Training Camp Primer: Special Teams

Posted Jul 24, 2012

 Rookies Greg Zuerlein and John Hekker are expected to win the kicking and punting jobs, respectively.

For the better part of the past decade, the Rams have had nothing but stability on their special teams. Aside from a stint where they played musical punters, the Rams have employed the same kicker, punter and long snapper for the bulk of this decade.

That began to change before last season when the team released long time snapper Chris Massey though kicker Josh Brown and punter Donnie Jones remained in place.

This offseason, the triumvirate turned over completely as the Rams allowed Jones to walk in free agency and released Brown after using a sixth-round choice on a kicker.

As the Rams enter their 2012 training camp, they have a good idea of who they want to handle those three jobs. But what they don’t have is any guarantee that the young players expected to fill those roles will be up to the challenge.

Kicker (2): Garrett Lindholm, Greg Zuerlein

This job should belong to Zuerlein so long as he lives up to the standard that got him drafted in the sixth round of this year’s NFL Draft.

Zuerlein isn’t the biggest guy but he comes with a booming right leg that made him nearly automatic from long distances in his time at Missouri Western.

The Rams didn’t draft Zuerlein and release Brown with the idea that Zuerlein wouldn’t win the job but he still has to go out and prove that he can handle the job.

Coming from a tiny school, Zuerlein never had the opportunity to kick in front of crowds as large as the ones that will fill NFL stadiums this fall. The competition at this spot won’t sort itself out during any training camp practices but will certainly be worth watching during the preseason games when the lights come on.

Lindholm, meanwhile, showed some accuracy and ability during the offseason program but will have an uphill climb to push Zuerlein. Still, in order to preserve Zuerlein’s leg some during the preseason, Lindholm will likely get some opportunities.

Should Zuerlein somehow falter and Lindholm take advantage of the chances he gets, this could turn into something to at least keep an eye on as the regular season approaches.

Punter (2): John Hekker, Tom Malone

Much like at kicker, the Rams have a pretty good idea of which way they want this job to go but it’s probably fair to say this competition is a bit more open than the one at kicker.

The Rams allowed Jones to walk with the idea that they could sign Hekker as an undrafted free agent out of Oregon State and have Malone waiting in the weeks after signing him back in January.

That plan came to fruition and Hekker agreed to a deal with the Rams quickly after the draft knowing full well he’d be given every opportunity to win the job. Hekker earned a reputation for his hang time and ability to prevent returns at the collegiate level but still will have much to prove in his first NFL training camp.

Malone has a little more experience and could get his share of opportunities to punt in training camp and throughout the preseason.

It’s asking a lot of two rookies to handle the kicking and punting duties but the Rams are confident in Zuerlein and Hekker. The preseason will provide the first important clues as to whether that duo is up to the task.

Long Snapper (2): Jake McQuaide, Travis Tripucka

As strange as it sounds, McQuaide is the longest tenured veteran amongst the Rams specialists. He earned the job in last year’s training camp and replaced Massey in the process.

In his rookie season, McQuaide was essentially mistake-free and proved up to the challenge of handling the job. Entering only his second year in the league, there’s no reason to think he’s not the favorite to again handle the duties in 2012.

However, the new Rams coaching staff doesn’t necessarily have any allegiance to holdovers from the previous regime and it’s possible that they’ll view this as more of a competition than outsiders might.

Tripucka, of course, the son of former NBA player Kelly Tripucka and seemed to be just fine at the role during the offseason program.

Like each of the other spots on this list, the proof will come in the games. Any type of slip ups by either party could create more scrutiny on the position and ultimately decide which player comes out on top.

Returners: A variety of candidates

The Rams don’t have anyone on the roster viewed strictly as a kick or punt returner. That means the players manning those positions will ultimately come from a group of skill position players that will have a chance to make an impact on special teams.

Rookie running back Isaiah Pead is perhaps the first name to jump out as a primary competitor for both jobs. He did a very little bit both in his time at Cincinnati and at the Senior Bowl and should certainly draw a look right away, especially as a kick returner.
Fellow rookie running back Daryl Richardson could also factor into the mix. He worked some at both during the offseason program and has the type of speed to make a difference at the position.

Rookie receiver Chris Givens also brings that home run speed and had plenty of experience returning kicks at Wake Forest. He will almost certainly get a look at that position as well.

And rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins also has experience returning both kicks and punts. He was especially dangerous as a punt returner and could get a long look there though if he’s a starter at corner, he might not be used on special teams as much.

Beyond the rookies, the Rams also have some other options that could get some chances. Danny Amendola, of course, could return to his punt return duties though he’s considered a valuable receiver and might have his special teams reps trimmed some.

Receivers Greg Salas and Austin Pettis also worked some as returners last year and could get another look.

All told, expect Pead to be given every chance to handle some return duties but for a fairly wide open competition to ensue for both spots.