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Combine Czar Simmons To Stage Bengals Punting Competition; McPherson's Only Miss As Rookie Was Combine And Bengals Took Advantage

Kevin Huber (10) and Evan McPherson celebrate another one.
Kevin Huber (10) and Evan McPherson celebrate another one.

INDIANAPOLIS _ Bengals assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, a 21st century NFL scouting combine staple, has outlasted the RCA Dome as well as Ike and Jonsey's and other downtown Indianapolis landmarks to again oversee the drills for draft's prospective punters and kickers.  

He's been doing it since he arrived as then Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' special teams coach in 2003, which would have made this year's combine his 20th running the show.

But it is his 19th because COVID wiped out last year, which might have been one of the biggest breaks for him and the Bengals. That didn't prevent from returning Thursday to provide an always entertaining Q-and-A session with some of the local scribes covering the club.

Simmons allowed:

_If long-time punter Kevin Huber is going to break the Bengals' all-time games played record that he shares with Ken Riley in the 2022 opener, he's going to have to beat out practice squad punter Drue Chrisman in training camp. It's Huber's first camp competition in his 14th camp and the first punting competition Simmons has staged since 2004.

_Simmons thinks not having the combine last year helped the Bengals secure the services of record-breaking kicker Evan McPherson with a fifth-round pick.

_Although he liked the competency displayed by wide receiver Trent Taylor returning punts when he was called up from the practice squad for the final eight games of the Bengals Super Bowl run, Simmons said he's seeking "a dominant returner who can get yards after catch."

And, Simmons revealed he wasn't happy that McPherson and long snapper Clark Harris stayed on the bench to watch the Super Bowl halftime show instead of going into the locker room.

"That's a sore subject," said an uncharacteristically curt Simmons. "That's a real sore subject."

But McPherson is one of the big reasons Simmons is hoping Huber, who'll turn 37 before camp, re-signs in free agency. In fact, he says he expects him to be back.

 While Simmons says Huber needs to punt better, he also realizes his golden hands are huge as the holder in a kicking game that saw the Bengals become the first team to win three straight postseason games by one score as McPherson tied the NFL playoff record with 14 field goals.

"I used to say his job was 60 percent punting and 40 percent holding. Now that may have flipped," Simmons said. "If we don't score those points, we don't win those games I don't want to mess up the operation. We have to score points."

But both Simmons and Huber know he has to hit the ball better, certainly better than he did in the postseason. Off a career year in 2020, Huber dipped nearly two yards in net average, from 42.8 to 41, before hitting a net of 40.9 in the playoffs.

"You have to be able flip the field when you're punting out of your own end zone and you don't want your opponent starting from inside your 50," Simmons said.

But while Chrisman, a Cincinnati school boy who went to LaSalle High School and grew up in Lawrenceburg, Ind., has the big leg, he's nowhere near the holder Huber is. He did make headlines in Columbus for a hold, but it was a ring instead when he proposed to his girlfriend during spring game festivities.  

After one of the great punting careers at Ohio State (fourth on the all-time list), Chrisman had an impressive spring when he signed with the Bengals after the draft but he's got a lot to show Simmons before he pops the question.

Chrisman broke his hand before camp started and was off and on the practice squad enough that Simmons had a hard time evaluating him. He likes the leg strength, but he says Chrisman needs to take "a thousand snaps a day," to improve holding from where he is now.

On the other hand, "(Huber) is a very calming influence for Evan," Simmons said.

If anybody can find a punter in Indy, it's Simmons. But Huber, in the fifth round in 2009, is the only one he's drafted. In his first season in Cincinnati, there was a bit of drama with vet free agent Nick Harris pitted against Travis Dorsch, a 2002 fourth-rounder and the highest drafted kicker in Bengals history. Harris won the camp derby, but then he got hurt in midseason and the Bengals turned to former Raven Kyle Richardson.

Then in 2004, the Bengals coached the Senior Bowl and Simmons emerged with undrafted free agent Kyle Larson. When Richardson got hurt in the preseason, Larson was the man until Huber arrived. That's been it for Bengals punters in the last 18 years.

Like punting and kicking strategies have changed over the past two decades, so has Simmons' combine workout. For punters, it used to be "just banging the ball,' but Simmons has implemented more directional punting and plus-50 punts that need touch.

As for kicking, well, Simmons has just moved the kids back on field goals.   

"They're stronger," Simmons said. "The fifty-yard field goals are much more common now."

Enter McPherson, whose dozen 50-yard fields goals this past season and postseason set an NFL record. Simmons thinks McPherson would have raised his stock indoor at Indy if there was a 2021 combine since he was almost certain to put on a show for the entire league.

As it was, he had a great pro day at Florida. But not everybody was looking and it wasn't live on NFL Network.

"Good for us," Simmons said.

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