- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Danny Smith is still getting used to having James Thrash around as a non-playing member of the Washington Redskins.

“I tell him all the time, ‘You don’t look good in that coach’s shirt. I liked you when you had a helmet on,’ ” Smith said.

That’s the kind of confidence the Redskins’ special teams coach had in Thrash and fellow standout Khary Campbell. They were veterans who embraced their role of covering kicks and punts, trying to create running room for the returners and ensuring younger players embraced the importance of special teams.

But just as the offense is trying to find a No. 2 receiver and the defense is trying to fully utilize rookie Brian Orakpo, the special teams units are going through their own transition at training camp.

Thrash and Campbell are gone. Hunter Smith is the new punter and holder. The kicker’s spot isn’t solidified. And Antwaan Randle El’s status as full-time punt returner is in doubt.

Since the Redskins don’t use wholesale starters on multiple special teams units, roster spots are up for grabs for players who came to camp on the bubble.

“You can take the best athletes we have and put them on teams, and if they don’t practice the techniques, they’re not going to do a good job,” Danny Smith said. “I would rather have lesser players who know what they’re doing. If you have 11 great players out there who don’t know what they’re doing, it won’t matter.”

That role is how Thrash and Campbell carved out niches with the Redskins and is the best way for players like Cody Glenn, Robert Henson and Marques Hagans to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. In last year’s season finale, Thrash played on kickoff coverage, kickoff return and punt coverage. Campbell played on those three and punt return. According to the team, Campbell led the Redskins with 27 special teams tackles, and Thrash was second with 21.

“I miss those guys so much,” Smith said. “What if you took the top two rushers or top two receivers or top two pancake blockers? It’s a void, but it’s a void we were in sync with. We’ve got young guys, and it’s my job to coach them, their job is to do it and our job is to pick the right guys.”

The task of finding the right guys continues Tuesday during the second special teams-only practice. Last week’s practice included 55 of the 80 players.

“There is a larger pool of potential this year with all the young players coming in and even the second-year players that were here and have been in our program and they’re better,” coach Jim Zorn said. “I’m encouraged with what we have to work with.”

The rookies will get their shot, but the holdovers know they have to enhance their roles.

“Now it’s time for younger guys like myself to step up,” third-year linebacker H.B. Blades said. “I think I can fill in and do some of the things Khary did, like leadership and speaking up and being an example not only by talking but by doing my job every Sunday.”

Blades is among a group of returning players who have Smith’s trust. Blades, Rock Cartwright, Mike Sellers, Chris Wilson, Kareem Moore and Alfred Fincher played on three units in the season finale, and Reed Doughty is back from injury. Smith said it could take several players to fill the roles held by Campbell and Thrash.

“Will I have the same trust?” Smith said. “Probably not because they were veterans, they had done it, they liked it, they were good at it and we were on the same page.”

Smith’s challenges are many this month. He has to decide which of the rookies can play which teams, whether the kicker will be Shaun Suisham or Dave Rayner and how much he can use Santana Moss and DeAngelo Hall on punt returns.

Where the Redskins hope they’re set for the first time in years is at punter with Smith. In the past five years, the Redskins ranked 32nd, 22nd, 20th, 20th and 21st in net punting.

“Hunter’s going to be out of sight,” Danny Smith said. “Hunter’s a punter. It’s been a long time since we had one of them. Wherever we say the ball is going, it’s a pretty good chance that’s where it’s going to be. We stopped calling where the ball was going to be in the past because we didn’t know, nor did the punter know.”

The real evaluation on the special teams units won’t begin in earnest until Aug. 13 in Baltimore, the first preseason game.

“[Campbell and Thrash] were huge contributors and were obviously very good for us,” Suisham said. “But we have a lot of talented guys, and I’m sure Danny will find the appropriate people to put in their places.”

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