Young Special Teams Unit Answering Early Questions

Posted Sep 20, 2012

Kicker Greg Zuerlein, long snapper Jake McQuaide and punter Johnny Hekker (left to right) form the league's youngest core special teams group.

In his role as the captain of the special teams, Brit Miller is in charge of perhaps the youngest unit on the youngest team in the league.

Consider the core of the special teams units: the Rams have a rookie punter, rookie kicker, two rookie kick returners, a second-year long snapper and a variety of other rookies in key roles on coverage units. A rookie even leads the coverage units in tackles so far.

As captain, Miller isn’t concerned so much with the preparation level of his young teammates as making sure they have the right mindset each and every week on the field.

“You’ve got to fire those guys up,” Miller said. “They are already ready to go but special teams that’s a whole different mentality. All of the thinking is done before you get on the field. It’s just reacting, you know what’s going on and the best way to defeat anything you haven’t seen is just by playing hard and being physical. That normally does the job.”

If the early returns on those youngsters are any indication, Miller, fellow veteran special teams expert Mario Haggan and special teams coach John Fassel are pushing all the right buttons to get the youngsters to produce.

Kicker Greg Zuerlein has been perfect on his scoring tries and dominant in helping establish field position on kickoffs. Punter Johnny Hekker has twice come up with booming, well-placed punts at key moments. Safety Rodney McLeod has wreaked havoc on the coverage units.

And that’s just a small sample of the work that’s being done by the special forces.

“The young guys are doing a heck of a job,” Miller said. “They are leading us on our leaderboards in our special team room which is what we hoped for. They are showing up where we need them to and we are proud of them right now.”

When Fassel came to St. Louis from Oakland, where he’d worked with two of the league’s best kickers and punters, the Rams took a long look at all phases of the team and decided it was time to get younger and more inexpensive with their specialists.

Punter Donnie Jones was allowed to walk as a free agent and kicker Josh Brown was released. Fassel and the Rams scouting staff discovered Zuerlein at tiny Missouri Western and used a sixth-round pick on him in April’s Draft.

Soon after the draft ended, Fassel and the Rams called Hekker and offered him the prime opportunity to win the punting job.

Although it’s an early sample size, Fassel has been blown away with the way that no moment has proved too big for his two young legs. 

“I’ve had the chance to be a part of guys that have been very good, but later in their careers,” Fassel said. “But with Greg, he’s got great potential. So far he’s produced and if he can keep that up then the sky’s the limit. And for Johnny really. You know, two young guys with big legs with a lot of room for growth. It’s exciting to coach them.”

That Zuerlein is off to a fast start should come as a surprise to no one considering his dynamic performance in preseason and training camp. He has yet to miss any kicks inside 60 yards and it seems he hasn’t done so even in practice.

Through two games, he’s connected on all six of his field goal tries with a long of 48 yards. He’s also chipped in four extra points for a total of 22 points scored, good for fourth in the league.

A clean operation with second-year long snapper Jake McQuaide and Hekker holding has been a product of instant chemistry among the Rams’ three young specialists.

“It’s awesome just to have each other as a support system,” Hekker said. “We are all young guys. We are all working hard just to improve daily. We all have similar goals, similar mindsets so it’s just been a really good experience. We are all hard working dudes who just want to perfect our craft and stick around as long as we can. Nothing is guaranteed here so we are all just working to make it happen.”

Zuerlein has also been effective on kickoffs, knocking seven of 12 true attempts through the end zone for touchbacks with 10 of those kicks going into the end zone. Occasionally, Fassel asks Zuerlein to change it up and try to set up an opponent for a tough return with a directional kick.

Those kicks plus excellent downfield coverage from the likes of Miller, Haggan, McLeod, Josh Hull and others have limited the first two opponents to an average starting field position of the 19.4 yard line, good for fifth in the NFL.

Fassel spent four years with the Raiders and Sebastian Janikowski, their supersized kicker. Zuerlein is nowhere near the size of Janikowski yet he’s able to produce as much leg strength despite his 6-foot, 187-pound frame.

“He’s not a big guy,” Fassel said. “You see him in the mall; he looks like any other 24 year-old walking around. But his leg speed is incredible. One of the best things about him is he gets the ball up fast. He’s not like a low trajectory kicker. I mean, that thing gets up fast and the distance is there. Most of his balls are pretty true; it’s not a right to left or left to right. He’s got a chance to be pretty good.”

So good, in fact, that Fassel said the Rams have a “pretty deep” line for where they feel comfortable letting Zuerlein kick. Nodding in the affirmative when asked if 65 yards was reasonable, Fassel preferred to play it coy on the exact distance but did offer a little clue.

Safe to say, though, that had the Rams and Redskins switched places in week 2 with the Rams needing a 62-yard field goal to tie late in the game, there’d have been no hesitation to give Young G.Z. a shot.

“I’ll put it this way, he can set an NFL record if the conditions are right,” Fassel said.

While Zuerlein has been humming along as expected the first two weeks, Hekker has had a little bit more of a rollercoaster ride.

On the Rams’ first punt attempt of the season, Hekker mishandled the snap. He still got the punt away but knows disaster was narrowly avoided.

“The ball hit my hands, I had it for a second and the next thing I know, I didn’t,” Hekker said. “I was a little nervous, I guess you could say. It could have been worse, they could have been rushing. Guys were protecting their butts off and I was able to pick it up and get off the punt. I guess if you start with a low point you have nowhere to go but up.”

Hekker didn’t wait even a week to bounce back. He had his best punt of the day in Detroit at a crucial time, booming a 57-yard punt in the fourth quarter that flipped field position from the Rams 22 to Detroit’s 8 after a 6-yard loss on the return and a 7-yard penalty.

Picking up where he left off in week 2 against Washington, Hekker was dynamite in averaging 54.3 yards with a 48.7 net against the Redskins. Included in those kicks was another late kick, this time for 66 yards that again flipped the field at a crucial moment.

“I really try not to think about it,” Hekker said of punting in big moments. “You just clear your mind as much as you can. I know you get backed up late in the game and you could think about it quite a bit but I just take a big, deep breath, breathe it out and just take the field like I do any other team, even like in practice.”

Again, small sample size, but Hekker currently sits sixth in the NFL in gross average at 50.5 yards per attempt and 10th in the league in net average at 41.8. The best part for Hekker is that he’s only scratching the surface on his vast potential.

“He’s been inconsistent, but you see his good balls that he hits can be elite in the NFL and if we can get him, like I’ve said, to be consistently, not that it has to be 10-for-10, but nine out of 10, if he hits them how he can hit his good balls, then we’ve got a heck of a weapon,” Fassel said.
Of course, while Zuerlein and Hekker are doing the kicking, they’re also getting a lot of help from a mixture of rookies, young veterans and the elder statesmen in Haggan and Miller on coverage units.

McLeod leads the team in special teams tackles and after a couple of hiccups in the season opener, the coverage across the board has been better.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement, of course. The Rams return units haven’t had many opportunities to do much but when they have; they haven’t exactly been able to create much room.

On just two kick returns, the Rams are averaging 18.5 yards per attempt with rookie Isaiah Pead getting both opportunities. On punt returns, Danny Amendola has had some moments with five returns averaging 7 yards per attempt, including a long of 22.

“We’ve had, really, one chance to bring a legitimate ball out that’s not more than five or six (yards) deep,” Fassel said. “So it’s been good because you have a lot of chances to practice some simple blocking techniques and if you can get a game where they kick it into the wind or a guy that can’t just bang it, then I anticipate us being successful on kickoff return. Punt return, you know Danny’s a guy that wants to get his hands on the ball and get a return every time. So, two games into it, I’m very optimistic about our success later in the season as a return team.”

The job Fassel has done melding the youngsters with a few select veterans has earned early praise and admiration from his players. Nicknamed “Bones,” the wiry Fassel has brought high energy and detailed instruction to his group.

“Coach Fassel is doing a great job,” Hekker said. “This is a hard working team that is going to do some good things in coverage like we are. Special teams is rolling right along, right where we want to be so far. He’s got a lot of guys believing in each other and really working together as a cohesive unit and we are looking just to build and build and build every week and just get better.”

Moving forward, the key for the special teams will be to find the consistency necessary to hold up every week against some of the game’s most explosive returners. This week, it’s Chicago’s Devin Hester, perhaps the best to ever do it.

Down the schedule a bit, Rams nemesis Patrick Peterson of Arizona looms twice along with other dangerous returners like Seattle’s Leon Washington and Minnesota’s Percy Harvin.

With knowledgeable veterans like Miller and Haggan and the direction of Fassel, the Rams hope their young special teamers can continue to take care of business the rest of the way.

“(Fassel) brings his karate mentality and things like that to us,” Miller said. “I have learned a lot just by being around him already. I’ve been fortunate to have some good coaches when it comes to that so I feel like we’ll continue to grow as a group. We are definitely not to our peak yet, that’s for sure.”