New Orleans Saints
Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi
Assistant Special Teams Coach Phil Galiano
Video Call with Local Media
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
How much consistency does re-signing Zach Wood bring to that kicking unit?
(Coach Rizzi): "I think anytime you keep that operation together, you know, I think that's really important. I was fortunate in Miami to have the same snapper the entire time I was there and really realize how important that is. I think Zach really performed well last year. I think he really had a big improvement from the year before. I think that kind of shows the long snapper position is one of those guys where if you're not talking about him, he probably had a great year. He's kind of like an umpire in baseball (or) referee. If you don't know his name, he's probably doing a good job. So I think Zach performed very well and to have that operation back, the only disappointing thing, obviously and it goes for everybody, is not being able to practice those guys here together in the spring, but, again, having those guys back in the familiarity is huge for sure."
What are your initial impressions of Ty Montgomery and do you plan to use him on special teams?
(Coach Rizzi): "I really liked Ty coming out of college. I mean he was a guy I evaluated very diligently I guess you'd say. I really dove into his background in college and watched a lot of college tape on him. He was a guy that we had rated very highly coming out of Stanford. A guy I really watched a lot of film on him. Now having played against him and watched him perform in the league and he's a guy that does a lot of different things. He's a guy that, not only, I think he probably gets noticed mostly as a returner, but he's actually done a lot of different things. He's played on the punt team. He has played (as) a personal protector. He has played wing, has played in other spots in the punt return game other than returner. He's been on the kickoff team. So here's a guy that has got a lot of value and I think I speak for every special teams coach when I tell you you're always looking for offensive skill guys that can bring value to the special teams core positions, not necessarily the returner, but you're always looking for offensive skill guys that can bring value. So having watched him in college and having watched her now for a few years in the NFL and I am really excited to work with him."
What do you think are the next steps for Deonte Harris?
(Coach Rizzi): "I think I say this all the time. I think people look at me like I am crazy, but I think Deonte can actually really improve a lot. I think people will just automatically look at the numbers, his accolades, the All-Pro and Pro Bowl and all that and automatically assume that this guy has got to figure it out. I think Deonte would probably be the first guy to tell you that he has enough things to work on. If you look back at last season, which we obviously had a lot of time on our hands here to look back at a lot of things, we got off to a slow start in the return game in both punt and kick and some of that was growing pains with Deonte. He made some bad decisions early in the season. His ball security wasn't great. He made some bad decisions in terms of when to field the ball, (and) when not to field the ball. Those are things he got better at as a year went on, but I certainly think he is not a finished product yet. So I think he can actually really make some more strides. We know he has the ability, that is obviously a no-brainer. He is very dangerous with the ball in his hand, but I think now (he's) refining his return game. What I mean by that is just kind of getting better at the little things. There is just some of the decision-making, the ball security, some of the calls. We have some calls that the returner makes sometimes things like that. I think he can really improve on. I think you saw that because obviously it was trending up big time at the end of the season. So hopefully we can kind of just pick up where we left off. That's easier said than done, but here's a guy that hasn't had (a lot of experience) obviously only one year of experience in NFL return game because it's totally different than college. And so I still think there's a lot of room for growth there."
Your thoughts on what you've seen from Tommy Stevens and do you see other teams using athletic QBs in other ways?
(Coach Rizzi): "I'm going to let Phil (Galiano) talk on that because he knows Tommy personally a lot better than I do. I can just tell you from my perspective, watching Tommy Stevens perform as a college player. He obviously got the size, he obviously has got great speed. I know from meeting with them now on these virtual meetings, he is a very intelligent player. And so here is a guy that's got all the quote unquote tools to work with, from my perspective. To answer the second part of your question, I think you look back like Trace McSorley, of the Baltimore Ravens, or some other quarterbacks that are now, if they are not going to be maybe the starter or even the number two, a lot of teams are now kind of copycating that, because of what Taysom's (Hill) done. I think it's funny because you hear it in the draft a lot, you hear it even in our draft meetings. Can this guy do this? Can this guy do that if he's not going to be a guy, because you're always looking for jobs for that guy to do, if he's going to be around on the 53 or maybe the practice squad. So Tommy's obviously a good example of that. Phil, you can kind of take it from here cause you know Tommy a lot better than I do personal."
(Coach Galiano): "Yeah, so I was fortunate enough to get to coach Tommy when he was at Penn State and I was there and at that time he was competing to be the starting quarterback. So unfortunately, I didn't get to use him on special teams at that point, because he was in quarterback battle, but he was always a guy that (was athletic), he's big, he's fast, he's physical, he's super smart. He's super tough. I always knew (he) could play special teams for us. And he's an extremely hard worker and he fits everything that we want here. So we're really excited and I'm excited to be able to get the work with him once we can get back on the field."
What characteristics does J.T Gray he bring to your unit, having been selected as an All-Pro last season?
(Coach Galiano): "The first thing he brings is he's extremely tough and competitive and he can run and he takes great pride in special teams and wanting to be the best. He's a guy that'll come in and he studies extra film and he knows his role and he has a plan for all his opponents. He really is a pros pro when it comes to special teams and he's a guy that has worked his way up. It wasn't like it was given to him and he's continued to work hard and he's only going to continue to get better and he's hungry and has things that he wants to prove."
(Coach Rizzi): "If I could piggyback on that real quick. I was always super impressed. J.T. is a guy watched coming out of college and I thought could really perform well on special teams in the NFL. But now having worked with him for a year. Phil (Galiano) kind of hit on it. Here's a guy that you talk about and we talk about this all the time and special teams players. There's a lot of guys that come into the league and their goal isn't to be a special teams player. They want to be (or) they maybe have aspirations of being a really good defensive or offensive player. Here's a guy that not only knew his role, but embraced his role. I think there's a big difference. He embraced, and he looked at, studied other special teams players in league. I don't know if I have been around a guy that spent as much time as J.T. did during a gameweek of preparing for special teams, meaning watching the opponents, watching himself and this guy had a plan going in. So not only athletically is he gifted in all the tools he has, but he really studied. And I think he prepared himself and the sky's the limit for him. He's got an amazing ceiling for himself, meaning he sets high, high goals for himself. I'll give you an example, he was pissed off that he was second-team All-Pro and he was upset. You got the rest of the league that would be jumping out, you know, jumping for joy and J.T. was upset that he wasn't first-team. So he comes back this year with more fire (and) more hunger. And so just to kind of piggyback off with Coach Phil said and I agree everything with Phil said, but (I'm) just really impressed with that player."
(Coach Galiano): "The other thing that he brings that I was thinking listening to Coach Rizzi talk was that competition that he brings because we're fortunate in having J.T. and having Justin Hardee on the other side and those guys competing in practice to get better and that sort of thing. They make each other better, which is an awesome combination for us."
How important was it bring Justin Hardee back?
(Coach Rizzi): "Yeah, and there's special teams, it's probably the biggest area on every NFL team where there's the most turnover every year, because the bottom of your roster is the part of the roster that's going to change the most. There's always the most moving parts on special teams. You don't see as much on the offense or defensive side, maybe in a particular year here or there, but usually not. Usually, there's more consistency and continuity. My point is to be able to have guys that come back into the fold like Justin Hardee, like J.T. Gray. I can't say enough to have the experience and not only the talent, but the experience and the leadership. Justin's a guy he's a little bit more outspoken than J.T. J.T. is more of a quiet leader, leader by example. Justin, as you watch him play, he plays with a lot of passion. That's contagious, little things like (when) we kick the ball off and it happens to be a touchback. You guys probably notice those guys are racing through the goal line and they want to be first down the field. So they compete in everything they do. Phil (Gailano) mentioned that and so that's contagious. A guy like Justin Hardee practices and the way he approaches, same thing with the way he embraces his role and always wanting to improve. Here's a guy, another guy that is never ever satisfied with his performance. He might have a great game and he's looking (to improve). He may have 20 plays and 19 of them were great and he's pissed off about the one that he didn't play well on. And so, again, to have that leadership back to have the experience back we're really excited. Because there's always going to be, like I said, a lot of moving parts. So to have some of those guys who you know have been there and been in the fire, it's certainly comforting as a coach."
This Saints roster is always praised for its depth. How does that impact the special teams coaching staff as far as roster decisions?
(Coach Rizzi): "Yeah, It's a great question. You never feel like as a special teams coach, you never feel like you have enough and so I guess I would say that, number one, it is a good problem because, trust me, I've coached teams before that you didn't feel like you had that competition. We're always, I'm one of those guys that believes wholeheartedly that every guy in camp should be battling it to make the end of that roster, if they're not a starter. We impress that upon the young guys when they come in, we've already obviously met with these rookies and a lot of these guys already know, drafted or undrafted, that their vision or their avenue onto this football team is through special teams. When you have that leader to some of those older guys that have been there done that, it's easy to point to some of those guys and say, hey, listen, Justin Hardee made this team on special teams, J.T. gray made this team, Craig Robertson, Deonte Harris, you can just kind of keep going down the list, Dwayne Washington. There's been a number of great examples since and obviously since Sean (Payton's) been here a long time, you have great examples to point to. That is number one, number two, you mentioned the discussions that take place, those battles were happening all through camp and we constantly kind of stack the board and rank positions and you are jockeying for those last couple spots. Listen, Sean is great in terms of communicating with us the vision for the player. Listen, this guy is going to be the fifth or sixth at his position, does he have a vision on special teams? If that player doesn't, it is hard for that player to make our football team. And I know a lot of head coaches that don't look at it like Sean, we are fortunate to be part of this because Sean's vision is very similar and almost on the same exact page with ours, meaning if that player is not going to be an offensive or defensive starter or whatnot, he's got to have a value and he has to have a vision on special teams. Those roster spots, that is the most exciting thing about training camp for us. We come in as coaches and I know I am speaking for Phil when I say this, that's the exciting part, to watch the 90-man (roster) kind of get down to the 53. Now this year, there are a couple of extra spots now on gameday. That's going to be interesting. I know the one spot has to go to the offensive line, but now you have an extra player you can activate this year and also there are new practice squad rules where you can taxi guys up and back, those rules have changed. That is going to be really a new dynamic for us as well, meaning week to week seeing those guys, not only for the 53, but for the guys that are going to be active. It's the same conversations, week to week, once we have the 53-man roster, Sean's the same way. Listen, this guy is going to the game, we want to see him active, we want to see him play playing, we want to know the vision. If there's not a vision for that player week to week on special teams, he might not be active. There's no doubt that it's a great problem and we are very fortunate to have some depth at a lot of different positions. I think we're deeper at some spots than others. Maybe we might be a little bit younger, but, but no matter what, I think there's some great competition and that's really exciting for us as special teams coach, for sure."
What is the defense getting in Michael Wilhoite? He was with you last year and now he's moving over to defense and getting back to kind of the positions that he played back when he was player?
(Coach Rizzi): "What do you mean? He was a special teams player (in the National Football League). We always bust his chops. He was not a linebacker (laughter). We love Mike. I think Mike is an intelligent, passionate, hardworking guy. You talk about a guy who is, I mentioned the word contagious before when I was talking about Justin Hardee. Mike is one of those guys too. He has a contagious personality, always upbeat, always in a good mood, has a real I think realistic approach to the game for the young players. The best thing that Mike did for us last year in his first year as a coach, was he mentored a lot of those younger players and a lot of those guys that were rookies, like I'll mention like a Kaden Elliss, Carl Granderson, some of those guys that were first year players, Mike spent an awful lot of time with them. A lot of times where Phil (Galiano) and I were game planning during the week, Mike was spending an awful lot of time with those guys in meetings, watching film, going over improvements because as we all know, there's only so much time in the week. So Mike did a really nice job of mentoring and tutoring those young players. And so he was really, really valuable. He still laughs and jokes, I'm not done with special teams because he views himself as a linebacker and special teams guy. So I know he'll still have a little bit of a hand in with us, but I think the defense is getting a gem. I think Mike is a really up and coming young coach that the linebackers are really gonna enjoy working with. I'm excited for him, even though I bust his chops all the time that he's a special teams guy, I know that he's going to be very valuable to the defensive staff as well."
Everybody wants reps, but nobody can have them, no matter what team you play for. What are y'all working on in those special teams meetings with those younger guys, either rookies, first or second year players so they can, once training camp eventually gets here, hit the ground running as best that they can?
(Coach Rizzi): It's great that you bring that up. So when Phil (Galiano) and I first started this whole process, you're kind of like, all right, listen, we're going to have this many meetings. What's our goal at the end of this so when these guys come to training camp like, what's our goal with the rookies? Well, number one is there is a lot of rule differences between the NFL and college football and it's particularly in special teams. I think you probably don't even realize how many different rules there are in the different (levels), so number one is educating these guys on the rules. Our goal, okay, listen, we can't do field work right now so what can we do to make these guys as prepared as possible when we do start practicing? Well, number one is all those rules. So we've really hammered and hammered and hammered home all the rule differences. That is number one, because the punt game is completely different, the kickoff games completely different, PATs, the hashes, all that stuff's completely different. (We have) really hammered home the rules. Number two is our terminology. I like to use the phrase, 'we've got to be speaking the same language.' Every special teams coach, there might be a technique and you talk to five different special teams coaches and they might call five different things. So we want to keep hammering home our terminology to the players as well. We want to speak the same language. And then the last thing is we've obviously given them playbook material and the nice thing is we're allowed to share video. We save all of our practice clips from last year, from OTAs, from training camp, our drill work and what we've done is we've showed those guys the drill work and the things that they can do on their own, the techniques. Because that's really, special teams wise is a little bit different than offense and defense, meaning there's going to be techniques that some of these players do on specialty that they've never done ever in their life. That's not going to be the case on offense and defense, right? Receivers have run routes, linebackers have hit things, defensive linemen have gotten off the ball, defensive backs have backpedaled, but some of these guys are going to come in where they've never played special teams, never, maybe never in high school or college because they were marque players and now all of a sudden their way to make this team, their avenue on this team is going to be through special teams. Some of them have never taken a punt set for example. Some of them may have never covered kickoff or never played frontline of kickoff return or never rushed a punt. So we've showed them a bunch of the drill work that we're going to do, and maybe they missed during OTAs. And we have asked them to do the things that we can do (and to) incorporate this into your workout, because we don't want the first time that I am just going to give you an example, Adam Trautman, first time he's taking a punt set and I don't want that to be when we come back for training camp, I want him to have a bunch of punt sets already under his belt, if you will. So those have really been the three things we focused on the most. The rules, terminology and speaking the same language and then obviously getting as much of the drill and incorporate as much of that into their workouts as possible. I think so far so good. I think a lot of these guys have been really, really on top of the meetings in terms of asking good questions and even not during the meeting, I might get a text on a Friday night at eight o'clock and a guy (says), 'hey coach, I'm looking at this and I'm not so sure what this is, can you help me out?' I've had a lot of good questions, a lot of good back and forth, a lot of good feedback. That really what was our goal, to get these guys as caught up as possible in those three areas as we approach training camp."
Kind of following up on that, are there any of the undrafted free agents that you guys, through these meetings, kind of come up with like this is somebody I really want to get to work with in training camp because I think he's got a lot of potential to maybe potentially be like a J.T. Gray, Justin Hardee and a guy that really stands out in that unit?
(Coach Rizzi): "Sure. I'm going to give kudos real quick to our draft guys because Jeff Ireland and that whole staff, they do a fantastic job of keeping us updated on all the players that we're kind of targeting going in. So there's not really a lot of guys that we didn't know anything about, meaning coming in. Not just the draft picks, but even the undrafted guys that we brought in, we all kind of had some awareness of those players. So you take a guy like (Marquez) Callaway for example, we evaluated him as a returner and possibly as a core player, Juwan Johnson that Phil worked with at Penn State and then went on to finish at Oregon. We had a lot of background with Juwan, if you will. Joe Bachie is a guy from Michigan State that we evaluated as a linebacker and a core special teamer. Those are just a couple of guys that pop into my head, but all those guys we felt, again, we have a great process, in my opinion, I think Jeff (Ireland) and his staff do an unbelievable job and are very, very thorough in the draft process, not only with the draft picks, but the undrafted (free agents). When we come in, we have a really good background and I think every guy that we target, we have that, I mentioned that word vision before. I think we have a really good vision for those players and what we think they could do down the road and how they can make our team. And that's really the question, Jeff (Ireland) is always asking us. If we're going to bring this guy in, give me a vision, how can this guy make our team, can he be a special teams core player? To really answer your question, I'm excited to work with all these guys because I kind of have a little bit of a background with most of them and Phil (Galiano) has worked with a couple of these guys as well in the past, and that's exciting too, because we had some good background on these players."
Obviously know having worked with Juwan (Johnson), I know special teams was something that he mentioned when we talked to him after the team signed him, what are your expectations from a guy like that?
(Coach Galiano): "Well, I think Juwan understands is his avenue to be able to make this team is going to be on special teams. From a guy who has been productive in college and has done it before, I'm really, really excited to get a chance to work with him and him being able to show that a guy his size that can run the way he does is physical, but also is smart enough and loves special teams enough to know how important it is. I mean, heck those are the guys you want to work with. So I think he's got a really bright future and we're excited to get him out there and see what he can do."
(Coach Rizzi): "Some of you guys have covered this team for a while. You know George Johnson played for the Saints for a little bit, this is Juwan's brother. I actually coached George at Rutgers. So I go way back with the Johnson family and I remember Juwan used to come to the Rutgers games and he was just a grade school guy. So we go way back with them, Phil (Galiano) got a chance to coach both George and Juwan so yeah. He's a guy that we really targeted in this process and we were really hoping if we didn't draft then we were going to be able to get him in the free agent pool and then that worked out. So again, another guy that we're real excited about."