Zach Hocker’s night was already going pretty well when he shuffled in front of Patriots returner Travis Hawkins, who was sprinting downfield at full speed.
Hocker was drafted by the Redskins in the seventh round to push, and potentially usurp, incumbent kicker Kai Forbath. The University of Arkansas product is known for his leg strength on kickoffs and success in college, not his tackling ability.
But when faced with a charging Hawkins on Thursday, Hocker did his job, wrapping up and bringing the returner to the ground. The play was ultimately called back because of a holding penalty on the Patriots, but the tackle did not go unnoticed. As Hocker walked back to the sidelines, he was greeted with helmet slaps from a host of veterans, with Trent Williams and Brandon Meriweather at the front of the line.
“I’d give him an ‘A,’ ” outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said, grinning. “It doesn’t matter how the tackle looks. If you get him on the ground, it’s a good tackle.”
Coach Jay Gruden also walked over to congratulate his rookie kicker on the play, which capped an all-around solid performance in his preseason debut. Hocker put the opening kickoff into the back of the end zone for a touchback, made his two field goal opportunities from 27 and 39 yards, and converted his only extra-point attempt in Washington’s 23-6 win.
Squashing a Patriots return was just the cherry on top.
“The tackle was cool,” Hocker said. “The hang time was okay … but one touchback out of three kickoffs ain’t going to cut it if I’m trying to make this team. Hopefully next week, you’ll see a lot more of that. I’m just trying to improve.”
Like every position battle, the competition at kicker is still in its infancy. But Hocker took a step ahead of Forbath on Thursday by executing all of his kicks, unlike his more experienced teammate.
Forbath missed his second field goal attempt from 46 yards in the second quarter. He made his first, from 39 yards, but only after his initial miss was nullified by a delay of game penalty. He also missed a field goal Tuesday during a joint practice with the Patriots in Richmond.
Those struggles carried over to kickoffs, as well. Forbath’s first kickoff resulted in a touchback, but he barely reached the 5-yard-line on one kick and then shanked another out of bounds. He was trying to place the ball along the sideline to give his teammates a chance to practice a different coverage scheme.
“We’ll look at the tape,” Gruden said of his two potential kickers. “Zach had a couple great kickoffs and a good tackle and a field goal. And Kai, you know, he had the kickoff out of bounds like I said. So that’s a decision that’s going to come after the fourth preseason game. I know it. “
Forbath didn’t have much experience kicking off during his days at UCLA, and short kickoffs were his greatest weakness last season. He said he has focused on kickoffs in training camp, but the only way to improve is repetition. “The more you do it,” he said, “the better you get at it.”
Forbath said the pressure of competition, another kicker trying to steal his job, did not weigh on his mind Thursday night.
“No, you can’t think of it like that,” he said. “I can only control when I kick.”
Gruden expects the kicking competition to go down to the wire. One night will not seal the fate of either player. But for Hocker, it’s a quality first step in the right direction.