Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons passed on the intensity to rookies like Shawn Williams last season.
In the final installment of our three-part Bengals.com series, we look at how the 2013 rookie class sets up for the upcoming season on special teams after examining it from an offensive and defensive standpoint.
After ten seasons as the Bengals special teams coach, Darrin Simmons assumed the title of special teams coordinator in 2013 but there was no difference on how he approached the youngest players. Special teams is quite often an avenue for young players to make their first impact in the National Football League and Simmons knows it's part of his job to get them to understand their roles and to contribute on teams as they transition from college football to the NFL.
"I think for any young player, no matter whether they're drafted or a college free agent, the quickest way for them to make an impact is on special teams," Simmons said. "It's a fine line balance you have to walk because they're also battling to be starters on offense or defense. It's a tough transition sometimes when guys aren't, but I think the thing they need to understand is they're going to be significant contributors and playing special teams in the NFL is a lot different than playing special teams in college. It's much more involved and it's a lot more in depth than probably what they're used to in college."
Shawn Williams and Jayson DiManche were two rookies that came in and made an immediate impact last season. Williams, a third-round safety out of Georgia, led the Bengals with 14 special teams tackles and DiManche, undrafted out of Southern Illinois, ranked second with 12. They both made big plays in the Bengals' 41-20 win over Cleveland on Nov. 17.
At the beginning of the second quarter, Williams tipped a punt from Spencer Lanning that traveled only nine yards and led to a Bengals touchdown. Later in the quarter, DiManche blocked a Lanning punt that was scooped up by safety Tony Dye and returned 24 yards for a touchdown as part of the Bengals' franchise -best 31 points in one quarter.
Simmons was very impressed with the play of Williams once he was able to find his role. He sees big things in Williams' future, whether that be continuing with the special teams unit or on defense.
"Shawn Williams is a guy that after going back and reviewing the tape of the season, you could see he played very well," Simmons said. "You always look for a couple guys that you build things around and Shawn may be one of those guys if he continues to be in that role for us. He made impact plays. Shawn's one of those guys that once he learned and understood what his role was going to be and settled into that, he played well.
"Going forward if Shawn is going to still be a special teams player, then he has the ability to be a really good one -a Pro Bowl type, an impact type player- and someone that you build your scheme around."
DiManche came on as the season went on. Even though he ranked second in tackles, Simmons knows there's still work to do.
"We found a couple of things that he was good at. Rushing the punter was one of them. I think that stems from his time as a defensive end pass rusher (in college)," Simmons said. "Jayson had a significant number of tackles for us, but still can improve in that area. He needs to make a jump and he can be an impact player for us."
Defensive end Margus Hunt came to the Bengals with an impressive track record of special teams at Southern Methodist University, where his 17 blocked place kicks included an NCAA-record 10 blocked field goals. While he did not have any blocks in his first NFL season, Simmons expects Hunt to get better and better and looks for him to make a leap in his second season, echoing the comments of defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
"Margus is unique because of his size and athleticism," Simmons said. "I think he'll make a big jump between year one and year two, especially because he's an older guy. He runs as well or better than some linebackers. For a big, tall guy to do the athletic things he can do is pretty rare. Margus needs to just play more. He needs to get more and more reps, and the more he sees, and the more he understands, the better off he will be."
Although he only played in one game last season, running back Rex Burkhead is a guy who could be a big contributor on special teams next season. Burkhead prides himself on his preparation and his desire and work ethic have been touted by the coaching staff. Simmons thinks the way Burkhead prepared himself like he was going to play every game is going to pay him dividends in the future.
"I expect big things out of Rex," Simmons said. "He only played in one game but he got his eyes opened up to what NFL football is about in that game. Rex is a smart guy, he's a try-hard guy that's very detailed…He's very intuitive in that regard."
Two guys that did not get a chance to play last season that could be contributors in the future are linebacker Sean Porter and cornerback Onterio McCalebb. Porter suffered a torn labrum in preseason and was forced to miss the entire season while McCalebb spent the season on the practice squad. The 5-10 McCalebb is just 170 pounds, but his 4.34-second 40-yard dash at the 2013 NFL scouting combine was tied for second best and two of his 53 kick returns at Auburn went for touchdowns for a 25.7-yard career average.
"The jury is still out on Sean Porter because we're not sure yet what he is," Simmons said. "He played a little in preseason but we hope he can get it going and step up for us. Onterio McCalebb is a guy that obviously has great physical tools and physical ability and he's learning how to play defense. He can really run fast and I think the practice squad was a perfect place for him last year to learn how to play NFL football."
The Bengals showed back on Nov. 17 how a solid special teams unit can swing a game and how young players can be vital. Simmons' ability to integrate youth into his unit has perhaps been his biggest strength over the years and he's looking to do it again.
"Players typically make their biggest jump in their NFL career between year one and year two, because they know how to expect in the speed of the game," he said. "The speed of the game is so much faster than anything they're used to and getting them to understand what our tempo is as a team. We practice harder and more intense I think than a lot of teams. That way it just carries over in to the games. When they get to games they don't have to try and shift gears. That's how they do it all the time. It's a natural thing."