Hickman coach Gregg Nesbitt doesn’t have any doubt when he talks about the importance of a blocked punt.
“It’s the biggest play in football.”
Nesbitt would know, too. His team has done it 11 times this season.
“It’s an explosive play, and we think it’s demoralizing,” Nesbitt said. “Essentially, it’s a 40-yard play.”
Last week against DeSmet, Hickman’s punt-blocking unit struck early, blocking the Spartans’ first two attempts resulting in a touchdown and a safety.
Those two plays gave Hickman the early momentum and eventually secured the win, advancing the Kewpies to the Class 6 semifinal game at 7 tonight at Rockhurst.
Hickman (9-1), the No. 1 team in the Class 6 state rankings, has earned the No. 10 ranking in USA Today’s Midwest high school football poll. Rockhurst (9-1) is ranked No. 2 in Class 6, but No. 6 in the USA Today poll.
The winner plays in the Class 6 state championship at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis next Friday against either Kirkwood or Hazelwood East.
Hickman (9-1) fell to the Hawklets 14-7 in each team’s second game of the year but have since gone on an eight-game winning streak.
To be a punt blocker for Hickman, the training begins during the first week of practice and continues throughout the season.
“Early in the season, it’s not a natural act,” Nesbitt said. “The natural thing is to flinch. It’s certainly a learned trait to take a ball off the foot.”
The Kewpies devote five minutes of practice each week exclusively for their six punt blockers to go through a rapid-fire drill that allows them to get up to 10 practice blocks.
Reggie Hatton, who has recorded three blocked punts this season, said while there’s no substitute for game experience, punt blocking repetition in practice goes a long way.
“You can’t simulate the actual speed of somebody snapping the ball, and you getting out to block it, until you’ve actually seen it,” Hatton said.
Hatton, Aaron Cawlfield, Brandon Kendrick, Kyle Pipes, Cortez Blanford and Eric Owen are the players Hickman designates as punt blockers, with Jimmy McNeil rotating in occasionally.
That drill, which Nesbitt said he learned from the coaching staff at Central Missouri State University, coupled with 15 minutes a week of schematic work, has made Hickman’s unit a force to be dealt with.
Hickman’s main objective is not to get a block every game but to make sure the opposing team feels the pressure.
Nesbitt said he doesn’t care whether the “pressure is real or perceived,” recognizing that teams have shanked kicks and muffed snaps because of the Kewpies’ constant threat of a punt block.
Not only did Nesbitt say he believes teams have to focus on getting a punt off during the game, they may also have to cut into their practice time concentrating on punt coverage.
“We’re making a team work harder (on punt coverage) that particular week,” Nesbitt said, “which is going to take away from their offense and defense during practice.”
So what makes a punt blocker successful?
Nesbitt points to a combination of areas: the sheer desire to put your body in the way of the ball, the speed to get to the punter in time and the lack of fear to dive at the swinging foot of a punter.
Cawlfield, who recorded the two blocks against DeSmet, has led the Kewpies unit with an eye-opening seven punt blocks on the season, including three separate games where he recorded two.
“He’s been a natural from day one,” Nesbitt said. “Certainly, the reps have helped, but he’s going to block some punts no matter what.”
Cawlfield said it comes down to doing whatever it takes to see the Kewpies
If that means taking a punt off the helmet for a safety, then he is willing.
“I think you do have to be a little crazy and always want the ball,” Cawlfield said. “It has to do with how competitive we are.”
McNeil, who has recovered two of Cawlfield’s punt blocks, said the members of Hickman’s punt blocking unit understand their roles.
“Each person takes his own pride in doing their single job to spring somebody like Cawlfield free,” McNeil said.
Last week, the Kewpies outlasted a dangerous passing attack from DeSmet quarterback Tommy Corwin, who threw for four touchdowns. Nesbitt said Rockhurst, which has a nine-game winning streak, also has a dangerous passing game.
The Hawklets have a run-oriented offense, but Rockhurst quarterback Terry McMahon and Division I wide receiver prospect D.J. Hord pose a deep threat that concerns Nesbitt.
“We lost a little confidence on the back end last week,” Nesbitt said. “Hopefully, (the secondary) will bounce back this week.”
With Rockhurst’s defense coming off a shutout last week against then-No. 2 Blue Springs and Hickman’s defense surrendering less than 124 yards a game, tonight’s match up will be a test to see which offense can prevail.
“I think we both have improved tremendously on offense,” Nesbitt said. “We’ll see who’s improved the most.”