ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It’s not too difficult to find people that are passionate about football. However, finding people that are as passionate about special teams isn’t as easy of a task.
Often dubbed the “third unit” of a team by head coaches — to not undermine it’s importance — special teams typically flies under the radar. The exception? The 32 special teams coordinators and their small staffs.
There is passion, which all special teams coordinators should have, and then there is Brock Olivo passion.
“I could go on a lot with this stuff because I’m passionate — unapologetically passionate — about it,” Olivo said when talking about the intricacies of special teams.
Olivo, the Broncos’ new special teams coach, exudes his love for special teams in every waking moment of the day, not only dating back to January during his first day on the job in Denver, but back to his college days where he was a star running back and special teams all-star.
While his life has taken many twists and turns, his desire for special teams remained unwavering, and that’s just what the Broncos were looking for to create excitement and buy-in for the unit. In his meeting with the media during OTAs, it was difficult to decipher whether opening day was seconds away or months away with the energy that Olivo brought to the room.
In his press conference lasting roughly 10:37, he used the phrase “fired up” four times and the word “awesome” an additional four times. Compare that to a former special teams coordinator named Bill Belichick, Olivo may have used those words of excitement more in his one press conference than Belichick has used his entire career — to the media at least.
During the same presser, Olivo gave a 331-word answer discussing the different characteristics of a punt returner and kick returner. To put this in perspective, a typical answer from a player or coach rarely exceeds 100 words.
It’s not to say that outward passion translates to success — as is certainly not the case with Belichick — but excitement for the third unit may be just what this team needs. After struggling mightily with both kick and punt return in 2016, the special teams unit was a point of contention at times during the season.
Now, with phrases like “all smiles,” “loved it,” “happy for him” and “love that guy” used every minute by the leader of the unit, the Broncos hope to not only eliminate any contention within the team, but have a buy-in on special teams participation, starting with the rookies.
“I’ve got to say that John [Elway] and Matt [Russell] and all the guys did an awesome job in the draft, and we’re fired up because we’ve got some return potential,” Olivo said. “So, yes, needless to say, we were all smiles after draft day.”
Denver’s draft picks of Carlos Henderson, Brendan Langley and Isaiah McKenzie are all legitimate candidates to factor into the return game. Along with returners, Olivo will look to the majority of the rookies to participate on special teams in different ways.
“A lot of these guys that come in from college where they were the superstar and haven’t played special teams for two or three years. Some of them have never played special teams in the four phases,” he said. “In training camp is where we can do a lot of really good evaluating. Once we get the pads on and see who’s a disrupter.”
It will be easier for Olivo to get buy-in from players as he can tell his personal story. During his collegiate career at Missouri, Olivo was awarded the first Mosi Tatupu Award for the nation’s best special teams player while also setting Missouri’s career rushing and touchdown record.
Olivo has a few tangible changes to the approach to special teams instead of just relying on his passion. In the team meeting room, where players spend many hours a week, he put up massive special teams charts to create a season-long competition within the unit.
“One of the things that we do during the season is keep a running points total. We grade guys weekly,” he explained. “So we have a points leader. We go week to week. We put that week’s point leader’s picture front and center so everyone can see it. At the end of the year, we tally up the points and name a points leader. It’s based on a bunch of different criteria, but it creates interest and competition…We’ll all go to dinner at the end of the year and celebrate the winner. It’s awesome. It creates that brotherhood.”
It’s not just Olivo who’s all in on this unit, either. Head coach Vance Joseph not only preaches the importance of special teams, but he also backs up his words with actions.
“To have a head coach, who, number one, invests in special teams — I mean, he’s at all my meetings. He’s listening in, and he knows what’s going on. I love that. And then he’s right there in practice, getting in the thick of things, and you can hear him,” Olivo said. “I mean, just his presence there is huge for us, especially to the young guys, the rookies. They say, ‘OK, the coach is here during special teams practice.’ This is saying something. It’s awesome. VJ gets it, and I’m very fortunate to be his special teams coordinator.”
Football hasn’t been his only background in life, either and it’s prevalent when talking to him. With word choices such as “Hodgepodge,” “Auspicious,” “Acumen” and “Gregarious” used in a single conversation, Olivo’s vocabulary isn’t the norm for an NFL coach. However, his quirky, unapologetic love for special teams — not just the game — could play a major role in a revival of Denver’s special teams unit in 2017.
“Special teams is kind of a niche,” he said. “And so we do everything we can to make it feel as special as it is.”