Spruce Mountain High School kick returners Zak Toothaker, left, and Brandon Frey. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

LIVERMORE FALLS — Spruce Mountain was in danger of letting its lead slip away after allowing a late Lake Region touchdown before Brandon Frey fielded the ensuing kickoff on a hop at his own 15.

The Spruce junior waited for his blockers to set up 10 yards in front of him, cut inside and split two defenders at the 30, juked another Laker to the ground at the 35, then bounced to the outside around four more defenders before breaking away around midfield and dashing to the end zone for the touchdown that sealed a 40-26 win and allowed Phoenix fans, players and coaches to breathe a big sigh of relief.

“It made it a pretty comfortable lead again,” said senior Zak Toothaker, who has had his share of long kick returns for the Phoenix.

“That was huge,” said David Frey, the Phoenix coach and Brandon’s father. “Actually, he did it last year down (at) Old Orchard, too. We came out flat and I think they jumped out 12-0 and they kicked the ball and he took it back something like 80 yards. That put some life back into us.”

Unlike the NFL, where they seem to be on life support following recent rule changes, kickoff returns continue to have a big impact at the high school level. 

Whether it’s providing momentum swings like Frey did last Friday night in Naples, or helping teams win the battle for field position, returning kicks is a tone-setter.

No team tries to take advantage of the boost special teams can provide more than Spruce Mountain. 

“Special teams is very important for us,” Brandon Frey said. 

“We’re not big, so we feel one area where we can take advantage is special teams,” David Frey said.

The Phoenix have the speed to take advantage, with Frey, Toothaker, who had an 89-yard kick return for a touchdown on opening night against Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale, and Kayle Stewart, who is currently sidelined by a hamstring injury.

“They’re good athletes,” David Frey said. “They do track, too. Last spring when I went to track meets, it was nice to see we had Brandon, Zak, Kayle Stewart, Brandon Coates, being in the top 10 sprinters at a meet. That got me drooling about our special teams.”

Frey might be gnashing his teeth, though, if his returners didn’t have room to use their speed. Finding the right mix of nine or 10 players to block on kick returns can sometimes be more challenging than finding returners.

“We look at what guys are more aggressive on the defensive side of the ball, and who wants to hit,” David Frey said. “They’ve just got to hold their block for a split second and get (the returners) an opportunity to get to full gear.”

Poland coach Spencer Emerson has speedy, big-play returners such as sophomore Isaiah Hill that he is eager to unleash in the return game, but getting the players in front of them to do their job is still a work in progress.

“We have pretty dynamic athletes in the back,” he said. “We just haven’t blocked it as well as I would like.”

Emerson, in his first season with the Knights, paid close attention to drills during summer and preseason practices to find potential special teams contributors.

“You find out who plays well in space,” he said. “Kickoff is one of those things where a great athlete who isn’t disciplined enough to run your offensive or defensive scheme might be able to do something.”

Younger players can often make their mark on special teams before earning their coaches’ trust and finding a role on offense and/or defense. But returners usually aren’t as green as their blockers. Having the patience to let the blocking set up and find an opening usually requires more experience.

“We wait for our front line to get back and once they set up, we yell, ‘Go,’ and look for a lane,” Toothaker said. “Mine opened right up the middle and I bounced it outside.”

“There’s usually a lane,” Brandon Frey said.

“It’s just a matter of finding it,” Toothaker chimed in. “Usually, it appears in the middle.”

There is typically little middle ground to defending kickoffs. Players need to be able to run fast and like to hit, but also must be disciplined enough to defend their lane assignments.

Emerson teaches his kick coverage unit with a two-phase approach: First, Avoid the first blocker, and second, get downhill on the ball-carrier while maintaining your responsibilities to your lane/area.

Preaching that philosophy is one thing, putting it into into action is another. Last week, they allowed Freeport to take the opening kickoff for a touchdown before rallying to beat the Falcons going away, 43-12.

“We were kind of shellshocked, but I’m proud of how our guys put it behind them,” Emerson said.

Of course, a lot of a return or coverage team’s success depends on how and where the kicker boots it. Toothaker, who also handles kicking duties for Spruce Mountain, said his coaches keep their instructions to him fairly simple. 

“If there is a player we know ahead of time, then I’ll try to kick it away from them. But, usually (coaches) will tell me just to kick it deep,” Toothaker said.

Opponents might stop kicking it deep to Toothaker and Brandon Frey if they continue to find paydirt on a weekly basis. If that means more squib kicks or penalties for kickoffs that go out of bounds, David Frey might not mind.

“It gives us better field position,” he said.

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