New Orleans Saints Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi
Video Call with New Orleans Media
Sunday, August 30, 2020
Having been in the NFL for a long, long time. Have you ever seen a punter who takes care of his body the way Thomas Morstead does?
"No. The guy that I worked with in Miami, the long snapper that was there for a long time, John Denney, when I first got here, those guys remind me a lot of each other, in terms of just taking care of their bodies, (and) having a great routine. We (Rizzi family) were joking, I think during the quarantine T-Mo had some videos floating around. I'm not a social media guy, but I think my family was showing me some clips of him working out during the quarantine, doing dips, all these 45 pound weights off his belt and that stuff. He does a phenomenal job. I think longevity in this league no matter what position requires phenomenal physical concentration with your body. And I think T-Mo's just a great example of that. He's a guy that just has a phenomenal routine. I obviously knew the player very well before I got here, but not the person. So, getting to know that over the last year and a half has been impressive. You know that not only is he an impressive person to be around, but certainly just a, really a role model for some of those younger guys that come in. And just watch how a guy has just a really good daily routine, how to be a pro and really take care of themselves. So it's been impressive."
We could probably count on him whenever he's done playing ball to like, go win an Ironman Triathlon or something. Right?
"Something, I mean, he's going to do something. He makes me feel bad sometimes. Sometimes, I'm with him and I'm like, I better workout today. So he's a motivator for me sometimes as well. But yeah, he's going to do something. CrossFit, one of the Spartan races, something and he's going to have to get involved in something for sure."
You had two all-pros last year in Deonte (Harris) and JT (J.T. Gray), and then you get a pro bowler and Wil (Lutz) so you know, as a unit that, you know, blocks, kicks and deflects punts and that kind of thing. What's the ceiling for your unit?
"Our goal, quite frankly, is to be the best unit in the league. And so that's kind of what the standard is. And I'm very proud of the fact that those guys got accolades last year, but really, when you lookat the reasons those guys are getting the accolades, is really because of everybody else and they'll be the first guys to tell you that. All those guys are phenomenal individual talents. But you know, you go like, with a guy like Deonte (Harris), it starts with the blocking and the 10 other guys that are doing their job for him. Wil Lutz will be the first guy to tell you that it's the operation, it's Zach (Wood), it's Thomas (Morstead), it's the protection, and then J.T. (Gray). Same thing, J.T. (Gray) is a guy that really flourished last year and took advantage of the other guys around him doing well. So the ceiling for this group and we certainly have our goals every year, is we want to go out there and no different than, than the offensive and defense, we're looking to be the number one unit in the league and, and that's really (why) we come to work every day. The players will tell you, we have that 1/11th mentality, that's kind of our credo, just everybody doing their job, being accountable. And I'll tell you what, it's been contagious. It really has, you know, you start with our leaders guys like Craig (Robertson) and guys like Thomas (Morstead), our captains, and then you've got guys like (Justin) Hardee and J.T. (Gray). And then you add a new guy like Deonte (Harris) into the mix. But there's a lot of guys that played well last year for us, not just the guys that got the accolades. Dwayne Washington, his second half of the year last year, I thought it was as good as anybody. We really didn't touch on Justin Hardee, who I think a lot of time draws a lot of attention, which frees up some other guys to make some plays. And that kind of goes unnoticed sometimes. So, there's really a bunch of guys there. And I'll tell you what, I'm really, really proud of the leadership we have. I'm proud of the work ethic we have every day. It's refreshing to go out there on the field every day and to have that mentality with those guys. And you know what? I know what their goals are individually but collectively is more important. It's just really like I said before, it's really refreshing to go out there those guys everyday because I watch on a daily basis how those guys work and I know what their what their goals and your ceiling, what they're hoping to shoot for, you know, so that's, that's really impressive as well."
How special would you say is Deonte's (Harris) ability to cut, his ability to go zero to 60 in no time? Is he special as far as quickness goes, even among NFL kick returners, does he have a slightly different level of quickness would you say?
"Yeah, you know, it's really interesting. You go back and start with the process to bring Deonte (Harris) here. The first thing that jumped off his college tape is certainly his explosion, you know, his 'make you miss ability', is what I call it. You know, he's got that ability to make people miss in the open field and so you know, when we first started, scouting Deonte and looking at him, that jumped off the film. The fact that this guy, that just really had a special open field talent. And then you really didn't know if it was because he's playing in Division Two or maybe at a lower level. I can literally remember when he came here for rookie camp, we did an open field drill. Well, we call it the cover drill where guys are going down. It's really, there's really no blockers involved. It's really just the returner against cover people. And that was again, the kind of thing, how we first got noticed here by the other scouts and the other coaches, is we're doing this drill and that's exactly what he did. He went from zero to 60. He made people miss, and it was kind of like, wow, this guy's got some rare talent. And then obviously (he) progressed into the preseason, did it again. He just kept doing it and he keeps doing it. And you know (what) he did in the scrimmage the other day on an offensive play. And I will tell you what, I don't know if there's a guy that I've coached before that has that, that quicker first step the Deonte and just, the 'make you miss' this ability. So it's certainly his calling card at this point, and there's no reason for me to believe that that won't continue to be the case."
How have you seen Blake (Gillikin) come into his own the last of couple weeks? And then how have you seen a Thomas (Morstead) kind of coach him up?
"I'll start with the second part of that Amie (Just). Thomas, as I said before, not only just with his body, but Thomas is a true pro. And so, you know, here's a guy, I remember when we were talking to Blake about coming here as a free agent and one of the first things Blake said to me is; wow, being able to learn from a guy like Thomas Morstead, I grew up watching this guy. And you take Blake, what's Blake like, 23 years old and Thomas has been in the league now what? 12 years. So he started watching, you know, Thomas years ago as a teenager, a young guy. So he came in with that mindset to learn from this guy and Thomas has certainly not disappointed him. I watch those guys on a daily basis interact. I watch how Thomas is really going through a lot of the finer points of the game with him, a lot of the off the field things that were mentioned earlier, how to take care of your body, having a daily routine and then, certainly the technical part of the position the, just all the things that encompass a good punter. You know, your timing, your drops, all those different things. And Blake has really been a sponge that way. He's really learned from Thomas and takes as much information as he can. You know Blake is a really intelligent guy, I think if Blake wasn't playing football right now, I think he'd be in medical school. I'm not talking out a term there, he's a guy that's an aspiration. He's a two time academic All-American. So here's a really bright person that's taken a, you know, taking on a mentor in Thomas and really learning and growing from him. Now, as far as Blake, how has Blake come into his own? Like any rookie, he's had ups and downs. He's had some moments where he's really done a good job. He's also had some moments that (are) some learning opportunities. So Like any rookie, again, we're asking Blake to do a whole lot. He's holding, he's punting, he's kicking off and so there's certainly some talent there to work with. And he's had his peaks and valleys. And I think that that learning process with Thomas is really helping him at this point."
Last time we talked to you, you mentioned having to get kind of creative to allow you guys to evaluate the special teams unit. And I was just wondering how that's been going for you? And how have you found that evaluating the talent without the preseason games?
"It's really made yourself evaluate, as a coach. And because obviously this whole situation is different this year with the way we're practicing, we've got to get creative and We've done a good job to this point, we've really created some competitive situations out there, whether it be 11 on 11, or some one on ones to be able to evaluate guys. We're trying to duplicate these preseason games we lost, as much as we can. We have done a lot more of that than we normally would have to this point. And it's been a really good evaluator for us and not only the evaluator, what I've learned myself during this new season if you will, or new preseason, whatever you want to call it is I have taken some things I'm going to use more in the future because I think the players are getting more out of it has become more competitive. We set up some competitive drills in practice and so I've learned from it too. And it's something I'm going to continue to do. The players are really buying into it. We go out there every day and as I said to the players in a meeting just yesterday, I think our guys are making each other better which obviously, we lost those preseason reps where your opponents are kind of challenging you and you are competing against those guys. We have done it for ourselves. And so, it's been interesting, it's definitely been interesting. But I think we're getting something out of it. I think we've really done a good job. The players have, I am saying, of making each other better in those competitive situations."
How has Tommy Stevens adjusted to his role so far? And where do you see him fitting at this point in camp? I think, was he filling in for Taysom (Hill) at personal protector a few weeks ago?
"We've tried to use Tommy at multiple positions. Here's a guy obviously that played quarterback, was an athlete, all that stuff. And so coming in I learned quickly from our Zoom meetings in the offseason, that Tommy's got a really good football IQ. And so we tried him out in a bunch of different spots. So you mentioned the personal protector spot on the punt team. That's a spot that he's played at, he's also played some other spots in the punt team. We moved him around on kickoff, kickoff return, punt return. So he's, kind of a Swiss Army knife that way, we moved him around a different bunch of spots, trying him out as many things as possible. Don't forget that this is a guy who's never played special teams before. So he really didn't have a foundation there. So here's a guy that we're trying to get a feeling for. He's got a skill set. We're trying to figure out where to use that best and so that's obviously what I'm challenged with as a special teams coach with all these guys, is figuring out where they fit the best. And so sometimes, people say well, it's unfair for a rookie. You're bouncing around him, he never gets to (settle at a position), but at the same time you're trying to find, like pieces of the puzzle. Where does he fit best with the current guys we have and where could he help the team the most? So he's certainly bounced around a lot. I've been impressed with the mental part, the physical part is coming along because again, first time doing it, so it's certainly, it's a work in progress. But he certainly, you know, like all those rookies, he's a guy that we're trying to figure out the best spots for."
If you've never played special teams before, is there one spot on the unit or units that's the easiest to fit to plug someone in? Or does it just depend on the person and all of that?
"I wouldn't say there's an easy one. Special teams requires a certain unique mentality for sure. There are positions where you do not have to think as much. Certainly, punt is not one of them. The punt team, there is a lot of thinking involved with certainly the protection, calls. The gunners are a different kind of animal, if you will, because they are just not really part of the protection, they are just more coverage. But there's other positions within special teams where you may not have to think as much. Maybe in some of the kick, kick return stuff, but at the same time, it still requires you know, some thinking at some point. And again with all these guys, whether it's 90 guys, 80 guys, 70 guys, we have all these guys, so that's always a challenge in the preseason for special teams staff. It's always moving parts. It's always trying new guys out, and you're trying to come up with that best combination by game one."
What the Patriots do some with (Matt) Slater and (Justin) Bethel is the level of commitment to special teams here in New Orleans. Is it rare or more than maybe some other places with you know, all the guys are willing to carry that kind of, or special teams, first?
"It's really interesting that you mentioned the Patriots because I obviously came up in the league with the Dolphins. I was there for 10 years, played those guys twice a year. And so, that was always a challenge playing against those guys because they always, you know, designated, you know, three or four guys every year, as quote unquote special teams core guys and maybe not play a lot on offense or defense. And so to be honest with you, I started to kind of model you know, or tried to model that, because I thought it was working very well for them, when I was in Miami. I always admired the way Sean (Payton) did it here from afar because I felt like they did the same thing. And so, obviously, I, you know, I came here and, you know, there are certain guys on our team where you would say their role, their number one role is special teams. I know a guy like (Justin) Hardee and J.T. Gray, you can use those guys, they didn't play a bunch of defensive snaps last year. The majority of their snaps have been special teams. I think Sean (Payton) does as good of a job as anybody, in terms of emphasis on special teams. And, you know, he makes it clear to the players that you know, listen, this is going to be something that you have to do. If you're going to be on the 53 man roster, you're going to have to find yourself in a role. If you're not going to be a starter skill guy that's a starter. If you're going to be in a backup role, you're going to have to have some type of role in the special teams department. And that's why we're always communicating, Sean and I, and he's always asking me what my vision is for the players and when we do personnel meetings. It's a constant question. So I've always admired Sean (Payton) from afar, as an assistant coach at other places. I always thought they did it right here. Now being here and seeing it firsthand, I can tell you Sean's as committed as any head coach in this league to special teams. And it's not a a mistake, why we've had success here the last couple years in special teams. I think the emphasis from the head coach is critical. And Sean (Payton) does a great job of it."