INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone recently joined Colts.com’s Matt Taylor for a one-on-one interview you can hear on the Colts Official Podcast. What were Ventrone’s thoughts on Indy’s talented specialists like Rigoberto Sanchez and Adam Vinatieri, his role in the roster decision-making process, how the rookies have bought in and much more?
What’s been your overall evaluation of the offseason program?
Ventrone: “The offseason's gone well. We made a lot of progress from the start of it through Phase 1, 2 and then 3, and now we're into minicamp. I think the rookies have progressed well since we got them after the draft. I think the veterans have got even better from when they first came in working on their fundamentals and techniques. So it's been a really good offseason to this point.”
From your perspective, how good was it to see punter Rigoberto Sanchez get that contract extension a couple weeks ago?
Ventrone: “I mean, Rigo works so hard, and to see somebody get rewarded that has that type of work ethic, (I’m) really excited for him, and the way he's been accountable to our units, and to the specialists room, he's done an incredible job.”
How much of a weapon is Sanchez? Frank Reich talked late last season about his ability to control the punting game with directional kicks, as well as his kickoffs at the goal line.
Ventrone: “We really stressed the ability to control the field, to control the vertical field position. He did a really good job of that last year with his directional punting. The one thing I think people take note of is, the averages and things like that. Well, the most important average on a punt team is really the net punt. We ended up doing pretty well with our net punt last year. We were first in the AFC, and that's a tribute to him and a tribute to our coverage players and gunners. But Rigo, it all starts with the punt, so if you don't have a good punt, it's going to be hard to attain that.”
You guys allowed just 4.4 yards per punt return. What are the keys in punt coverage that allow you to do that?
Ventrone: “Well in addition to having a good punt and a good operation with the punt, it comes down to establishing fundamentals early on in the spring where you're working drills, and coaching leverage and showing examples of past success plays that have worked for us. And then, just building off of that, and repping it, and repping it, and repping it until it's in these guys' heads on how they have to handle the situations. We had a lot of young players last year on that punt unit, and thankfully the ended up playing well for us and controlling the field position, and gave us that incredible stat line which ended up leading the league, which is phenomenal for us.”
What was it like from your angle in your first year as the Colts’ special teams coordinator last year getting to be part of Adam Vinatieri’s record-breaking tour, if you will? Every week he was setting some sort of record, most notably, most field goals made in NFL history and then most points scored in league history?
Ventrone: “It was a special year. It really was. Being my first year as a coordinator, and also having playing with Vinny when I was a rookie in New England, he was very welcoming with open arms as a rookie; he did the same as a coach. I look to him as an incredible leader amongst our team, not just amongst the specialists, but that guy truly leads by example, and is a great guy to learn from as far as how to take care of your body, preparation, his true approach to the game. I feel like the guys that end up doing the best in that position as a kicker or specialist, however you want to call it, are really the guys that are good at everything, not just good at kicking. But Vinny's a really good athlete, he's a really good person, he has a good work ethic, so that encompasses everything, and he really epitomizes that for that position.”
What was the dynamic between Vinatieri and yourself initially? Because, like you said, you two played together and he’s older than you and now you’re his coach. How did that go?
Ventrone: “It was good. I've got to be honest, from day one, he was very open to my coaching style and philosophies, and he was eager to learn. The one thing about Adam that I think a lot of people probably don't realize is he's in every single meeting. He's the kicker, he kicks field goals, he doesn't kickoff anymore, but he's in the punt install, kickoff return install, kickoff coverage install. He could tell you probably — which is not great for me — but he could probably explain the techniques, and fundamentals, and scheme better than probably most of the position players, which is, really, pretty hard to do, but he does a heck of a job in preparation, and he takes pride in it.”
Just how respected is Vinatieri in the locker room? I mean, he’s a future Hall of Famer, he’s accomplished just about everything you can at that position. But his teammates don’t look at him like he’s just the kicker.
Ventrone: “Vinny's a leader. He really is. He's a leader and he has a strong voice in that locker room. He does a really good job of setting an example, and like I said, that really starts with his off-the-field preparation. I think the young guys see how serious he is, he takes notes in meetings. I think he does a really good job of that, and I think he's just well respected. I think the work ethic really plays off of that as well.”
Were you happy with the return game in general last year? And where do you want to see that aspect of special teams improve?
Ventrone: “We need to have more production — we do. We need to have more production. We weren't nearly as productive as we should have been on kick returns specifically. We did have some productive punt returns, but that's definitely one area that we need to clean up. We need to be able to block better, and sustain blocks better on the front line. We've worked really hard on that this offseason with some drills and fundamentals, so I think that that will help us. And I think, just playing with a lot of young guys last year, those guys having a second year under their belts, and bringing these rookies along a little bit faster than probably we did last year with the rookies, that's going to help us. So I think we definitely need to have better production back there.”
What are your early impressions of Parris Campbell as a punt returner? Is that an option for him this season?
Ventrone: “Parris, he's worked it, he's worked the ball handling throughout the spring. He's done a good job. There's always room for improvement. He did not do it in college consistently as a returner — he did it here and there — so we're just trying to get him as many reps as possible, and then evaluate him throughout the preseason. But he's definitely an explosive player. I think we got a good kid. I think that he's a hard worker, I think he's tough, I think he's mentally tough and physically tough. And he's definitely a dynamic athlete, and he has good hands, and he has elite speed. So hopefully we can get him going. We're just going to continue to get him as many ball handling reps as we can throughout the spring.”
How do you evaluate players this time of year when you’re not in full pads, it’s not full speed?
Ventrone: “Throughout the spring it's not physical team drills, OK? So the one thing that I look at, especially being on special teams is, you can't really have a play without it, is having good feet. So your footwork is imperative. That's got to be an emphasis point for us, in every phase, really in every phase. The other attribute that attracts me is speed, and then being able to handle the scheme, multiples, things like that. That really plays into a factor on the evaluation process.”
There’s a lot of guys that stood out on special teams last year, not just the kickers, and one guy that immediately comes to mind is Chris Milton. He takes a tremendous amount of pride on special teams, and guys like him can carve out a nice little niche for themselves playing teams. What did you see in Milton and what was his mindset each Sunday?
Ventrone: “Chris did a great job. I think he played his best ball really the second half to latter half of the season last year. He did a really good job. He's a tough guy to block because he's so fast. He's hit 23 miles an hour in games at times, and trying to block a guy that can run that fast is hard to do. It's hard to match speed whenever someone's running 23 miles an hour. So he does a good job, and then Rigo being able to place the ball well, that gives you a true weapon out there, with Chris. And I thought last year, relative to some of his past years, he finished better. He finished better at the point of attack, and he created and made some plays, and especially in the playoff games. He made some big plays on the playoff games for us. So we're definitely going to look to him to make those this year, hopefully.”
This is going to be such a difficult roster to make by Week 1. There’s so much competition and so much talent, and you hear after the preseason as the roster gets cut from 90 to 53, “Can this guy help us on special teams?” During those meetings, are you in the corner saying, “Hey, if it’s up to me, I want to keep that guy because he can help us on punt return,” or whatever it is? How much influence do you have in those meetings when it comes to cutting guys on offense and defense because they can potentially help you on special teams?
Ventrone: “Yeah, I mean, you can ask Chris (Ballard) and Coach Reich, I definitely stand on the table for my guys, and we always say that you need to have two coordinators going to bat for you. You need to have the offensive coordinator, and me, or the defensive coordinator, and me. So you have to be able to do both. If you're not an impact starter, you have to be able to play in some facet of the kicking game. So I'm definitely always going to bat for the guys I need and I want, and they understand that.”
So is it fair to say that sometimes you’re the tiebreaker?
Ventrone: “I think in a lot of instances I probably am. Ultimately, it's not my decision for some of them. I'm going to give my input, and my thoughts, and I think those guys respect how I approach the games and the meetings, and all that.”
A lot of this year’s draft picks mentioned how excited they were to play special teams with the Colts, which is something you don’t always hear because these guys were studs at their respective schools. I’m sure that’s nice to hear from your perspective; that you don’t have to drill that mindset into their heads as rookies.
Ventrone: “No, it's great. And the rookies I thought have done a really good job since they've came in. They understand that if you're on the roster, you have a special teams role. Everybody on the team has a special teams role. So you have to embrace it. The one thing that we did a good job of this year is we drafted a lot of speed. Those guys have progressed quickly. Guys like Bobby (Okereke), and Ben (Banogu), and Gerri (Green), and E.J. (Speed), and Rock (Ya-Sin), and Marvell (Tell III), those guys have done a good job throughout the spring of improving, taking the corrections from one practice, applying them to the next practice, and fixing it, and not letting things linger. The one thing we want to do is eliminate repeat errors, repeat mistakes. So those guys have done a good job; have really embraced, and understand that to be able to make the roster — and we told the guys when they first came in in the spring — it's a much tougher roster to make this year. It just is. We're just better. We're just a better team.”
Final thing: you’re going to have some “time off” to yourself now, and I say that in quotes, because I know it never really stops. But how do you mentally get away from football before it really starts to ramp up in training camp?
Ventrone: “Yeah, so I loaded my laptop up. I have every preseason opponent, and the first probably six opponents' film from last year. So I'll definitely get a jump. I have a beach cottage in Rhode Island. My wife's from up there. So we'll spend the summer up there. Get to have a lot of kid time. Get to play baseball with my son, and take my girls out, and stuff. I have three kids, so they'll keep me busy.”