You know you’re a football nerd when you get excited over good punting. I get very, very excited over good punting. That’s why Hunter Smith, who is already known by most everyone as Hunter the Punter, could turn out to be a very important offseason addition. He is most known for his consistency, which we have lacked since Tom Tupa’s great year in 2004. If his directional kicking skills are as good as advertised, we should be frequently putting the defense on the field deep in the opponent’s territory. This field position advantage should not be underestimated.
The other place Smith may be an upgrade is in the placekicking game. He is supposedly an excellent holder who places the ball exactly the same every time. Despite my mocking tone when Shaun Suisham threw pudgy-fingered Ryan Plackemeier under the bus (and in fairness that was in private conversation and it was Cooley’s decision to put it on the internet), holding is obviously a critical part of every kick. So between Smith and the league’s most consistent long-snapper in the Ethan Albright, there will be no excuses for kicking performance. Speaking of which, Suisham is facing competition this year from Dave Rayner, who has bounced around the league for a few years but never really distinguished himself. But if Rayner show a more consistent ability than Suisham to get kickoffs past the ten yard-line, I hope the change is made. Our kick-off coverage unit was outstanding last year, but that was despite Suisham’s kickoffs rather than because of them. And given that special teams performance tends to vary widely from year to year, there’s no guarantee that we can count on the coverage guys to hide our kicker again (especially considering that over the last calendar year we have lost special-teams standouts Leigh Torrence, Khary Campbell, and James Thrash).
Rock Cartwright is one of the better kick returners in the league, even if he’s not flashy enough to garner national attention. He consistently gets us past the thirty yard line, and is always a threat to get more if you give him enough of a seam. And let’s not forget that he plays on every other ST unit as well. Hog’s Haven has predicted that he will be cut in favor of Anthony Alridge or Dominique Dorsey (sorry, can’t find the link to save my life), but I imagine special teams coach Danny Smith would have something to say about that. If they take away Rock in addition to the recent losses I just listed, Smith should up and quit.
The punt returner job, of course, is something to watch in preseason. Antwaan Randle-El was just awful in the role last year, and don’t try to blame the blocking – there were yards to be had and he didn’t take them. Apparently the coaches also intend to put in Santana and DeAngelo Hall in certain big situations, but they are both irreplaceable on their regular units so we can’t expose them to too much risk. Alridge and Dorsey were both brought in at least in part to compete for the return spot, and Dorsey was a star returner in Canada, but a speedy big play threat isn’t really what I was hoping to add here. You’re never going to break long punt returns consistently enough to count on. I’d rather find someone that will cut out all the dancing about and be sure to take the eight or ten yards that the opposing coverage unit might be giving us.