INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone spoke to local reporters today via video conference. What did he have to say about his early impressions of rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, his approach when it comes to the field position battle, Nyheim Hines' abilities as a punt returner and more?
You can catch that entire session above, but here are some top takeaways:
» Ventrone considers rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship "probably the most unique guy that I've ever coached:" It's just a fact of life in the NFL: a good number of the league's kickers, punters and long snappers are just … different. It's one of the many quirky things fans love about the game.
Blankenship certainly fits that bill. The undrafted rookie gained quite a bit of notoriety at Georgia, where he became beloved just about as much for his ability to convert field goals and extra points as he did for those infamous specs underneath his helmet.
Blankenship has very much embraced his nerdy personality; in fact, he told reporters after winning the Colts' kicking competition coming out of training camp that he was building Lego sets to keep his mind at ease the night before final roster cuts.
Ventrone, who carved himself a lengthy playing career in the NFL as a special teams standout before entering the coaching ranks, can certainly appreciate whatever it is that makes his kicker tick both on and off the field.
"He's definitely unique. I would say he's probably the most unique guy that I've coached to this point," Ventrone said of Blankenship. "I've only been coaching for six years, but even as a player he's probably the most unique player that I've been around. I've been on a bunch of different teams and played with a lot of different people. I would say there are a good amount of times specialists are a little different personality wise than some of the position players. I feel like it just comes with the territory and that's just how it is.
"I don't want to say too much here, but there's not a lot of NFL players that are building Legos and playing video games like that," Ventrone said with a laugh. "He is, and he is admittedly into that type of thing. Whatever toots your horn, man. I support whatever he wants to do. As long as he is making his kicks, I don't care what he does."
Blankenship, by the way, has been making his kicks; he's hit 6-of-7 field goals this season, and is coming off a 4-for-4 day last Sunday in the Colts' Week 2 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
» The Colts' punt unit, led by Rigoberto Sanchez, isn't afraid to try to pin its opponents deep in its their own territory: With 6:09 left in the second quarter of last Sunday's game against the Vikings, the Colts were forced to punt from their own 41-yard line. Rigoberto Sanchez nailed a high, arcing punt close to the goal line; the ball took a terrific Colts-friendly bounce, and long snapper Luke Rhodes was able to hustle to make a nifty play to keep it out of the end zone, where it was downed by George Odum at the 2-yard line.
Four plays later, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was sacked in the end zone by defensive tackle DeForest Buckner for a safety, extending the Colts' lead to 9-3.
Those efforts go hand-in-hand, and it's why Ventrone has all the confidence in the world in his guys to execute and set up the opposing offenses with as much field to cover as possible instead of just always going for the fair catch or the touchback — although those opportunities also are favorable at times, as well.
"I've always felt like – being a coverage player in the NFL when I was playing – you don't get good at covering kicks unless you cover them. To a degree, there are times where we want to be able to force returns and see what we have because at some point, the weather is going to be a factor and you're not going to be able to just kick a touchback every single time," Ventrone said. "Even if you're trying to kick a touchback at times, you may not be able to get the ball out of the end zone or you may have a mis-hit or get under the ball. In that regard you have to be prepared to be able to cover. There are times in the game where you want them forced. There are times in the game where you're not looking to force. It's really just dictated on how the game is going and how confident you feel in your personnel.
"I think that we've done both here," Ventrone continued. "There are times where we're going to kick to force returns. There are times where ideally, you don't want to force returns, but I'm always going to play to the situation in the game and to my personnel."
» Nyheim Hines just keeps improving as a punt returner: The whole league was put on notice Week 16 last year, when Nyheim Hines returned not one, but two punts for touchdowns in the Colts' victory over the Carolina Panthers. Heck, he almost returned a third to the house in that game.
Hines took over punt returner duties in Week 12 after a season-ending injury to Chester Rogers, and ended up having an insane 31.2-yard average on nine total returns last year.
After a shaky start to his career as a returner — some muffs and miscues during the preseason his rookie year led to the Colts looking elsewhere at the position — Hines put in the work, and had the production, to earn the job moving forward.
Through two games this season, Hines has four punt returns for 40 yards; his 10-yards-per-return average in most seasons would once again rank among the best in the league if it holds up.
Ventrone said he's noticed Hines' confidence growing with each opportunity as a returner, which is a huge benefit to the team — and the field position battle — as a whole.
"I think he has actually improved his decision making quite a bit," Ventrone said. "I think Nyheim has done a good job of prepping and studying the punters that we're going against and then I think he trusts his teammates that they are going to do their job to secure him on the catch.
"The top cover players on most teams are the personal protector, who is really the quarterback of the unit, and the two gunners," Ventrone continued. "Ideally, you'd like to be able to stop those penetrating players and give yourself space. I think he trusts that we're going to do that. We've been doing that consistently the last couple years. Hopefully we can keep giving him space and room to work with back there. He's done a good job of being able to attack vertical with the football."