Just when all seems lost, the Calgary Stampeders pull a rabbit out of their hat. Rene Paredes’ onside kick to Michael Klukas was one of the most brilliantly executed special teams’ plays in recent memory and completely changed the outcome of the game. For this reason, the play deserves a deep dive to examine the schematic brilliance of Mark Kilam and the mistakes of the Lions’ hands team.
Its helpful before examining this particular play to understand some basic tendencies in onside kick and hands team execution. First of all, we must acknowledge that the hands team usually consists of a front line who’s primary responsibility is to block while only one or two players are actually responsible for catching the ball. That front line blocking scheme is often dictated by a numerical counting system.
Take for instance, this unsuccessful Riders’ onside kick against Ottawa. Each member of the Redblacks’ front line would number off the Riders’ kickoff team, generally going from sideline to kicker, and take responsibility for blocking a designated number. The second line players are responsible for catching the kick and blocking any penetration respectively.
You can see that executed near perfectly above. The frontline slides to the kick side and blocks up the most dangerous numbers, the second line blocker picks up the most dangerous penetrator and Sinopoli has a clear space to catch the kick.
Conversely, the kickoff team spend most of their energy trying to confuse the return team and throw off the numbering system. Most common of these tricks is the late dispersal of the kickoff team, declaring the kick location late and giving limited time to discern blocking assignments. The Stampeders utilized this exact tactic for a successful onside kick in the 2016 Grey Cup.
They used a very different, but equally distracting tactic against the Lions. Stampeders’ special team coordinator Mark Kilam has long been the league’s best, but he seems to have concocted something special for a matchup against BC special teams’ coordinator Taylor Altilio, his one-time mentee in Calgary.
BC lines up for the obvious onside kick in a standard hands team formation, and while Calgary telegraphs the kick side, BC still has to remain spread out to ensure all areas of the field are protected. Calgary presents a much more unusual setup. They have divided their kickoff men in to two distinct waves. The second wave, which includes Klukas, comes from greater depth and don’t remain consistent in their positioning. Klukas (who is pictured just above the 3) originally begins his run from near the hashmark and eventually loops underneath Markeith Ambles.
This scheme capitalizes on two things. First of all, it is clearly designed to capitalize on Klukas’ speed. Klukas stated post-game that the play was designed for him and you can see why. Even when starting ten yards further back than the first wave, he crosses the line at the exact same time. Most importantly however, it makes it nearly impossible for the Lions to maintain a consistent numbering system. Not only are the players at different depths, raising the question of how to prioritize them, but players are swapping positions until the moment the ball is in the air. Klukas himself could have reasonably been counted anywhere from #3 to #7 throughout his run-up. The scheme is specifically designed to free him up through confusion and send him free up the middle.
This is exactly what ends up happening. The Lions frontline prioritizes the blocking of the four first wave players as they slide over, assuming they pose the most immediate threat. Unfortunately, by the time the kick is up, these are not the four most dangerous players. Odell Willis seems to be playing the up back role for BC, and he has keyed on a trailing Eric Rogers along the sideline throughout the entire setup. This was almost certainly an assignment from the coaching staff, who would have reasonably assumed Calgary would be trying to put the ball in the vicinity of their best playmaker. Willis realizes too late that Klukas is actually the pressing threat and gets caught in the no-man’s land between the two players. Kilam’s scheme works and Klukas has a free shot at the ball.
Regardless of the brilliance of the scheme, this onside kick doesn’t work without two key elements. Primarily, the play is possible because Rene Paredes executes a near perfect kick. The ball travels almost 20 yards laterally with excellent hangtime. Paredes makes this play possible. Secondly, Klukas makes an incredible play, out jumping one of the league’s best high-point men in Bryan Burnham.
Klukas almost housed it himself but ultimately it is Eric Rogers who recovers the loose ball. Coming unblocked due to the confusion, his position as a trailing player allows him to be in perfect position to pounce on the pigskin.
Mark Kilam faced the dilemma of facing a man extremely familiar with his playbook and the result was a brilliant schematic innovation. He managed to overload a side to maximize his chances while simultaneously confusing his opponent with misdirection. He utilized the strengths of his lesser known athletes, while exploiting BC’s fear of his stars. All in all, it was a gamechanging stroke of genius and will likely be imitated going forward.