Special Teams Coach Rich Bisaccia demonstrates his rapid-fire points on an overhead projector
No rap came from the door, so Rich Bisaccia switched tapes in the projector and pressed on.
Bisaccia is the special teams coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – and, for this week, the South team in the 2005 Senior Bowl. He was in the midst of a ridiculously fast-paced afternoon meeting with most of the squad's 50 players when he stopped to ask Ron Middleton, tight ends/assistant special teams coach, how much of his allotted 20 minutes were left.
Informed that his time was already up, Bisaccia glanced at the double doors to the cramped Riverview Plaza Hotel meeting room and made an executive decision.
"Don't go anywhere, men," said Bisaccia. "I don't hear any knocking. Let's keep going."
Like the rest of the Buccaneers' coaching staff, Bisaccia is working against the clock this week, quixotically trying to get 50 young men he had never met before Sunday ready to play in a nationally-televised game in the course of five days. During this 20-minute session on Wednesday afternoon, he was trying to review the fundamentals of the Bucs' kickoff coverage, kickoff return and punt coverage systems. Individual position meetings would follow; other Buc assistants would soon be beating on the doors.
As a result, Bisaccia kept up a loud and steady stream of instructions for 20…well, 23…minutes, flipping sheets on the projector and backing up his points with video clips. The patter was close to unintelligible to the uninitiated, but the young men in his audience had heard the terminology, or something like it, for years and were able to follow along by paying very close attention and scribbling quick notes in their playbooks.
None of which is to suggest that special teams are an afterthought at the Senior Bowl, at least not with this coaching staff. Bisaccia's time with the players is limited only by the need to immerse them in additional cram sessions on the offensive and defensive game plans. But when the Senior Bowl is over on Saturday evening, the video of the kicking game plays will be as heavily scrutinized as the rest of the game.
"A lot of these men will make their mark on special teams first," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Everybody wants to know if this receiver can run precise routes or if this linebacker can cover running backs, but we also need to find out if they can contribute in the kicking game. We know that players sometimes take a few years to develop in the NFL at their positions, but we'd like to see them play right away on special teams."
Some of the college all-stars in Mobile were already accomplished special teams players on their campuses, but others haven't spent much time blocking and tackling on kicks. At meetings like the one on Wednesday afternoon, Senior Bowl players are beginning to find out where they might fit into an NFL's special teams plans…or at the very least, where they would fit in if they were Buccaneers.
Junior Rosegreen, for instance, might have been surprised to learn that he would play tackle on kickoff return. A sleek defensive back from Auburn, Rosegreen is a speedy, 5-11, 190-pound player, not a 300-pound mauler. On the Bucs' kickoff return unit, however, that makeup qualifies him for tackle.
The five men who line up closest to the kicker on the return team, at least in Tampa, are called tackles, guards and centers, mirroring the T-G-C-G-T arrangement of an offensive line. But they're not big, slow guys. As Bisaccia explained to Rosegreen, the outside cover men on an NFL unit are going to be some of the opposing team's fastest players. The right men to put opposite those hurtling cover men are fast and tough guys who enjoy mixing it up. Their duties include sprinting back 25 yards at the kickoff, turning to confront the cover men and delivering a hard and specifically-placed hit.
As Bisaccia said to Rosegreen during Wednesday's meeting: "I'm telling you right now, if you get to camp that's where you're playing. The fastest guys in the league play out there too, so we put guys there who can run, have a little nastiness to them and can play in grass. So don't wonder why you're playing up front when you're a DB."
LSU DE Marcus Spears and Texas FB Will Matthews, on the other hand, are well-suited to play the two players who come together in front of the deep return men and bash into the wedge. Big but mobile, they might fill the same sort of special teams roles that Buccaneer players like Ellis Wyms and Jameel Cook have excelled in.
Scouts attending the Senior Bowl and its week of practices have numerous other special teams-related questions about the players on the South team. Can luxury back Cadillac Williams also help his team as a punt and kickoff returner? Can Tennessee punter Dustin Colquitt reliably provide an NFL-quality gross average? Can linebackers like Louisville's Robert McCune and Alabama's Cornelius Wortham beat the kickoff coverage consistently and make tackles downfield?
Bisaccia is busy making evaluations such as these for the Buccaneers' internal purposes, and those are likely to be recommendations he'll be working on for several more weeks. What is not in question is how hard the South players have worked on special teams, obviously understanding the importance of that phase of the game.
In fact, Bisaccia started Wednesday's meetings by praising the players extensively for their practice-field efforts. Much of what the Bucs' staff is trying to do is being installed on the field, on the run, and the players have worked hard to pick it up in just a few days.
"If you look at that tape [from practice], your effort is phenomenal," said Bisaccia to the players. "There are coaches coming up to us talking about how impressive our tempo is. That's how we do it in Tampa, and you guys ought to be commended for the way you practice. You have to quit making mistakes, now, but you are practicing incredibly hard."
Kudos delivered, Bisaccia launched into his rapid-fire delivery, stressing the names and locations of the five kickoff coverage lanes on each side of the field. Players had to get the lane terminology right in sudden call-and-response moments – "hash, split, numbers, half and boundary" – and know what the responsibilities were for the man in each of those roles.
Five minutes later, they were absorbing kick return information, moving on quickly to punt coverage. Bisaccia did what he could with the time allotted. And as the knock finally came and the doors were opened, he had a little tip for the group of special teams hopefuls.
"Why not come down to the meeting early tomorrow morning?" asked Bisaccia. "If we start early, we can get more in."