ASHBURN — Tress Way almost took the stability for granted. For the better part of five years, the punter worked primarily with the same long-snapper in Nick Sundberg and the same kicker in Dustin Hopkins, save for the occasional injury substitute here or there.
So, when Washington opted not to re-sign Sundberg this offseason and instead traded up for sixth-rounder Camaron Cheeseman, Way found himself in a new position. Suddenly, he was the one going over small details with the rookie. He said he realized the difference in Thursday’s preseason game.
“I hadn’t had to have that conversation ever,” Way said. “Nick was the one that showed me (the ropes) when I came here in ‘14.”
There was an easy chemistry in the Hopkins-Way-Sundberg bond — one that Washington’s special teams core is now trying to rediscover, this time with Cheeseman in the mix. Hopkins badly missed both of his field-goal attempts in Washington’s 22-13 loss, leading coach Ron Rivera to remark the trio “don’t have the rhythm and their timing is off.”
Rivera did not pin the blame specifically on one player. He has backed Hopkins whenever asked, telling reporters that Washington isn’t mulling a kicking change nor bringing in another kicker for competition. He supported Cheeseman, saying the Michigan product has snapped the ball “pretty well.”
Still, the issues need to be corrected — if not for Friday’s preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals, then definitely for Week 1 against the Los Angeles Chargers.
The problem, according to Way and Rivera, boils down to timing. At 6-foot-4 and 237 pounds, Cheeseman snaps the ball much harder and faster than Sundberg (6-foot-1, 254 pounds), and Hopkins needs to anticipate that snap. On Hopkins’ missed 50-yarder Thursday, the kicker can be seen hesitating when winding up, just before shanking the ball wide left.
Way essentially serves as a middle man between Hopkins and Cheeseman. As the holder, Way’s left hand is the key tell for Hopkins: Whenever Way puts that hand up to catch the ball, that lets Hopkins know to begin his process to kick. For Cheeseman, Way’s head turn and cadence will let the rookie know when it’s time to snap the ball. The goal, Way said, is to complete the entire process in just 1.3 seconds.
After the game, Way said the three of them talked about what led to the misses and have since “fixed some things.” According to Way, Cheeseman didn’t know when the punter was going to turn his head or when the hand was coming.
“It’s super nerdy specialist talk,” Way said, “but I appreciate you asking.”
Way said that he’s been impressed by Cheeseman’s “humility” and the way that he’s embraced trying to learn. Way and Hopkins have made a point to have fun with the rookie, too.
They’ve implemented a small fine system that will essentially force Cheeseman to pay for a steak dinner at the end of the season. Cheeseman tells a story that doesn’t have a satisfying ending? That’s a fine. Cheeseman can’t answer a trivia question from Way, a noted trivia enthusiast? Pay up.
The situation, of course, still bears monitoring. Even before Cheeseman was brought in, Hopkins went through a rough stretch last season — opening the year 12-of-17 from field goal range.
Hopkins corrected the problems and only missed two more field goal attempts in the final seven games of the season, good for an 88.2% conversion rate.
Rivera stuck with Hopkins then, and wants to stick with him now. Likewise, Washington understandably wouldn’t be eager to part ways with a long-snapper they moved up in the draft. But more missed kicks could force Rivera and Co. to make a necessary change.
So far, the team is giving them time to establish that rhythm.
“Cheese’ throws it back with some heat on it,” Rivera said. “That, to me, kind of speeds things up. It’s something we’re working through. It’s something that I believe we’ll get down. And like I said, I’m not too concerned.”