Saints adjusting to new special teams coaches
(Last in a series)
METAIRIE – The Saints have a pretty stable roster entering training camp.
Having barely missed a trip to the Super Bowl last season, there was no reason for them to make numerous personnel changes.
But the one area that is going through a significant transition is the special teams, which are being led by a completely new group of coaches.
During the off-season, head coach Sean Payton fired special teams coordinator Bradford Banta, Mike Westhoff, who oversaw the special teams, retired and assistant Kevin O’Dea’s contract expired.
Payton hired former Miami Dolphins coordinator Darren Rizzi in a similar capacity and he’s being assisted by Phil Galiano and Michael Wilhoite.
“Darren and those guys are experienced,” Payton said. “He has coached in this league for a long time with a close friend of mine (the late Tony Sparano). Those guys have come in right away and I think that transition has gone smooth.”
Rizzi spent the last six weeks evaluating the special teams work from the OTAs and mini-camp in order to compile depth charts for the start of training camp on Friday.
Though Rizzi, who was with the Dolphins for eight seasons, is in his first season with these players, he said he “admired these guys from afar.”
“My impression was a group that always played with great energy and great passion,” Rizzi said. “You could see that passion on film. Special teams is one of those things that you’ve got to have a passion for. There’s no tip-toeing around the pool or dipping your toe in the water. You’ve got to be jumping all the way in and it seemed to me when I got here that we had a lot of those guys, a lot of guys that jumped into the deep end.”
Training camp and the preseason are uniquely challenging to a special teams coordinator because nearly ever one of the 90 players is a candidate to play on special teams in some capacity.
“In one way, shape or form, everyone is part of special teams except for the quarterbacks,” Rizzi said.
With the Saints, even the quarterbacks aren’t completely exempt from special teams because back-up Taysom Hill is a special teams stalwart, working on kickoff returns, coverage units and being the up-back on punts.
In addition to Hill, linebacker Craig Robertson, defensive backs Chris Banjo and Justin Hardee, fullback Zach Line as well as punter Thomas Morstead and kicker Wil Lutz are special teams mainstays.
“We have a really, really good core,” Rizzi said.
Payton called the Saints coverage units last season “outstanding” as were Morstead and Lutz.
“We’ve talked a lot about getting the punt return game going,” he added. “We have candidates. Darren and those guys are working on (figuring out) what are the strengths of our players. And yet, it’s an area where there’s a little bit of meat left on the bone.”
The Saints, who allowed the fewest punt return yards in the NFL and tied for 15th on kickoff return yards allowed last season, were 10th in kick return yardage and 24th in punt return yardage.
New Orleans averaged 6.5 yards on 24 punt returns and 24.3 on 23 kickoff returns.
“I think a lot of times last year, we had maybe nine or 10 guys on point, and maybe one guy here, one guy there (missed an assignment),” Rizzi said. “So we’re not that far away in both, kick return and punt return. We brought in a couple of new pieces in the returner so it’s going to be real interesting to see how that works out and plays out. I’m excited about those guys we’ve got here. I come from a place where my philosophy is, we’re going to make big plays in those aspects of the game.
The Saints signed free agent Marcus Sherels, who was Minnesota’s primary punt returner for eight years, averaging 10.6 yards per return, with five touchdowns.
They also signed undrafted rookie Deonte Harris from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. He set the NCAA All-Division record for combined returns for touchdowns (14). He returned 63 kickoffs for a 32.6-yard average and six touchdowns, and 48 punts for a 20.4-yard average and eight touchdowns.
Specialists: Wil Lutz (K), Thomas Morstead (P), Zach Wood (LS), Nick Moore (LS), Alin Kamara (RS), Taysom Hill (KR), Marcus Sherels (PR), Deonte Harris (RS).
Departure: TommyLee Lewis (PR).
Returning: Lutz, Morstead, Wood, Kamara, Hill.
Arrivals: Moore, Sherels, Harris.
Projected starters: Lutz, Morstead, Wood, Hill, Sherels.
Training camp storyline: Lutz and Morstead are set and Hill will be a fixture on several units. But the return specialist jobs are open to competition and it remains to be seen whether Moore is just a camp body or will push Wood as the long snapper.
Quotable: Special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi on the return game: “I think sometimes, everybody gets caught up in just the returner aspect of it, in the returner’s numbers. We have an expression called, ‘One-eleventh.’ It’s all 11 guys doing their job. I think sometimes in the return game, it’s a great, great example of how one guy could make or break the return. It could be a blocker, it could be a missed block, it could be a missed assignment.”
This is the latest installment of Crescent City Sports’ comprehensive Saints training camp preview. Here is the schedule for the unit-by-unit overviews:
June 27: Offensive line
July 4: Defensive line
July 11: Linebackers
July 18: Secondary (cornerbacks and safeties)
July 25: Special teams (kicker, punter, long snappers)
The Saints are scheduled to report to their Metairie headquarters on Thursday and begin training-camp practice Friday.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…