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Position Battles: Special Teams

Posted Aug 4, 2015

The Rams have built an elite special teams unit by fostering plenty of competition early in training camp.

The Rams have had one of the best special teams units in the league for some time now, and one of the reasons why is the competition the team fosters in training camp.

Monday’s practice, which focused solely on the unit, is an example of where players who may be on the fringes of the roster can begin to make enough of an impression to secure a coveted spot. It’s an opportunity for players to show that they have both unique physical and mental traits that can allow them to be successful in their special teams roles.

“They’re a little different, yeah,” special teams coordinator John Fassel said of players who excel on his unit. “And probably like their coach, really all kind of crazy, a little whack. They’re a little different, which is good. If you’re not, then it’s probably not for you.”

Aside from punter Johnny Hekker, kicker Greg Zuerlein, and long snapper Jake McQuaide, there are some clear core members of the special teams unit. Players like Daren Bates, Chase Reynolds, Cody Davis, Cory Harkey, and Benny Cunningham have all become vital to the team’s performance in the area.

And the mixture of physical and mental traits is why Fassel recently showed the team film of Bates’ first special teams practice from 2013. That day made an impression on Fassel and the coaching staff because they had never seen Bates in pads before.

“You think, ‘This guy might have something to him. He may be scrappy and he may be tough.’ But you don’t know until you can go out there and bang with the pads on,” Fassel said. “Obviously that day kind of woke everybody up as far as the coaches and said, ‘Let’s keep an eye on this guy. Let’s see what happens in the games.’ And he did it in the games.”

That’s what many of the young players were facing prior to Monday, and will continue to face throughout the preseason. And while Bates noted that it’s good to remember where you started, he said he wasn’t simply using himself or his situation as a guide for younger players.

“Everybody is different,” Bates said. “I just try to tell them to do what you know you can do. Use your strengths when you’re out here because that’s going to keep you alive, keep you going, keep you through your drills. So when you use your strengths, and not try to think too much and just play ball, you’ll be alright.”

For players like Bates and Reynolds, who are listed at other positions, contributing heavily on special teams is a way that keeps them on a roster. And it’s something both players embrace.

“You always want to play your position, so I do want to get out there and make some tackles on defense, get an interception, make some big plays for the defense. But I know where my home is,” Bates said. “Special teams is where it’s at. That’s where I can make plays, I can go out and be myself, and show my athleticism and just play free.”

“I heard a coach say one time, ‘It’s hard to make it in the NFL, and it’s harder to stay.’ And that’s true,” Reynolds said. “You can do whatever you want in the 2014 season, but there are always new guys coming up. You’re always getting a little older.”

And while the contributions from the core special teams players may go unnoticed by many, that’s not at all the case with their teammates.

“For the most part, I rely on them. And they’re very, very reliable players,” Hekker said. “They’ve been coached by the best special teams coach in the country. And, man, we have fun doing what we’re doing. I think that’s special to our special teams unit.”