– The Rams were back on the practice field Sunday morning but in a different capacity than the first three days of camp. Coach Jeff Fisher opted for a closed-to-the-public special teams only workout before the entire roster puts on the pads for the first full squad, padded practice scheduled for Monday afternoon.
– Special teams coach John Fassel brought his usual burst of energy to a group workout that lasted a little more than an hour and featured some spirited moments.
– Punter Johnny Hekker continues to knock the stuffing out of the ball and has established himself early as someone ready to make a big jump in year two.
– Hekker had a strong rookie season but, by his own admission, was inconsistent at times. Fassel believes Hekker is going to continue to develop that consistency as the Rams head toward the 2013 season.
“We have some goals for him,” Fassel said. “I think with him it’s consistency. Towards the end of the season he really became more consistent. We’ve got some directional punts and he’s working right and left so we’ve got some things that I probably would rather prefer not talking about but consistency and his holding ability, too.”
– While each normal practice includes some special teams periods, those workouts don’t allow for as much work and evaluation as a practice such as Sunday’s. Fassel likes to use these practices as a chance to really evaluate potential core special teams guys. While guys like Hekker, kicker Greg Zuerlein and long snapper Jake McQuaide are pretty well set in their jobs, there’s plenty of room for a young guy to steal a roster spot by performing well in coverage units or as a blocker on return units or even as a returner.
– Sunday saw plenty of chances for those guys and it resulted in some spirited competition. At the end of practice, Fassel put his group through competitive one on one drills where one player protects the “returner” (in this case a big, blue tackling dummy) and one is the gunner. The idea is to let the players be a bit physical but also work on technique to shed blocks or use blocks.
“To me they are huge,” Fassel said. “We try to do drills and then at some point, like we did today in the last 20 minutes, we have got to open the field up and let them run from the line of scrimmage all the way to the returner to see if he’s fast, if he can get off blocks and then to see if he can be a blocker and so we have got so many guys, I think there might have been 65 guys out here for special teams practice so we try to split up the drills so there are short numbers in the lines so we can see everybody on tape. When we get into the preseason, everybody might only get a rep or two per phase.”
– The aforementioned final drill did result in some feistiness as linebacker Darren Bates and Josh Hull exchanged words on multiple occasions. It appeared to start when Bates caught Hull with a big block on a punt return that would have sprung Tavon Austin for a long return. The two then engaged again during the final drill. Fassel said he doesn’t mind the competitive aspect of the drill so long as it remains reasonable.
“I love it,” Fassel said. “To be a special teams guy, you have got to be a little wild and crazy. You can’t be passive so I have just got to make sure we are not fighting and not playing penalty football but you have got to have a little fight as a teams guy and this is a chance for them to show it.”
– Like Hekker, Zuerlein has been impressive in the early days of camp. Fassel said that the plan for Zuerlein in the offseason was to finally allow him some rest. Since he returned from an injury following his junior year, he’d basically been kicking for two consecutive years. Fassel believes that Zuerlein was a bit fatigued toward the end of the season and he wanted his young kicker to spend the offseason gaining leg strength so he could avoid muscle fatigue and be at full strength for more of the season.
“He started on fire and then he kind of was just (OK) toward the end of the season,” Fassel said. “A lot of that had to do with just a young guy who kind of got worn out from the combines and all the workouts in the preseason and the spring. We gave him a lot of time off after the season to kind of freshen himself up, got back in the weight room and his strength has improved so his ability and success later in the season should improve.”
– As for the returner job, that’s something that will sort itself out over the course of camp though it’d be folly to think Austin won’t be involved in some way. Austin worked as a returner during Sunday’s practice and that will continue. How much or the extent of his work there will depend on his workload on offense, according to Fassel.
“I think that’s to be determined,” Fassel said. “We’ve still got a ways to go before that but it definitely is a factor. What’s his load on offense? Is it too much to do both punts and kickoffs? The things with kickoffs nowadays is half the time they are touchbacks so the reps are less than they used to be as far as a returner. But I think it’s to be determined what’s his load on offense. He could be a punt and kick return guy or maybe just one or none based on length of the season based on how much work he’s getting.”
– Other alternatives in the return game also are getting opportunities and that includes the likes of Nick Johnson and Isaiah Pead. Johnson, in particular, has been getting plenty of opportunities.
– That’ll do it for today. The Rams are back on the practice field tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. and that practice will be open to the public. It will be the first full-squad padded workout so it should bring some noise.
– Thanks for reading.
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