After the Indianapolis Colts brought in a whole new coaching staff this offseason, we’ve really only heard bits and pieces of what to expect in new schemes, coming from general manager Chris Ballard and new head coach Frank Reich. However, the coordinators and position coaches got to speak to the media this week as well.
One thing that doesn’t get talked about much is special teams, and the Colts had a tall order in replacing coordinator Tom McMahon after he left for the Denver Broncos. The Colts will attempt to replace McMahon with first-year coordinator Bubba Ventrone, a long-time NFL special teamer turned understudy of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and special teams coordinator Joe Judge, following his playing career.
We already know what to expect from Colts specialists placekicker Adam Vinatieri, punter/holder/kickoff specialist Rigoberto Sanchez and long snapper Luke Rhodes. However, there are a ton of new faces on the Colts, especially at skill positions. They typically are the ones who return punts and kicks, so it is natural to wonder who will be handling those duties moving forward.
Although the NFL has been steadily moving away from the effect of the kickoff return in recent years, we’ve seen players like Brian Mitchell, Dante Hall and Devin Hester turn it into an art form.
So, who might be pitching in for the Colts on kickoffs moving forward? According to Ventrone, there will be a handful of guys initially:
“There are a number of guys – (Nyheim) Hines, Marlon Mack, Ferg (Josh Ferguson). I’ll get Chester (Rogers) work back there.”
In regards to how he’ll decide who the primary kickoff and punt returners will be when the season starts, Ventrone confirmed it will be a “best man wins” scenario:
“Yeah, whoever does the best job (wins). The one thing that’s really important for me as far as ball-handling is, obviously, trust. There’s nothing more important than the possession of the ball. You’ve got to be able to have a guy that you can throw back there that you can trust is going to give the ball back to the offense. And then obviously, you have critical factors as far as big-play ability and explosiveness and speed.”
No matter how good of a position player someone is on offense or defense, if they’re in the running for a spot in the return game, then ball security will be paramount, as Ventrone said. You don’t want to field a punt or kickoff inside your own 10-yard line and then cough it up within your own 20 or 25, giving the opponent a short field.
The players Ventrone mentioned almost certainly will not be the only ones fielding punts and kickoffs in training camp. It is not uncommon to see about seven players field kicks during the beginning stages of practice. However, many of them are guys that they have to get ready to return kicks during preseason games, who will later be waived/released during roster cuts.
Something of note: while the Colts have been alright in the return game from a yards per return standpoint the last few years — since 2015, punt return leader averages 7.5 YPR and kickoff return leader averages 27.0 YPR — they don’t have many touchdowns to show for their effort on returns. They have just one return touchdown in that time, a 99-yard kickoff return by Jordan Todman against the Green Bay Packers in 2016. You have to go back to 2012 to get the next touchdowns, when they got a kickoff return by Deji Karim and their last punt return by then-rookie T.Y. Hilton.
Ventrone and his staff are probably well aware of the Colts’ recent scarcity in special teams touchdowns. While Hilton is the only one of those three players still on the roster, he’s too important to the offense to be returning punts. The main goal of the return groups will be to secure the ball and just to advance it as far as they can. Cashing in on touchdowns is secondary, but if they find someone who can catch lightning in a bottle and make the most out of limited opportunities, the Colts do have a few guys capable of that.