Training Camp Primer: Special Teams

Posted Jul 17, 2013

Tavon Austin figures to add some sizzle to the return game.

Last offseason, the Rams made the bold decision to give their special teams a youthful makeover, turning over the kicking and punting duties to a pair of rookies and sticking with a second-year long snapper.

That decision paid off repeatedly, though, as that trio proved more than capable of handling the duties long term.

Heading into this year’s training camp – set to start on July 25th for the full squad - there doesn’t figure to be the same drama in terms of special teams competition that we’ve seen in the past two seasons.

Kickers (2): Greg Zuerlein, Brett Baer

The Rams spent a sixth-round draft choice on Zuerlein last year and the rookie kicker became an instant star and fan favorite in St. Louis given his penchant for making kicks from absurd distances.

Zuerlein cemented that status and his job with a breakout performance at the team’s Fan Fest in early August as he stole the show with makes from the 65-yard range. He followed that up with one of the best starts by a rookie kicker in league history.

Along the way, Zuerlein set the franchise record for longest field goal with a 60-yarder, a mark that also is the longest by a rookie in league history. All told, he booted seven field goals from 50-plus yards, a franchise record in that category and the second-most by a rookie in league history.

Zuerlein figures to come back even stronger in his second season after he actually got some rest for the first time in a few years. After spending most of his time training for the draft after his final college season, Zuerlein came in and kicked from day one with the Rams. He got some extra rest this offseason and should be as fresh as he’s been since he got into the league.

Baer will get the opportunity to spell Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker and if he proves capable of handling both jobs could make a case for a roster spot elsewhere.

Punters (2): Johnny Hekker, Baer

Like Zuerlein, Hekker had a strong rookie season, earning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in week 5 when he averaged 56.9 yards per punt, setting a franchise record for one game.

Hekker finished the year with a gross average of 45.8 yards and a net of 39.9 yards. Both numbers were good for fourth in franchise history.
In addition to his punting exploits, Hekker also showed a strong right arm that made the Rams dangerous with potential fakes. He completed all three of his pass attempts on fakes last year, including a 2-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal against Seattle.

Like with Zuerlein, Baer will provide relief for Hekker.

Long Snappers (2): Jake McQuaide, Jorgen Hus

McQuaide is the most experienced of the Rams’ three specialists, entering his third season in the NFL. Like Hekker and Zuerlein, though, he’s in it for the long haul.

The Rams signed McQuaide to a four-year extension in early July and plan to have him along with Zuerlein and Hekker around for a long time.

After earning the job as an undrafted rookie two years ago, McQuaide has been perfect in his first two seasons. He posted 139 consecutive clean snaps in 2012 to follow the 150 he put up as a rookie in 2011.

Hus will likely get some opportunities along the way in hopes of potentially catching on.

Returners: A variety of options.

When the Rams moved up to No. 8 in April’s NFL Draft for Tavon Austin, they did so in an effort to do more than just bolster their receiving corps.

Austin brings explosive return ability to a unit that has been in desperate need of it since the turn of the century.

While there will be competition at both returner spots, Austin is almost certain to get the first look at the punt return duties and could also figure into the mix as a kick returner.

Cornerback Janoris Jenkins and receiver Austin Pettis had some punt return duties last year and could also do some work there along with a player like Nick Johnson, who has flashed some potential there in practice.

Receiver Chris Givens handled the bulk of the kick return work last year but may not be asked to repeat that this year considering what is likely to be a further expanded role in the offense.

Running back Isaiah Pead also got some opportunities last year and could factor into the mix. In addition to Austin, fellow rookie receiver Stedman Bailey also has some kick return experience.