- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

Undrafted out of college, Khary Campbell was looking for any niche that would jump-start his NFL career.

A former starting receiver on playoff teams in Philadelphia, James Thrash was looking for any way to extend his NFL career.

Two years later, Campbell and Thrash have found those roles as key special teams players with the Washington Redskins.

Thrash, defensive back Pierson Prioleau and fullback Mike Sellers used special teams early in their careers to make a roster. They later earned starting jobs on offense and defense.

“Special teams is how I got noticed,” said Thrash, a 10-year veteran. “Later on, I’ve taken pride in playing as hard as I can on special teams because it’s a true measure of a player to run down the field full speed and try to knock somebody’s head off.”

Linebacker Campbell, running back Rock Cartwright and cornerback Ade Jimoh are using special teams as a way to contribute while working toward bigger roles on offense and defense.

“I was glad and surprised when they said quality practice time will be spent on special teams,” said Campbell, who enters his fifth season in the NFL. “Coach [Joe] Gibbs believes that special teams is a place where guys like us can fit in and not just make the team but make a contribution.”

Special teams coach Danny Smith identified these six players as the core of Redskins special teams that last year ranked second and sixth in punt and kickoff coverage, respectively.

“Their progress has been outstanding,” Smith said about the Gang of Six. “They understand the importance of special teams, they work extremely hard at it and they’ve helped develop the young guys. Special teams is obviously important here, so I have a great job. We’ve had a group of guys we could develop into core special teams guys; now, we’re working on building a bigger core. The larger the number, the better I like what we can do.”

The Redskins were one of only four teams (joining Atlanta, Buffalo and Philadelphia) to finish in the top 10 of both coverage categories. No team has finished first in both.

Complementing players like Campbell are starters — safety Sean Taylor (kickoff return), cornerback Shawn Springs (punt return) and safety Adam Archuleta and linebackers Marcus Washington and Lemar Marshall (all punt coverage) — who play on one or more special teams unit.

Smith counts himself fortunate that he works for a coach like Gibbs, who starts each practice with 25 to 30 minutes of special teams drills and doesn’t mind seeing starters on several different units.

“If you don’t respect special teams, you’ll lose games,” Gibbs said. “When I first became a head coach here, [assistant coach] Wayne Sevier was so dedicated and always talked to me about special teams. He helped me have a real appreciation for it.”

At the Redskins’ first minicamp in March 2004, Campbell was pleasantly surprised with how much time was spent on special teams.

“And it wasn’t just time spent standing around,” he said.

Sevier’s opinion was given great weight during Gibbs’ first stint in Washington. And Smith’s input will be noted when the 53-man roster is set Sept.2. Reserve running backs, linebackers and defensive backs who have strong preseasons on special teams have better chances of making the roster.

The emphasis on special teams began to show last year when the Redskins made strides in the coverage game, jumping from 26th to second (4.7 yards a return) in punt coverage and 13th to sixth (20.9) in kickoff coverage. Opponents failed to score a touchdown on kick or punt returns.

“I think you should see improvement from Year 1 to Year 2, so I expected it and I saw it,” Smith said. “When you get a group of players that have to learn the system and then you get them believing in it and then you get them helping the younger guys, it’s a part of a maturation process within the system.”

The top seven special teams tacklers — led by Campbell’s 34 and Mike Sellers’ 30 — return this season.

Though the team made progress in coverage areas last season, this year’s focus is on field position created by solid returns. The Redskins fell from 20th to 28th (6.0) in punt returns and improved slightly on kickoff returns, from 12th to 11th (23.2, but they did score two touchdowns).

The Redskins had 29 scoring drives last year of 60-plus yards — not only an indictment on the return teams but an indication of other weaknesses, such as long drives by the opposition and the lack of turnovers created by the defense in the season’s first 11 weeks.

Coaches hope a dangerous return man, like newcomer Antwaan Randle El, helps solve the problem of poor field position. During Gibbs’ first run with the Redskins (1981-92), he started with Mike Nelms, who made two Pro Bowls, and finished with Brian Mitchell, who averaged 13.3 yards a punt return in 1991.

Mitchell was the Redskins’ chief return man until 1999. Six times he averaged more than 10 yards on punt returns; each year, he averaged more than 20 yards on kickoff returns.

Randle El last season averaged 10.5 yards a punt return for Pittsburgh and scored two touchdowns.

“He’s the best punt returner I’ve been around, by far,” Smith said. “He has great confidence, has great change of direction, great vision, great quickness — a lot of the things that help a guy develop into a good punt returner.”

Said Campbell: “When we played [against] him in Pittsburgh, he gave us all types of fits. He has the ability to make the first and second guys miss, and that will give us time to block the other guys.”

Smith keeps detailed statistics about each special teams snap, but the numbers he brings up to the team center around big plays that affect field position.

“The goals we try to develop are team-oriented, not who has the most tackles,” Smith said. “It’s all about field position. Where are we giving the offense the ball after a kickoff return? Where are we putting the defense after kickoff coverage? On returns, we want to get the first [10 yards] of a drive. If we do that this year, we’ll be near the top of the league in punt returns.”

The work continues Saturday against the New York Jets, when Smith will get more opportunities to look at young players who could crack the final roster with a big hit on a coverage or big block on a return.

“We have far from arrived, and we have a lot of work to do,” Smith said. “But these guys are willing to do the work.”

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