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Punt returner key question Blue needs to answer
By Ken Palmer
The Giants arrived in training camp with a lot of their special teams pretty well in place. The one key question was who would be in charge of returning punts. We’ll get to that.
On the first day of camp, coach Tom Coughlin mentioned punt returns, as well as opponents’ kickoff drive start and net punting, as the areas in which the Giants needed the greatest improvement.
The Giants went out and got Jay Feely to handle the kickoffs. He has a much stronger leg than Steve Christie, who handled the job last year. The Giants believe their punt coverage unit could be improved more so by better, tougher play than by improving the players. That’s been an emphasis during camp. Needless to say, they’re set at punter, with 18-year vet Jeff Feagles.
Special teams coach Mike Sweatman said that special teams are a challenge year to year, and that even if you have the key specialists – like the kicker, punter, etc. – that you’re always going to need more from the guys that fly under the radar.
“Every year you want the special teams to improve because you are rebuilding your special teams,” Sweatman said. “Essentially you are working with the back half of the roster, and that’s the part of the roster that changes each and every year. So you have to regroup, retrain and readjust.
“Special teams is one of the more difficult skills to pick up and you’re talking about your drafted players. These are generally players that didn’t play a lot of special teams in college. So you’re teaching them a new position. Not just new schemes or new techniques, but a total new concept of going on the field on fourth down and trying to make something happen.”
Here are the questions New York needs answered for its special teams to be a fully-rounded unit in ’05.
Who will return punts? This is the big one. No doubt about that. Mark Jones wasn’t awful last year, but there’s not a soul in Albany that would be content with a 6.7-yard PR average again this year. Jones showed himself pretty well in camp’s early going, then hurt his foot, which kept him out of the preseason game in Cleveland. If he can get back on the field and show something during the exhibition slate, he’s still listed as the front-runner. However, there is a long line of players behind him.
The first to get a chance, Willie Ponder, dropped the ball in Cleveland – literally and figuratively. He muffed a punt and looks to be out of that mix. Others players that were expected to get a look include Curtis Deloatch and rookies Corey Webster and Michael Jennings. One name that has been noticeably absent from the return mix is Lamont Brightful. He has NFL return experience with the Ravens and fared well overseas in NFL Europe this spring, yet has not even been included in the equation to this point.
Amani Toomer has experience returning punts from earlier in his career and could be used in case of emergency. However, don’t expect to see Toomer make a habit out of returning punts.
Can Ponder repeat his performance? While Ponder doesn’t figure to be a factor on punt returns, all he did last year on kickoff returns was lead the entire league with a 26.9-yard average and post a 91-yard TD. That’s where the question arises. Last season, Ponder was able to take everyone by surprise en route to his superb season. However, this year, teams are going to be bearing down on him a little harder, and focused on stopping him much more.
The Giants kickoff return game might get a huge lift if all 266 pounds of super-rookie Brandon Jacobs prove to be equipped to handle the lead-blocking role. Another factor could be Derrick Ward, who’s still been limited in camp due to offseason surgery, but who also took one to the house last year. If he can prove to be the lead blocker, while also boasting the obvious return ability he has, New York’s kickoff team could be even better.
Will Feely hit the ground kicking? Sweatman laughed when asked about Feely’s transition from Atlanta to New York.
“It’s not as difficult as it is for some of the other positions,” he said. “Essentially it’s a snap, hold, kick, and the kicker has to deliver. So yes we are going to have a new kicker this year and we expect him to kick it through.”
All the talk of Feely being a dome kicker is just that – talk. He’s actually had better career numbers outdoors than inside, and he’s also had several opportunities through the years to kick in Giants Stadium.
If he’s as dependable as expected on field goals, his big impact will come on the kickoff coverage team, where he not only will give the team a better chance for touchbacks, but at 5-10, 206, will also help out in the tackling aspect.
Can Tyree get to Hawaii? Similar to Ponder, David Tyree is coming off a season where he came out of nowhere and shocked the league with his special teams skills. Tyree actually was the first alternate to the Pro Bowl last year. At this point, he can go one of two ways – improve and earn himself a trip to Honolulu or allow the league to catch up to him (and double-team him) and take him out of the game.
The coaching staff absolutely loves Tyree’s work ethic and determination – keys to special teams play. He also has the instincts and knack to get the job done in that department. And he’d be the first to tell you that he expects a lot more attention on the coverage units this season.
Also like Ponder, Tyree has shown great receiver skills when given the chance in previous years, as well as this camp.
Will Kuehl’s job be a snap? Ryan Kuehl has fashioned quite the long-snapping career. Like officials, the less you hear about a snapper, the better. Same goes for Kuehl, who’s been flawless since arriving in New York. Not to jinx the big man, but he has to come up big once again. As Trey Junkin will tell you, it only takes one lousy snap to ruin a game – and even an entire season.
Strength of unit: Experience. The Giants have a very experienced coach in Mike Sweatman who’s been around for years and seen just about everything. They also have proven vets at kicker (Jay Feely), punter (Jeff Feagles) and snapper (Ryan Kuehl), as well as a near Pro Bowl coverage guy in David Tyree and a league-leader in kickoff returner Willie Ponder.
Weakness of unit: By process of elimination, the punt return game still has to be considered a weakness. While Mark Jones has looked good this summer, he was still hurt as we went to press, and no one had stepped to the forefront to take his job. The final answer still could come from outside the organization – just as Jones did right before the season started last year.
Key additions: Jay Feely is the answer to all the Giants’ kicking-related prayers. No more kicking carousel in Giants Stadium. He brings a stronger kickoff leg than they’ve had, and also good career accuracy on field goals. He’s been described by both Tom Coughlin and Mike Sweatman as a football player – not a kicker.
Key losses: Really no one. The Giants were all too happy to let Steve Christie go so they could sign Feely, and the Ron Dayne on special teams experiment never seemed to pan out. The Giants definitely have the people in place to make special teams a strength. Now they all just have to go out and do their jobs.
Darkhorse: Lamont Brightful. He came advertised as a return specialist. He’s even listed as ‘RS/CB’ on the Giants roster. Sure he’s handled a few punts and kickoffs during camp thus far, but he really hasn’t been a factor yet. Not sure if he’ll get the chance or not, and why he hasn’t yet, but Brightful is a confident kid with all the speed, moves and mental makeup to be a solid returner. Only time will tell if he gets the chance to sneak up on anyone or not.
On the hotseat: Has to be Mark Jones. When you’re the incumbent at the only problem area from last year, you better believe you’re going to be feeling Coughlin’s heat. However, the coach seems to like Jones, and has endorsed his ability more than once this summer.