UM special teams get into swing of things

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — John Baxter is approaching his work with Michigan's kickers much like a swing coach works with a golfer looking to improve by changing his swing.

Baxter, the special teams coordinator, is also author of Academic Gameplan, a program that helps students learn how to study in the classroom.

His job since arriving in Ann Arbor has been to implement the Champions Program, an offshoot of the Academic Gameplan program he copyrighted in 1999. This spring, he has been breaking down the kickers and punters to build them back up while also working with every aspect of special teams.

Baxter's approach during the four-hour spring practices doesn't focus on results. That, he hopes, will come during preseason camp. What he is doing now is addressing technique and fundamentals with his spin and having the kickers kick into nets to develop muscle memory.

"We are not going to do one ounce of team work, meaning put it all together," Baxter said Tuesday. "Those guys are individually working on snapping, holding and kicking, kicking into nets and working on their swing.

"I can tell you this, if you were watching, you'd see balls going all over the place. ... But it's March. I'm not really worried about March, I'm worried about September. But if we don't take this time to make fundamental changes in their swing, their approach and their functional movement, their mobility, their core, we'll never have a chance to change them."

Generally speaking, a golfer working on developing a new swing will go to a range and see the results as he progresses. Baxter said that although his players are kicking into nets, he has a strong idea where those kicks would be directed.

"If you're going to work on their swing, you have got to take the results away because they'll worry about the results, and I'm not worried about the results," he said. "I'm worried about the swing. We get that right, the results will be there."

That, essentially, is his approach to every aspect of special teams. He said that what the average observer views as "nuclear fission" in terms of special teams play, he can visualize in slow motion.

Baxter said the one thing he can't handle is managing chaos, and over the years realized he was correcting the same things during the season that he addressed during the spring. By teaching all the specialists his view of the correct fundamentals, they can have a home base by which to measure themselves.

His approach, he said, is different than one players have been used to, and added that has been his experience at previous stops, which include USC, where he coached from 2010-13. He likes to keep what he describes as "exhaustive journals."

"Special teams is not a really difficult aspect of the game schematically," he said. "It's a different aspect of the game fundamentally."

By using information kept in the journals, he knows where the players have been in terms of development, where they've gone and, if they regress, he can pinpoint that. But the bottom line is, it's all about learning the basics.

"One of the phrases the players have heard me say until they're sick of it is the drills are the techniques, the techniques are the plays, and the plays are the games," Baxter said. "We are building this team from the inside out, teaching them techniques and fundamentals. Teaching the art of contact, teaching the art of escaping contact.

"If you can't bring a kid back to someplace he's familiar with, then they spend the whole fall lost."

Baxter doesn't know who will be kicking when the season opens at Utah, and he doesn't know who will be returning, although he worked out 14 players Tuesday.

"My job is to build as much depth as possible," Baxter said. "Somebody will be standing on that field in Utah. I'm not sure who that will be."