When Greenwich’s Tyler Blizzard blocked two punts in last Thursday’s win over Xavier, it put the spotlight on a unit that coach John Marinelli has been praising since the beginning of the season.
In fact, it seems that Marinelli has mentioned the Cardinals’ special teams after every game this season. It is an area that has been an underrated but exemplary component for a team that is 9-0 and ranked second in the state polls heading into Thursday’s regular-season finale, against Staples.
“It has been a big reason for our success,” Marinelli said. “We treat special teams as if it is the most important part of the game and we do it every day.”
The casual fan can probably tick off a couple of the standouts that have helped the Cardinals get good field position, keep opponents pinned in deep at their end of the field and, yes, even score points. Zach Moore was voted to the All-FCIAC team as a kicker. He also is the team’s punter. Stephen Bennett handles punt returns, and Lance Large and Tysen Comizio, an all-conference running back, take care of returning kickoffs.
How many people outside of — and even inside — Greenwich know the name Ali Ibrahim? He is not on the field when the Cardinals have the ball or are on defense, but he may be the first person you see on kick coverage. In many regards he is one example why the team has exceeded preseason expectations. Ibrahim made an impression during workouts with offensive coordinator Dac Newton, who brought him to Marinelli’s attention.
“One of the reasons he has been so successful is that we found him in tackling drills during the preseason and he’s able to do some things that, even though he can’t be a starter for us on offense or defense, we’re able to use his skills on special teams and he’s been one of our best guys on punts and one of our best guys on kickoffs,” Marinelli said. “He’s always the first one downfield and he just breaks the coverage of the kickoff return team. Dac really found him and said this guy has to be on kickoffs.”
John Woodring, a former special teams captain for the Jets, coaches them for Greenwich. Marinelli respects his work and has given him a wide range of responsibility.
“His word is final in terms of what we need to do and what we need to do to get better in practice,” Marinelli said. “Not a lot of people talk about it but every day at pre-practice it is special teams. A coach tagged to each team. He’s the head coach of special teams and there is a coach for each team. We have special team positions like snipers and corners covering snipers, and we know what we want to do. We watch film on special teams. It’s the real deal.”
The effort on what seem like routine practices such as snaps on punts and field goals may appear tedious, but mastering the timing is no different than what quarterbacks and receivers do. It is just less glamorous.
And providing the offense with a short field is one reason the Cardinals lead the FCIAC in scoring — with 62 more points than the next-most productive team.
Marinelli explained some of the different attention to detail the Cardinals use.
“Not to say that other teams don’t emphasize it where we do,” Marinelli said. “We work blocking punts, we work techniques. And we go back and look at penalties and try to correct every little thing. The reason I think offensively we’ve been in such good field position is because our running backs coach, Wayne Gioffre, is working with Steven Bennett and our other punt returners and kick returners. They know if the ball is bouncing, if you can’t return it, it doesn’t mean get away from it. If you can get down without any yards being lost on a bounce, that’s huge. If you don’t get it, it can roll another 10 or 15 or even 20 or 30 yards. Little things like that, to field the ball, even though you’re in the middle of the field and don’t want to turn the ball over and muff it. There is a skill to it so we work on it all the time.”
The coaching staff starts identifying possible special team players as soon as preseason starts. Everyone is a potential contributor.
“Every day you find a kid who can do something different, you find them on scout teams and individual tackling drills, and because there are so many skills involved in special teams you’re able to find spots for kids that can help you,” Marinelli said.
Just a guess but Greenwich might have a record for the most players ever on a football team that can handle onside kicks: 11.
“We practice every week and it is a fun part of practice because those 11 kids are so excited,” Marinelli said. “Turns out to be one of the better parts of our practice and it’s funny. They all make fun of each other if they don’t get it and are celebrating with each other if we do get it. It’s not something we even considered when we started.”
Marinelli said the Cardinals have recovered every onside kick they have attempted this season, except one that was nullified against Xavier because of a penalty.
Special teams have made the Cardinals better and tighter.
Just consider Ibrahim.
“When you find kids like Ali you don’t have to use starters or rotational guys to put on the field; the camaraderie of the team is better because now when we go on kickoffs we have all of our team rooting for Ali to get down the field, because he’s a senior, he’s a great kid and he found a way to get on the field,” Marinelli said. “When you’re able to get different kids on the field and they have success in what they’re doing it brings the team closer together.”