When Old Dominion's football team convenes Sunday afternoons for weekly post-mortems, the first thing head coach Bobby Wilder does is address special teams play and hand out awards for individual performances on the kick units.
Players receive gift certificates to Chuck E. Cheese — kidding, they get T-shirts — for kicks, returns and tackles, and things as underpublicized as blocks and hustle plays.
"I tell them all the time," Wilder said, "the media will take care of the offense and defense. We'll take care of the special teams."
It's all part of Wilder's philosophy for building a program to compete in one of the best Football Championship Subdivision leagues in the nation. Athletes and emphasis, he believes, give ODU an immediate chance to succeed on special teams.
"We feel like in order to have an opportunity to win in the CAA, we're going to have to win in special teams," Wilder said. "Any coach'll tell you, if you can win two out of three phases, you're probably going to win the game.
"I'd like to think we can win the special teams phase in every game we go into. I don't know if we can always win on offense or defense — it's going to be a challenge — but I'd like to think that we can win on special teams if we put the time and effort into it."
The emphasis was apparent in last Saturday's 40-17 win at Georgia State, when the Monarchs blocked two punts — one for a scoop-and-score touchdown — and placekicker Jarod Brown hit two long field goals. Nationally recognized punter Jonathan Plisco continued to boom kicks.
It was equally apparent last season in Week 8 when ODU blocked three punts in a 28-14 win at Hampton University. One produced a touchdown, the other two set up short, fall-into-the-end-zone touchdown drives.
"If you take away those blocks, it's a toss-up," Wilder said.
As the Monarchs prepare to host Hampton at 6 p.m. Saturday, it's a safe bet that the Pirates will attempt to avoid a repeat of last season's punt protection meltdown. ODU, meanwhile, will practice and prepare as it has since Wilder arrived.
Every practice, every meeting begins with special teams. Punt and kickoff teams on Tuesdays, punt block/return and kickoff return on Wednesdays. Full reviews of all special teams units on Thursdays and Fridays.
Nearly every starter plays on at least one of the special teams. Wilder and the staff refer to special teams as "all-star teams" because they're comprised of starters from offense and defense, as well as productive and promising younger players.
"Our guys know that if you need a play off, it's coming from offense or defense," Wilder said. "It's not coming from special teams."
The staff routinely tracks what it calls "hidden yardage" from special teams — advantages from the comparative kicking teams.
"We were plus-14 yards against Georgia State," Wilder said, with the enthusiasm of a guy who had found a couple of C-notes in an old pair of pants.
Michael Zyskowski, who played at Maine and then worked with Wilder on the Black Bears' staff, is the special teams coordinator. But each coach on the staff, Wilder included, has duties on the various special teams units.
"As a head coach, you can talk about it," Wilder said. "You can get up and give your speech about it, but if you don't put the time into it and you don't emphasize it, then it's not going to be that important to the kids. They'll see it, they'll see right through what you're saying."
After he was hired, Wilder spoke to Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer about special teams. The Monarchs' staff has visited Blacksburg to study the Hokies' techniques. Wilder said that Zyskowski routinely talks to Virginia special teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter, because they like what the Cavaliers' kick teams do.
Like most programs, the Monarchs study and crib where they can. As a start-up program, they figure they need every edge they can find.
"It's the time, it's the emphasis that's the biggest thing," Wilder said, "because really, it's not that sexy. … You get in the paper and on TV for touchdown catches and sacks and all that stuff. Not necessarily for being the left guard on a punt and making a block so Plisco can get it off, and then running down the field filling a lane. That's not necessarily what gets the highlights."
WHO: Hampton (2-0) at Old Dominion (2-0).
WHEN: 6 p.m.
WHERE: Foreman Field, Norfolk.