Punting job is clearly up for grabs

Sunday, Apr. 24 2005

Punters don't get drafted very often. Only three were selected in the entire
NFL draft in 2004.

In their 10 previous drafts in St. Louis, the Rams drafted only one punter:
Georgia Tech's Rodney Williams in the seventh round in 1999.

In selecting Ball State's Reggie Hodges in the sixth round (No. 210 overall) on
Sunday, the Rams are sending a clear message to the incumbent, Kevin Stemke.
Namely, the punting competition is now on.

"I think competition at the position is good," said Bob Ligashesky, the Rams'
new special teams coach. "Just like every other position on the football team,
competition brings out the best in all of us."

After replacing Sean Landeta at the end of November, Stemke handled the punting
chores for the final six games of the 2004 regular season, plus the playoffs.
But Stemke's distance isn't ideal, and his overall work in the playoff loss to
Atlanta was subpar on a night when the Falcons' Allen Rossum ran wild.

At Ball State, Hodges was an all-conference punter last season, averaging 42.6
yards a kick. He did, however, have four kicks blocked. Showing good
directional skills, Hodges dropped 25 of his 73 punts inside the opponent's 20,
and had 12 kicks resulting in fair catches.

Despite those four blocked kicks, Ligashesky said, "If you look at his tape, in
their protection, you can see his athleticism and his ability to get the ball
off fast. We're excited about that. He'll have to improve his hang times here
in the NFL. But we feel with his leg strength that's something he can

Ligashesky also was impressed with Hodges' mental toughness.

"When I worked him out earlier this year, me and coach (Mike) Westhoff were
there from the Jets. It was 29 degrees outside."

But Hodges kicked in his shorts that day in Muncie, Ind., and kicked bag after
bag of footballs for the two special teams coaches.

"When (Hodges) was done, he said, 'About halfway through, my foot went numb,' "
Ligashesky said.

Groce will get another chance

One special teams area that the Rams did not address in the draft was their
return game. But coach Mike Martz said the team will give cornerback DeJuan
Groce another chance as its punt returner.

"He had such terrific numbers coming out of college, we'll give him every
opportunity (to win the job)," Martz said.

As a rookie in 2003, Groce averaged 7.1 yards on 19 returns for the Rams, but
lost the job after a couple of fumbles. In college at Nebraska, Groce returned
five punts for touchdowns.

Shaun McDonald handled the Rams' punt return duties last season, but averaged
only 4.8 yards a return.

Special teams help

Among the Rams' 11 draft picks Saturday and Sunday, defensive back Ronald
Bartell; safeties Oshiomogho "O.J." Atogwe and Jerome Carter; and tight end
Jerome Collins should provide immediate special teams help on kick coverage.

"I think we've upgraded ourselves terrifically on special teams with these
guys," Martz said. "A backup safety on any squad should be the premier special
teams player on your squad, and I think these guys can do that."