Georgetown’s punts, field goals and PAT attempts and has even gotten down the field for eight tackles on punt return coverage.
Secondly, GU must ‘NET More, Get More’ which is all about creating the best possible field position for the offense or defense.
The Hoyas have been winning the field position battle in several areas. Harry McCollum (Arlington Heights, Va./Saint Viator) ranks second in the Patriot League averaging 42.0 yards per punt. Georgetown is also second in the conference in kickoff return coverage, allowing just 14.6 yards per kickoff return while ranking third in kickoff return yardage with an average of 21.7 per return. Individually, Isaac Ellsworth (Bedford, Texas/Euless Trinity) ranks fourth in the Patriot League with an average of 24.1 yards per kickoff return
“The third must is ‘We must win the X Factor - the Explosives,’” Doherty explained. “These are the game changers, the momentum plays that can cripple our opponent. We believe that when the culture and talent become one, the explosive plays will follow.”
In addition to kick blocking, the special teams units have also forced four turnovers and have contributed several other explosive plays. In a game versus Columbia on Sept. 24, punt return unit forced two fumbles, allowing the Blue & Gray to hold on for a 17-14 victory. Against Princeton on Oct. 8, Jelani Williamson (Silver Spring, Md./Good Counsel) returned one of Kiselick’s blocked field goal 51 yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. On Oct. 22 at Fordham, the Hoyas executed a fake punt perfectly for a first down and also forced two turnovers – one on a punt return and another on a kick return.