- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2014

While most of his teammates streamed off the field Thursday afternoon, Washington Redskins wide receiver Andre Roberts stayed behind.

As the team’s kickoff and punt returner, Roberts has additional responsibilities that sometimes require extra work. On Thursday, this included catching punts from a right-footed player, like Jaguars punter Bryan Anger, as opposed to a lefty, like Redskins punter Tress Way. He has experience catching punts from both, but the differences remain.

“It’s the reverse spin,” he said last week. “When you’re not used to it, and you see it in a game, it’s just different.”

Though Roberts was first brought to Washington as a candidate to start at wide receiver opposite Pierre Garcon, he has always welcomed opportunities as a returner. He returned punts during his time at The Citadel, a small military college in his home state of South Carolina, and as a rookie in Arizona, where he spent the first four seasons of his NFL career.

When he sat down to sign a four-year, $16 million contract with the Redskins in March, he was asked if he would like to be a returner again. The 26-year-old didn’t think twice.

“I always feel like I’m a receiver first,” Roberts said Thursday, “but as a punt returner, you just get your hands on the ball more.”

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In a way, Roberts appreciates the return game because it first offered him a path to the NFL. The Cardinals picked him in the third round of the 2010 draft in large part to replace Steve Breaston, who had become the team’s No. 2 wide receiver, as their primary punt returner.

Though Roberts went relatively early in the draft and had a defined role in Arizona, he still felt overlooked. The Citadel has never been a football powerhouse, even in the Football Championship Subdivision. And only seven players from the school’s entire conference (the Southern Conference) currently have a job in the NFL.

“It’s very tough [coming from a small school],” said Pierre Garcon, who played Division III football at Mount Union College. “You just have to make plays when opportunities are given. Most of the time, they’re going to be on special teams.”

Roberts’ first three touches in the NFL came as a punt returner. By the end of his rookie season, he had racked up nearly twice as many returns (49) as receptions (24).

“You get more touches,” Roberts said. “I wasn’t getting that at receiver, so I was happy to get it somewhere, you know?”

By proving himself as a returner, Roberts slowly gained playing time as a slot receiver. His catches and touchdowns went up, while his special teams opportunities were soon limited to practice. He continued to prepare as a returner but only returned two punts and two kicks in his next three seasons combined.

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When he arrived in Washington, that changed. Roberts had four returns on Sunday alone, emerging as one of the few bright spots in a 17-6 loss to the Houston Texans. He broke off a 25-yard punt return early in the second quarter, and a 28-yard kickoff return a few minutes later.

Special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica said Roberts made an impact on the game even when he didn’t touch the ball.

“If you look back at the tape, there’s a couple of those punts, whether you fair catch it or let it go into the end zone … that’s yardage that doesn’t get chalked up a lot of times,” Kotwica said. “Instead of our offense starting at the 2-yard line, they’re starting at the 20.”

Jay Gruden said before last week’s loss that Roberts would be “the No. 1 option” in the return game, but the first-year coach has been equally impressed by his ability and instincts on offense. Though he works primarily in the slot, Roberts has learned the routes of both outside wide receiver roles as well, giving Gruden an added flexibility.

“His ability to pick up things from a mental standpoint is probably as good as anybody in the room, as far as knowing all three positions, knowing all the blocking schemes, knowing all the routes,” Gruden said. “Not to mention, he’s playing special teams and he does a lot of the dirty work as far as blocking is concerned and doesn’t say a peep. Well, he says a peep. But he’s been good about it.”

Roberts likely would have been the most significant addition to Washington’s offense this offseason if the Redskins had not signed DeSean Jackson shortly thereafter. Though he only caught one pass for 22 yards in the season-opener, Roberts was inches away from another, narrowly stepping out of bounds and negating what would have been a deep completion from Robert Griffin III.

But in the process of learning a new offense, Roberts has continued to excel on special teams, never eschewing the role that ultimately helped him prove his NFL worth in the first place.

“I’ve always liked [returning],” Roberts said. “So when I got here and I had the opportunity to do it, I just embraced the role.”

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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