A new special teams coach, a few new faces at punt returner, and a brand new season. What could possibly go wrong?
Everything. Everything went wrong on Day 1 of Chargers training camp.
Here is the breakdown of the punt returner competition as I saw it today:
- Austin Proehl
- KJ Hill
- Jalen Guyton
- Tyron Johnson
In both drills and live reps, Austin Proehl (I believe) was the first to field punts. Based on that alone it looked like he had the inside track to land the starting job; however, fielding the punts proved difficult for the former Rams and XFL wide receiver. I counted two dropped punts, which ended up being the theme of the day for the punt returners. The four options at returner dropped somewhere between six and eight punts on the day. Full disclosure: I was not watching the punt returners the entire time, so seeing somewhere between six and eight dropped punts in just the time I was watching them is frightening.
No one had a worse day at punt returner than Tyron Johnson, who looked to be hesitant to catch the punts as they descended. According to Arjun (who was there with me) he could hear one of the assistant coaches pull Johnson and bench him from the role altogether. On one occasion Johnson failed to get underneath the ball properly and it hit him on a bounce, which in a real-game situation could be disaster for the special teams unit.
Are the Chargers doomed to repeat their historically awful special teams play from 2020? Last season they were 28th in the league with a meager 5.6 yards per punt return. For comparison, the No. 1 team averaged 15.5 yards per return.
For what it is worth, Johnson looked really good as a returner once the ball was in his hands. There is no denying the athletic talent on display every time he hits the field. The problem currently is fielding the punts, which should be the easiest part of the return when no one is tackling or in pads at practice.
Patience is key for now, but the stress of solving special teams only tightens by the day as the season approaches.