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Special: Inside the mind of Nate Kaczor

Washington Football Report

special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor instructs players during rookie minicampScott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

In the house-cleaning that followed the firing of Bruce Allen to start 2020, almost every vestige of the Jay Gruden coaching staff was swept away, but one of the few coaches to survive the purge was Special Teams Coordinator, Nate Kaczor. Having arrived in DC only in 2019, fresh from a three-year stint in Tampa Bay, Kaczor seemed to have the Allen-Gruden stamps all over him, making him an unlikely candidate to survive the burning desire for change in Ashburn.

Kaczor’s tenure began in the Jay Gruden era with a bit of a rocky pre-season, but the regular season saw a solid performance for the ST Coordinator. His group finished the 2019 season ranked 4th in the NFL by Rick Gosselin, who does an annual ranking of special teams at every January, but in 2021 his unit fell to 25th in those same rankings.

Going into 2021, the coaches seem to have faith that kicker Dustin Hopkins has gotten past the issues that plagued him for the first ten games of last season. He ended last season by going 13/14 in the final 6 regular season games, and 1/1 in the playoff game against the Bucs.

Tress Way continues to be one of the best in the league at his position, with a booming leg when needed combined with the ability to drop a ball near the opponent's goal line without going in for a touchback..

While Steven Sims struggled on punt returns in 2020, Danny Johnson appears set to continue his role as the kick returner, and DeAndre Carter was signed to give coaches an option for replacing Sims with a dynamic return man.

The one major special teams change that must be mentioned is that the WFT said goodbye to its longest-tenured player when it allowed Nick Sundberg to leave in free agency when his contract expired. He was replaced by 6th round draft pick, Cameron Cheeseman, who will try to demonstrate to coaches during the preseason that he's ready to take on the important long-snapper role for the Football Team.

Special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor loves to talk; his answers to questions in press conferences are always the longest of all the coaches. This year's media session, which took place last week, was no different. During his session, coach Kaczor shed a lot of light on what is important to the Washington special teams unit as we enter training camp and the preseason.

Video of Nate Kaczor's Zoom media session

Solving the punt returner issue is probably coach Kaczor's biggest problem. During his press conference, he gave a list of players who have been getting looks at punt returner during OTAs and minicamp:

  • Deandre Carter
  • Isaiah Wright
  • Steven Sims
  • Dax Milne
  • Danny Johnson

Kaczor also mentioned Adam Humphries, who used to return punts for the coach when they were together in Tampa Bay, but indicated that Humphries has not been working as a returner (so far) in Washington. The coach was clear that training camp would be the time when the returners were identified.

When he was asked about the characteristics of a good punt returner, coach Kaczor was very clear:

The number one characteristic is efficiency, and the biggest part of efficiency is catching the football. As elementary as that sounds, that’s the most important thing, because we’re getting the ball back for our offense. All we need to do is possess it.

Related: Washington's new punt returner may surprise a lot of fans

It's no surprise that coach Kaczor highlighted this; his punt returners collectively led the NFL last year with 5 muffed punts.

After efficiency, then we’re looking for explosion, because every step we take towards their goal line after we catch it is yards in our favor. Efficiency first, which includes ball security/reliability, and then explosion.

The first name that Kaczor mentioned when listing the potential punt returners on the roster was DeAndre Carter. Carter has 63 punt returns in his 3-year career, and is more of a 'specialist' return man than an offensive weapon, though he has been productive as slot receiver when he has been targeted, catching 82.9% of his targets for an average of 11.4 yards per reception.

As a returner, Carter has used his explosion and elusiveness to average 9.3 yards per return in his career. The 4th year player was signed earlier this offseason in an effort to give the coaching staff a strong option at the punt returner position, and he seems to have a good chance to make the regular season roster.

Nate Kaczor talked about what makes Carter a good returner and a good fit for the Washington team:

He’s comfortable underneath the ball, what we call tracking the ball, adjusting in the breeze. He’s a comfortable veteran back there. His film is good, he’s got good run skills. He’s a good all around returner. We could see that on the film, which is why coach and our personnel department brought him in. But just being around him, in person, the things you can’t see on film, he’s a really energetic, positive, he’s a fun player to be around. The positive of having a good personality is when you’re a runner, those blockers -- even if it’s subconscious -- really enjoy blocking for you.

It sounds as though the special teams coach is pretty high on Carter as a returner, but we won't really know anything until roster cut downs occur.

One player who is guaranteed a job -- and likely for the next ten years -- unless he proves during preseason that the franchise made a mistake in drafting him, is long-snapper Cameron Cheeseman, who was drafted in the 6th round to replace departing veteran Nick Sundberg, who had held down the position for 11 years in Washington.

Related article: Will Washington draft Cheeseman or Fletcher this weekend?

Nate Kaczor talked about what the rookie has been doing in OTAs and minicamp to fit himself in as part of the 3-man group of specialists in place of Sundberg:

Obviously in the specialist world, the chemistry of everything, the snap, hold, kick, is an ongoing process. The more good chemistry that occurs, the more they develop confidence in each other. Every new thing is a new moment for Cameron, being a rookie, so we’re over there working on our own field early on OTAs.
He’s done fine with the chemistry part. We vetted him virtually. His personality is what we thought it would be; he’s a smart player; he’s an aware player; he’s wired consistently -- not too up and down.
He’s off to a good start. It has not been perfect, but we’re working towards having a good chemistry.

I'm not sure if many fans perceive the job of a long-snapper to be something that requires any real talent, but I think it's analogous to golf. It is a simple, repetitive motion that has to be practiced continually to develop the kind of consistency required to perform under pressure as a professional athlete.

The former long-snapper, Nick Sundberg, once said in an interview that he typically snapped the ball about 200 times per day. Remember that not every snap is the same; the long snapper needs to be able to snap the ball to different players lining up at a variety of spots relative to the snapper. The list includes a punter lined up 10 yards or so directly behind the snapper, a punt protector (on a fake punt) standing up a few yards behind the snapper and off to one side, and a field goal holder (usually the punter) who is kneeling on the ground several yards behind and to the side.

Professional long snappers also practice endlessly to make sure the snap arrives at the right height, with the right velocity, and even with the laces in the optimum position for the guy receiving the snap to handle it cleanly. A poor snap on a punt can result in a bad punt, a block, or even a defensive touchdown. A bad snap on a field goal attempt can directly cost the team points on the scoreboard.

Coach Kaczor talked about this.

The three factors we usually look are: Laces being where the holder doesn’t have to turn them too much, location, where the punters like the ball, and the less wobble, or tighter spin you can have. Location and laces and spin rate when we’re talking about [field goal and extra point] snaps.
And then punt snaps, punters don’t like moving their feet out of their stance. So when Tress is back there set up, we like to snap a ball to him between his chest and his belt, and not make him move too much side to side, where he can just take his jab and his two-step approach. If punters have to move a little bit, it just makes them work a little bit harder to get back on their line.

One reason that the Football Team used a draft pick on Cheeseman is because most people who analyze long-snappers (yes, those people exist) had him rated as the top LS prospect in this draft, just ahead of Thomas Fletcher from Alabama. The main reason for that is that Cheeseman is bigger, standing 6'4" and 237 pounds (with a frame that can carry a bit more muscle mass), while Fletcher is closer to 6'1" and 231 pounds.

Why does this matter? Because long snappers don't just snap the ball, they also have to block.

The third thing that comes in for the snapper is protection...you [need] good feet to move and block people because when they rush you with 8 people, your snapper has to be involved in protection and block somebody. So the better they can move their feet, size, length, and all the things you look for in a blocker in general are an added bonus.

An often overlooked element of the long snapper's job is that he is part of the punt coverage team -- after snapping and blocking, he has to run downfield and help corral the return man.

Coach Kaczor talked about what he looks for in players during OTAs and minicamp to help assess their abilities and begin the process of building a successful special teams unit.

What we look for this time of year is how they can pick up and process information. In our drill work, we watch them respond to what they’ve learned in the meeting room in the drill work: How to get leverage or keep a returner where we need him to be so we can all converge and tackle.
[Next is] spacing. After we punt, and we’re running down the field, being in the right place. And if someone’s not in the right place, how [his teammates can] replace him. We work on a lot of the movement patterns. Basically, when we get to training camp, and we have the ability to put on pads, then you’re practicing the physical part of the game.
So then, the physical element in training camp and preseason games is coupled with the movement patterns and how they process and react to information and then you can come up with your most complete special teams players.

Fans tend to focus on offense and defense, but special teams play is equally important. Kickoffs, punts and returns affect field position, which, along with things like turnovers and penalties, is one of the factors in football that his highly correlated with winning.

Of course, field goals and PATs put points directly on the scoreboard; their importance is obvious.

When the final roster is formed, perhaps a half dozen roster spots are decided by special teams play. When coaches and GMs are deciding on the 5th linebacker, cornerback, safety or wide receiver, the guy who gets the job often wins the roster spot by virtue of his contribution to special teams.

Related: Which six cornerbacks will make the Washington roster?

Washington has a coordinator who is knowledgeable and passionate about his job, and who will be looking for dramatic improvement in on-field performance in 2021.

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