Rookie Specialists Embracing Opportunity

Posted May 12, 2012

For a roster that’s undergone much change and turnover the past five years or so, two of the few constants have remained at kicker and punter. Until this year.

With Donnie Jones and Josh Brown firmly entrenched at punter and kicker, respectively, the Rams turned over nearly every other position on the roster in the past half-decade. Even long snapper saw a change last year as Jake McQuaide replaced Chris Massey.

Now, the Rams are not only replacing Brown and Jones but they are going with a full fledged youth movement to do so.

When they open the season at Detroit on Sept. 9, there’s a strong chance they’ll do so with rookies manning the kicker and punter positions.

The Rams drafted Missouri Western’s Greg Zuerlein and signed Oregon State punter John Hekker as an undrafted free agent with the idea of plugging both into jobs right away.

For some coaches that might be a scary proposition but Rams coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead showed no fear in releasing Brown, letting Jones sign with Houston and moving aggressively to get Zuerlein and Hekker in the fold.

“I have no problem whatsoever,” Fisher said on draft day. “They’re only going to get better. I have no problem whatsoever. This punter in particular is very, very talented.”

Throwing gas on the fire, Snead also pointed out that Hekker will likely handle holding duties for Zuerlein and that McQuaide isn’t exactly a grizzled veteran.

“And just to scare coach a little bit we didn’t mention rookie holder as well,” Snead said, laughing. “That would be the punter. And a second-year long snapper we really like.”

Clearly, for the Rams to make those moves and replace long time, accomplished veterans with rookies takes a certain amount of confidence in the youngsters. Hekker and Zuerlein arrived at this weekend’s rookie minicamp hoping to make strong first impressions on Fisher and staff.

Neither Zuerlein nor Hekker did much actual kicking Friday or Saturday as Fisher said he wanted both to get a handle on the mechanics the Rams expect before having them do too much kicking.

Although the Rams showed plenty of confidence in Zuerlein and Hekker, both players are approaching this as though nothing has been guaranteed. The Rams have punter Tom Malone and kicker Garrett Lindholm on the roster to help provide competition.

“Definitely,” Hekker said. “I certainly knew I’d get a shot coming here and being able to compete with Tom (Malone), I couldn’t be more excited. It’s a great opportunity; really the only team that had a better opportunity was Carolina because they had nobody. So to be on a team with one of the best situations for a rookie punter, I couldn’t be more thrilled.”

Likewise, Zuerlein is taking nothing for granted.

“It’s a great opportunity but that’s all it is right now, an opportunity,” Zuerlein said. “I have to hold up my responsibility and come out here and earn that job. Nothing is going to be handed to me.”

Zuerlein, of course, comes with a little more of a resume after the Rams used a sixth-round choice on him in last month’s NFL Draft.

That came on the heels of one of the best kicking performances at the college level in years. Zuerlein was an All American in 2011 after he converted 21 consecutive field goals and made all nine of his attempts from 50-plus yards including a pair from 58 yards out.

Now, Zuerlein’s job is to handle the transition from tiny Missouri Western to kicking in front of crowds about 10 times as large as what he’s used to. Not that that’s high on Zuerlein’s list of concerns as he steps into the league.

“I’ve been asked that a lot but I don’t think about that stuff,” Zuerlein said. “The number of people in the stands or watching on TV doesn’t have any impact on how I do my job. It’s up to me to approach every kick the same way and put it through.”

The Rams’ interest in Zuerlein was fairly well documented leading into the draft after special teams coach John Fassel worked him out twice in the weeks leading to the draft. Hekker’s name, though, wasn’t as well known.

In a draft class loaded with talented punters, Hekker’s name didn’t pop up as much as others but that didn’t keep teams from covertly coveting him. Fassel attended Hekker’s pro day and the pair began to develop a strong relationship.

“The interest was high from the get go, both ways, me and him and him and me,” Hekker said. “It was a great relationship we formed and I couldn’t be more excited to work with him.”

As soon as the draft was over, Hekker’s phone exploded with calls from the Rams and Buffalo vying for his services. After evaluating the potential for landing a job in the league, Hekker knew the Rams made the most sense.

“We both kind of knew St. Louis was the best place for me and when they called first it kind of confirmed that in my mind,” Hekker said. “He got on the phone and said we want to pull the trigger on St. Louis. We did and I couldn’t be happier with the decision we made and I am just so happy to be here.”

In terms of what Hekker brings to the table for the Rams, he said his specialty is directional kicking with an emphasis on limiting return opportunities.

As a four-year starter, Hekker finished his career as one of the most prolific punters in Oregon State history. He logged the third-best career punt yardage average in school history at 41.3 yards. In 2011, he averaged 44.0 yards per punt.

“I’ve been directional all four years at Oregon State,” Hekker said. “We prided ourselves on being able to limit teams to a third of the field and try to keep them pinned. I work on that and pride myself on my going in game, getting inside the 20, inside the 10 and pinning back offenses. That is what I will try to do my best here.”

Hekker and Zuerlein had never met before this weekend but that didn’t mean the pair hadn’t kept tabs on each other after discovering they’d be playing together.

And though there will be an inherit amount of pressure on both rookies to perform right away, the duo is looking forward to an opportunity to grow up together in the league and lean on each other as they find their way. 

“Definitely,” Hekker said. “That’s going to be a great thing. At Oregon State, I came in at the same time with our snapper and we had a great four years together, played every game and didn’t miss a snap with him and I look forward to the same thing with Greg. He’s an amazing kicker. I went and saw a lot of his stuff online and he’s an amazing talent I just can’t wait to get out on the field and work with him, hold some field goals and put through some deep ones.”