When Darren Rizzi says the breakthrough isn’t far away, you extend to him the benefit of the doubt because the New Orleans Saints’ new special teams coordinator, hired away from Miami, knows of which he speaks.
In the last eight years, as the Dolphins’ special teams coordinator, Rizzi’s units ranked first in the NFL with 11 blocked punts and second with 22 total blocked kicks. Three special teams players were named to four Pro Bowls and five players were named to the NFL All-Rookie team.
The Saints’ return teams, especially, may benefit from his expertise.
New Orleans averaged 6.5 yards on 24 punt returns and 24.3 on 23 kickoff returns last season. In 2017, it was 6.4 yards on 34 punt returns and 22.9 on 36 kickoffs, including Alvin Kamara’s 106-yard kick return. In ’16, it was 9.6 yards on punt returns, 16.5 on kickoffs and in ’15, the numbers were 8.6 and 21.6, respectively.
Back in ’14, 7.1 yards per punt return and 25.9 on kickoffs. In ’13, 6.1 and 23 and in ’12, 7.6 and 24.8.
The last time the Saints had a punt return for a touchdown was in ’11, by Darren Sproles, who averaged 10.1 yards on 29 returns and 27.2 yards on 40 kickoff returns.
Coach Sean Payton has said he’d like to see a little less meat left on the bone in the return game. Rizzi said the feeding doesn’t need to stop there.
“The first thing I look at is, we’re not very far away,” Rizzi said. “You’ve got a lot of guys working hard in those units, you’ve got a lot of the blockers working that are really working their tails off. That’s part of it.
“I think sometimes, everybody gets caught up in just the returner aspect of it, in the returner's numbers. We have an expression called, ‘One-eleventh.’ It’s all 11 guys doing their job. I think sometimes in the return game, it’s a great, great example of how one guy could make or break the return. It could be a blocker, it could be a missed block, it could be a missed assignment.
“I think that’s where, a lot of times last year, we had maybe nine or 10 guys on point, and maybe one guy here, one guy there (miss an assignment). So we’re not that far away in both, kick return and punt return. We brought in a couple of new pieces in the returner so it’s going to be real interesting to see how that works out and plays out. I’m excited about those guys we’ve got here. I come from a place where my philosophy is, we’re going to make big plays in those aspects of the game.
“Our punt return game will probably be systematically a little bit different than they did a year before, but a lot of it will be multiple looks. It’ll be a lot of looks for putting pressure on the punt team. It’s the same thing – last year we might have done a great job of blocking everybody on the inside, but we lost one on the outside. So we were so close. We’re so close to getting there.”
There are two notable candidates on the roster to help the Saints get there in the return game.
Free agent signee Marcus Sherels was Minnesota’s primary punt returner for eight years, and averaged 10.6 yards per return, with five touchdowns. He averaged 12 yards per return last year and ranked in the top five for the third time in the last six years.
Free agent rookie Deonte Harris, from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., set the NCAA All-Division record for combined return touchdowns, with 14. In college, he returned 63 kickoffs for a 32.6-yard average and six touchdowns, and 48 punts for a 20.4-yard average and eight touchdowns.
“I’m just trying to play football,” Harris said. “If I get the opportunity to fill that role, it’ll be a blessing.
“I’m just confident in what I know I can do on the field. My film speaks for itself. You’ve just got to have confidence and be able to relax and let your ability take over.”
“I’m one of those guys that feels you can never have enough guys in the building,” Rizzi said. “I think every special teams coach will probably tell you that.
“But you look at who we have and then we bring in a guy like Marcus Sherels, who’s had a really solid career as a punt returner, and a little bit of kick (returner) as well. Then you look at a guy like Deonte Harris, who had a really, really good college career and broke the NCAA record for touchdowns. You look at guys in the building who have done it before, so we’ve got a pool of guys we’re working with.
“This time of year, it’s more about getting the foundations down and techniques and things like that. And that’s what we’ve been working on. But I feel like we’re got some really good pieces, and I’m excited about that.”