Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel piled up some frequent-flyer miles this spring in search of a punter.

The team's interest level in re-signing veteran Donnie Jones ranged somewhere between little and none. (Jones eventually signed with the Houston Texans as a free agent.)

So with the punting job wide open, Fassel worked out no fewer than eight college punters, some on more than one occasion. As the draft wore down and it was time to start working the phones for rookie free agents, the Rams pretty much had an open field.

California's Bryan Anger, the star of this year's punting class, went a surprising No. 70 overall (in the third round) to Jacksonville, making him the highest-drafted punter since Todd Sauerbrun in 1995. The only other punter drafted was Wisconsin's Brad Nortman, who went to Carolina on the final pick of the sixth round.

Several recognizable names remained available as the draft ended, including:

Georgia's Drew Butler, a former Ray Guy award winner as college football's top punter.

Florida State's Shawn Powell, who set a school record with a 47.0-yard average last season.

Brian Stahovich of San Diego State, whom Fassel had worked out in March.

But when the Rams asked Fassel who he wanted, there was no hesitation: Johnny Hekker of Oregon State. And that's who the team signed as a rookie free agent shortly after the draft concluded on April 28.

"The first thing I liked about Johnny was what he put on game film," Fassel said. "He's got a big leg. He's a big, tall, long guy. I think the potential for him is unlimited."

Fassel knows what punting looks like at its highest level because for the last four years in Oakland three as Raiders special teams coordinator he has worked with Shane Lechler, one of the best punters in the NFL history and a seven-time Pro Bowler.

That sets the bar pretty high for Hekker.

"His really good balls are pretty close to Lechler's good balls," Fassel said. "The difference is, Lechler hits eight of 10 'wow!' Johnny will hit five out of 10 'wow!'"

It is Fassel's task to help build up Hekker's ratio of "wow" kicks.

"One thing we'll work on with him is his consistency," Fassel said.

Speaking of both Hekker and sixth-round draft pick Greg Zuerlein, a place-kicker from Missouri Western State, Fassel added: "One thing I don't want to do is over-think it and become mechanical about it. Both of them. Because one of their greatest strengths is they're natural and they're smooth. So I don't want them to become a machine."

Hekker played quarterback at Bothell (Wash.) High near Seattle and had a scholarship offer to play that position at Southern Utah. But his heart was set on playing Pacific 10 Conference football (now the Pac-12), and his only chance to do so was as a walk-on punter at Oregon Sate.

He was awarded a scholarship entering his sophomore season with the Beavers, and improved his numbers every year. For the most part those numbers weren't great, certainly not good enough to get noticed by the NFL: a 39.7-yard average in 2008; 40.1 yards in '09; and 41.7 yards in '10.

Hekker saved his best for last, with a 44.0-yard average last season. He had at least one punt of 60 yards-plus in six games in 2011, and established a single-game school record with a 52.5-yard average against Utah.

But he still had some clunkers, including a shanked punt last season against Wisconsin that went for minus-4 yards and was dubbed "Worst Punt Ever" on YouTube.

"I'm working on consistency," Hekker said. "At Oregon State, I just had some bad kicks. Bad kicks have always just kind of plagued me."

His punt for minus-4 yards was rugby style, rolling out to his right before striking the ball. That's a style used in college, because the coverage team gets to leave the line of scrimmage right after the snap. Rolling out gives the coverage unit an extra second or two to get down field.

"A lot of those college teams, they do that rollout rugby punt," Fassel said. "(Hekker) did that about half the time, which meant he never really got to focus on one craft, which is a professional pocket-style punt. ... His rugby days are over."

That's because coverage rules are different in the NFL: you have to wait until the ball is struck before running downfield, so there's no advantage gained by punting rugby style.

Even with his good numbers last season, Hekker didn't get invited to any college all-star games, or the NFL scouting combine.

"I got overlooked in that sense," he said.

But he made the most of his offseason. He trained with kicking guru Mike McCabe in Alabama. He also worked in Arizona at Gary Zauner's specialist combine; Zauner is a long-time college and professional special teams coach. That led to an invitation to an NFL regional combine in New York, kind of a satellite program to the big scouting combine in Indianapolis.

"I tried to make my rounds, get my name out there as best I could," Hekker said.

Fassel worked him out at Oregon State's pro day, and stayed in touch up through the draft.

"I wasn't quite sure of his interest level," Hekker said. "You hear stuff from coaches and you're not really sure which all of it's genuine."

Fassel's interest obviously proved genuine because Hekker basically has been handed the punter's job in St. Louis. It's his to lose.

"I'm just so blessed beyond belief to have this opportunity to work with this team," Hekker said.