One teammate called him a freak. Another said he might be on par with Carolina wide out Steve Smith in terms of sheer playmaking ability.
But chances are, unless you were a big Miami Hurricanes fan, your familiarity with Chicago Bears rookie kick returner Devin Hester was vague until recently.
The fact is, the new NFL record holder for most returns for touchdowns in a season (6) has been wowing fans, teammates and would-be tacklers alike for some time now.
At the same time, he’s been keeping special teams coaches awake at night.
“This guys is on a roll and we have our hands full,” Bucs special teams coordinator Richard Bisaccia said. “We’ve played against great players in [New Orleans’] Michael Lewis and [Carolina’s] Steve Smith when Smith was just a returner, and Dante Hall [Kansas City] when he came in here. And I certainly think before he is done, he’ll be put in that class.”
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT At Suncoast High School in South Florida, Hester’s athletic ability helped him amass some pretty impressive numbers. He rushed for 1,014 yards and 12 touchdowns on 94 carries while compiling 1,028 yards receiving on 38 catches for 9 touchdowns as a senior. He also managed to throw for five TDs.
Oh, and he wasn’t too bad on defense either, accumulating 156 tackles (75 solo) to go along with three quarterback sacks and three forced fumbles.
That year, Hester was named the MVP of the California-Florida High School All-Star game after returning a kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown as well as an interception.
In a state such as Florida, where college scouts from around the country go to raid talent, Hester was rated the No. 1 prospect regardless of position by SuperPrep.com.
It didn’t take him long to make his impact felt as a freshman at the University of Miami. Against in-state rival Florida in 2003, Hester returned the game’s opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
Over the span of three seasons at UM, he averaged 30.3 yards per kickoff return and wrapped up his collegiate career taking back six for touchdowns, two kickoffs and four punts.
Just for kicks, he won the 2005 Big East indoor long jump title as a member of the Canes track team.
Despite not having a true position in the opinion of some NFL scouts, Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith decided to pull the trigger on the Miami product following a Pro Day combine workout in which Hester ran a blazing 4.36 – 40-yard dash time.
On Wednesday’s conference call with the media, Smith talked about using a second-round pick on a 5-foot-10, 190-pound, difference maker.
“We liked him a lot. If you look at his college tape it’s not like he all of the sudden became a great returner,” Smith said. “He was a great returner at the University of Miami. We liked that, we met him and liked the person as much as we liked the player.”
RAMMING IT HOME Hester set the NFL record for touchdown returns in a season by taking Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins' boots 94 yards for a second quarter touchdown and 96 yards for a fourth quarter TD. What makes the second return most impressive is that Chicago was anticipating an onside kick and had most of their hands team on the field in lieu of the typical wedge blockers. Still, Hester sliced through the Rams coverage virtually untouched.
"The guy's a great returner, you can't take anything from him," said Rams special team player Eric Moore following the game. "He's got great vision, he knows where to cut, and he plays off his blockers. He's one of those guys you've got to look out for."
Hester finished the night with 246 return yards that included a gaudy 56.3-yard average. He came within one block of making it three touchdowns in the game, returning a punt 21 yards before being tackled.
Prior to running two back against St Louis Monday night, Hester had very little experience returning kicks as a pro. In fact, he had just six. His average jumped from 21 to 35.1 yards per kick return after the showing, a stat which leads the NFL among all returners with 10 or more.
In a cruel reality, the way the Bucs offense has been playing, the kickoff team may only have to face Hester once, either at the beginning of the game or the start of the second half, depending on the coin flip.
THE 11TH MAN Despite booting the second-longest field goal in NFL history earlier this season (62 yards), kicker Matt Bryant does not possess an overpowering leg. He’s 23rd in the league among kickers, averaging 64.3 yards per kickoff with just four touchbacks in 39 attempts.
However, as a unit, the Bucs kick coverage team ranks 5th in the league, 2nd in the NFC, in opponents average starting position, the 25-yard line. Led by special teams standouts Earnest Graham and Blue Adams, the unit is one of only two in the league holding opponents to under 20 yards per return, tied with Dallas at 19.2.
Byrant went to bed early Monday night and said he thought he was watching a replay of Hester’s return on the next day's highlights until his wife said, ‘No, he did it twice.’
There is no doubt special teams coach Richard Bisaccia will give extra attention to his unit’s task at hand this week, but Bryant said he can’t remember a game where he was told a particular player can’t get the ball.
His job is to kick it wherever the game plan calls for and he has faith in his coverage team. It’s not out of the question to change the style of kick, whether it is a sky kick or a squib kick, to compensate for the return man’s ability. Bryant’s guess is that the plan might call to kick it away from a hot returner, but more than likely he would simply try to vary the style to keep Hester and company on their toes.
Should it come down to it, Bryant himself is willing to lay a lick on Hester should he break through to the last line of defense. He grinned a bit when he was asked to recall a unnecessary roughness call made on him earlier this year when he made a late hit out of bounds on a return in the Washington game, saying it was under appeal.
“I approach every kickoff as the 11th guy on the field,” Bryant said. “I take pride in it. If I have to make a tackle, I’ll make it. I like to stick my head in there every now and then.”
ROOKIE RETURNERS It was a 65-yard fourth quarter punt return by New Orleans rookie Reggie Bush that did in Tampa Bay earlier this season.
Hester owns three punt return touchdowns this year, a Bears record, and leads the league in average (14.4 ypr).
Bush (4.33-40) has almost identical speed as Hester which you would have to think would give the Bucs special teams unit a good idea of what they are facing. Or maybe not.
“I think they’re different,” Bisaccia said. “Reggie obviously did it to us one time and we certainly don’t want that to happen again but against Reggie I thought we did a poor job tackling and on our angle of pursuit.”
Hester’s first two touchdown returns this season came on punt returns of 84 yards at Green Bay and 83 yards at Arizona. He took a missed field goal back 108 yards against the New York Giants and then added a 45-yard TD return against Minnesota to his resume. In doing that, he surpassed the legendary Gayle Sayers in the Bears record book. Sayers returned four kicks for scores in one season.
So what do you do when the guy returning kicks against you is as hot as Hester? Good question, says Bisaccia.
“What he did the other night [against St. Louis] on that turf was hard to watch. My wife asked me not to kick it to him and I usually listen to her,” Bisaccia said trying to show some sense of humor.
On a more serious note, he said when facing someone as dangerous as Hester you always have to mix things up, but you cant kick it out of bounds because it’s a penalty, and if you squib-kick it, they might just move guys up. So the only thing to do is hope your coverage team lives up to its billing.
YOU HAVE TO BE A BIT CRAZY Special teams is a part of the game that might slip by the casual fan. But then again, it’s a faction of the game that often produces the most exciting plays.
Two Bucs players that should have a staring role in the effort to stop Hester are special teamers Earnest Graham and Blue Adams. Graham, a reserve running back, leads the Bucs in special team tackles with 17 while Adams, a back up cornerback, trails by one with 16.
They speak in terms of lane integrity, discipline and the need to just be a little crazy.
“[Devin Hester] is the hot guy right now,” Adams said. “He’s the one creating all the noise in the league and our job is to contain him. We have to go down there and do what we do. But [Hester] always gets a little faster when there are crazy guys chasing him and all of us on the kick coverage have to be a little crazy.”
Graham says the worst thing you can do from a tackling standpoint is think too much. Attitude and instinct are what makes a good special teams player.
Graham never covered kicks while at the University of Florida, but welcomes the intensity and physical nature required to perform well at it. He knows against a guy like Hester, one tiny seam and it’s six points.
“The guys is super explosive,” Graham said. “I was watching him Monday Night and I said ‘Wow, that guy is fast,’ just like everybody else probably did.
“You have to have respect the guy, but then you can’t go out there and be on egg shells. You have to be disciplined, so it’s a great challenge for us.”
WOULD’VE, SHOULD’VE, COULD’VE Chicago’s Devin Hester was taken two picks ahead of the Bucs Jeremy Trueblood with the 25th selection in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft.
Obviously nobody could’ve known the impact Hester would have this season and Tampa Bay really didn’t have the opportunity to take him, but given the Bucs' dismal history when it comes to kickoff returns, surely facing a player of his caliber this weekend will have many fans asking ‘Why not us?’
The number grows each week. It currently stands at 1,814. Many a bathroom break or run the to refrigerator has been delayed in fear that the next kick return may be the one that goes all the way. But 1,814 of them have come and gone, a span covering the team’s 31-year history, and the Bucs have yet to take a regular season kickoff to the house.
Even tougher for Coach Bisaccia, who has had four different players return kickoffs with a long of 37 yards turned in by Michael Pittman. The special teams coordinator has had his eye on Hester for some time.
“I was at his pro workout. I visited him coming out of high school,” Bisaccia said. “It was a great pick for [Chicago], they look real smart right now.
“I have the opportunity to present [to Coach Gruden and General Manager Bruce Allen] the top three to five return guys we want to get our hands on and he was certainly in top three to say the least. But guys have to fit for what you’re looking for and [Chicago] took a chance on him in the second round. They drafted speed.”
After Wednesday’s practice, Gruden himself reiterated the fact that his team is in need of a return man who can break off a long one and either get good field position or a score. The Bucs rank 22 of 32 teams in kickoff return with an average start at about the 25-yard line.
Gruden seems equally enamored with Hester.
“I don’t know how everybody does it, but when we look at a skill player, the first thing I want to see is the splash plays so I can see what he is capable of doing,” Gruden said.
“And if you watch the guys splash reel, it might only be 15 or 20 plays, but you could argue about taking him wherever you deem fit. But when you’re a football team like Chicago, that’s got a veteran team that’s been together a little bit, you might feel as if you have one or two areas that you can really upgrade yourself.”
Does the number need to hit 2,000 before the Bucs feel that need is the question. After all, Hester has six touchdowns to his name this year. The Bucs entire offense has 14.
MAXIMIZING POTENTIAL After his two-touchdown performance against St. Louis on Monday Night, Bears head coach Lovie Smith said he needs to start thinking about other ways to get Hester the ball.
While one week may not be enough time to work the return specialist into the game plan, it must be in the back of the minds of Bucs players and coaches.
Screen passes, end arounds and quick slants will be worth looking out for if you see No. 23 step into the offensive huddle.
Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner said that may be something the team looks to do more of in the offseason, but coaches rarely let in on how they plan to install a secret weapon, especially so close to playoff time.
INJURY REPORT Cornerback Phillip Buchannon, who had his first interception as a Buccaneer against Atlanta Sunday, did not practice Wednesday due to a groin injury. He is listed as questionable along with CB Juran Bolden (quadriceps), LB Shelton Quarles (knee/ankle) and DT Ellis Wyms (ankle).
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