Coaches Corner — Field position

In his first installment of "Coaches Corner", Oklahoma Director of Football Operations Merv Johnson talks about the importance field position has on the outcome of a game

The longer I'm around this game of football the more I'm certain that the more things change the more they are the same. You've heard me on the Sooner broadcasts so many times say how critical field position, turnovers and the kicking game are to the ultimate outcome. Those things alone can keep a game between two mismatched teams very close and make a game between two evenly matched opponents become quite lop-sided. Those three things are primarily what I chart during the broadcast, because they give you great insight into how a team is playing and most likely, why the outcome was what it was.

Measure field position for each team as to where they started a possession, a possession being when your offense has the football. In a normal game each team will have 12-14 possessions. You achieve good field position by moving the ball on offense, having a defense that stuffs the opponent when you can't move it any more or score points. A kicking play where you relinquish possession of the football to your opponent is critical because so many bad things can happen.

We used to keep records when I coached at Arkansas University that pretty well bore out belief on how critical field position was. They were kept during both one platoon and two platoon eras and there wasn't much difference. Statistics from three of our good teams and one very mediocre team reflected the following figures.

If we could make the opposition start their possession behind their 30-yard line they only scored a touchdown 6.5 percent of the time: (22-of-334 possessions). When starting between their own 30 to 50 they scored a touchdown 16.5 percent of the time: (23-of-140 possessions). When they started between the 50 and our 30-yard line they scored a touchdown 36 percent of the time: (17-of-47 possessions). And if they started inside our 30-yard line they scored a touchdown 70 percent of the time: (14-of-20 possessions). Ironically, in that mediocre year I mentioned, the opposition scored 11 touchdowns in 14 possessions when we gave them the ball inside our 30 — does that tell you anything?

Those old-timers that were my mentors weren't far off when they professed that if you make your opponent start on his side of the 50 every time, he'll usually score no more than one touchdown on you. That's why your offense needs to punch out a first down or two when you start backed up in your own territory so that if you stall out your punt teams can kick it to their end of the field.

One of the greatest happenings in the Orange Bowl was the Sooners taking the second half kickoff, bringing it out, then running over seven minutes off the clock before turning the ball over to FSU deep in their own territory. They made a great statement on the effort with a 3-0 score at that time.

Obviously, you cannot turn the ball over with fumbles or interceptions ever. But especially when you're backed up in your own territory. Read those inside-your-own-30 percentages again. Risk in play selection must be taken into account when your offense is backed up. As you approach midfield and enemy territory, you can open things up.

In the kicking game there are many opportunities to create field position or scores with runbacks and blocks. Any amount of practice work and effort will pay big dividends here. But the critical, critical aspect is what you can give up in the way of field possession and scoring with poor play. Blocked kicks, long runbacks or getting fooled on fakes are killers. The field position, scores and embarrassment when this happens is devastating.

Next time you watch a game, especially on TV, you might try keeping statistics in these areas. It will amaze you how consistently these figures are close to the ones we've covered.

Merv Johnson is currently the Director of Football Operations at Oklahoma and also serves as a color analyst on the Sooner Radio Network.

In his 19 years as an OU assistant coach, he helped the Sooners build a 150-67-5 record, win a national championship and five Big Eight Conference titles and post seven bowl game victories.

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