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Just for kicks, shield punt is trendy again

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ANNAPOLIS — Steve Johns was there when the shield punt was reborn at the major college level.

A formation forgotten for more than a decade, it was revived when UNLV (where Johns was an assistant) suspended its starting center. The backup couldn't block, more than a minor quandary. As a response, the late Bruce Snyder, once the coach at Arizona State and then a Rebels assistant, figured it might be time to give the scheme another look.

"That's all they used to do in the '80s was the wall punt," said Johns, now a Navy assistant. "We put it in, and after that it kind of spread. No one had done it in 15 years when we did it for that. It was a nationally televised game. Everyone started doing it after that."

That includes Navy and Maryland, the latter embracing it after a staff change after last season.

The punt formation in vogue for most of the past 30 years features seven tightly bunched players on the line with two gunners on the outside. That typically does plenty to prevent a block, but also opens up the possibility of a long return since the kicking team has several players occupied in the middle of the field.

The shield differs since it spreads out the personnel along the line of scrimmage, three on each side of the long snapper. Three more players stand in front of the punter to provide protection from defenders.

"The advantages are the coverage part of it," Maryland special teams coordinator Lyndon Johnson said on the team's media day, the only time all season Terrapins assistants are available for interviews. "You get guys out a little bit quicker. It simplifies your protection rules a little bit."

The Terps have experienced the upside and the drawbacks of the formation. Opponents have managed to return only 11 of Maryland's 37 punts through the season's first two months. The Terps also saw their streak of 139 games without a punt being blocked, which dated to 1999, snapped when Temple took advantage of a clear path to punter Nick Ferrara on Sept. 24.

It takes some getting used to for players. Navy freshman Pablo Beltran tries not to pay much attention to the formation around him, and understandably so; his job is catching the snap and then punting. But the activity just in front of him wasn't something he was accustomed to once camp started during the summer.

"I really keep my head down, so I really don't see it," Beltran said. "I remember the first time I punted in it in camp, it was different. I saw the guys' feet backing up, and I shanked two punts in a row. [I thought] 'Wow, that's different.' The next day in camp, I adjusted to it and got behind the guy in the middle and followed through and started to hit the ball well."

It's also different for the men on the shield, who must try to turn back would-be punt blockers who get a running start. Maryland uses its three tight ends - Devonte Campbell, Matt Furstenburg and Ryan Schlothauer, all of whom are listed at 6-foot-2 or taller - to protect Ferrara.

Johns said part of the reason the formation faded away in the 1980s was because defenders would employ cut blocks on the players in the shield. A rule change banned blocks below the waist when a kick occurs, but even that doesn't extract all the violence out of the play for guys on the shield.

"I remember when I was a punt return guy and we played the shield, I was like 'Oh, I'm going to get somebody on the shield,' " Campbell said. "It's actually a fun part of the game. Once you get used to it and learn what you have to do, it's fun. Me and the tight ends that are in the shield, we like to think of it as a mini-car crash. We get in the game and I say 'You guys got your insurance ready for this car crash?' "

Johns became Navy's special teams coordinator in 2008 and implemented the scheme in the middle of his first season after Wake Forest simply clamped the Mids' players and left them unable to run downfield and cover a possible return.

"It's not perfect. It has flaws," Johns said. "But for the people we have here, it's probably the best matchup for us. I just wish we had bigger guys for the wall. You look at Arkansas' wall, and they have their D-linemen on it and they're all big guys who can run. Our guys who can run aren't that big, and our big guys can't run."

Much like Johns, Johnson became an aficionado of the scheme almost by accident. Three years ago, Johnson was still at Connecticut and trying to find a long snapper. His only option was a fifth-string walk-on tight end.

He eventually opted for the shield punt thanks to the coverage advantages, then brought it with him to College Park.

"You see it so much now, you have to really try to learn how people are doing it to know how to defend it," Johnson said.

And unlike a quarter-century ago, it doesn't look like it will go away any time soon.

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