Stories about special teams are few and far between, but when a team is going through the type of turnaround that the St. Louis Rams have experienced this season, it often plays a large role. What makes that even more impressive in St. Louis is the fact that they have undergone this transformation with a rookie. There is plenty of evidence already that their first-year punter Johnny Hekker has a bright future ahead with this team.
When the Rams decided to part ways with veteran punter Donnie Jones following the 2011 season, many questioned the team’s philosophy. Now that Hekker has proven to be more than just an adequate replacement, the criticism has been pretty much muted.
For Hekker, his job description has been to flip the field for the Rams on numerous occasions when the offense sputters. Considering that the team is ranked 29th in the league averaging just 18.2 points per game, that pretty much tells the tale of how often Hekker is called upon. The fact that the team is 6-6-1 despite those struggles is a huge compliment to how well their rookie punter has fared.
Where Hekker really deserves praise is for adapting as a rookie coming into the league from being a bomber, just kicking the ball as hard as possible, to being a directional punter, using the sideline as his friend and angling kicks to pin teams deep. According to Head Coach Jeff Fisher: “Well, considering the quality of returners that we’ve faced, it seems that week after week after week, I’d say they’ve done an outstanding job. I mean, week after week we’re putting a lot of pressure on Johnny to put the ball on the boundary to angle kick, which is difficult. And it seems like with consistency the guys are getting down and making the plays.”
His prowess as a punter has been just part of the story so far however with Hekker figuring prominently on some trickeration for the Rams special teams. He has been the passer and runner on four fakes so far this season and three of them have been successful. His rushing attempt failed miserably losing nine yards, but Hekker is three-for-three as a passer including one touchdown in a 19-13 win over the Seattle Seahawks. That play took place during Hekker’s other duty as the team’s holder for rookie place kicker Greg Zuerlein.
While the deception is nice, the majority of the time Hekker comes onto the field is to do his less glamorous job as the team’s punter. On how he should handle that moving forward, he said: “I just got to be consistent, punt balls with good hang time, direction and distance, try and squeeze the returner up against the sideline so he doesn’t have very much room. Just doing my best to make sure, when there’s a tackle to be made, that our guys are going to be in good positions because the ball’s in the right spot.”
It may not be sexy, but for a team like the Rams which still struggles on offense, the punter is vitally important. What has become clear during Hekker’s rookie campaign is that the Rams have finally found themselves a good one.
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