But the eight-year NFL veteran is proving a crucial piece of first-year Coach Jay Gruden’s makeover of the 3-13 Redskins ; Hayward was brought in from Tampa Bay for his expertise and leadership on special teams.
According to tight end Logan Paulsen, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Hayward has brought a “wild, special team energy” to a unit that struggled last season.
“You couldn’t put your finger on one thing; it was an accumulation of issues,” Paulsen said Thursday when asked what undermined the unit last season. “It was an accumulation of issues.”
For starters, the Redskins never replaced their 2012 captain, Lorenzo Alexander, who had built a career on special teams play. That left young players without an established mentor.
Punter Sav Rocco’s efforts were virtually gift-wrapped for opponents, averaging an NFL-worst 33.8 net yards. The kicking game was shaky. Halfhearted tackling led to four touchdown returns. And cohesion and confidence were in short supply.
Gruden’s first move was hiring a no-nonsense coach in Army veteran Ben Kotwica , a former linebacker and Apache helicopter pilot who understood football, discipline and pride and what the three could achieve together.
Kotwica rebranded the unit the Redskins’ “Special Forces.” And through action and attitude, he transformed special teams duty from a consolation prize, as it’s often viewed by football players, to a point of pride.
“That name has a lot more meaning than special teams,” said fullback Darrel Young, a proud participant on the unit. “Special teams starts the game, and it starts the second half. It’s the most important part of the game because you only get one chance at a kickoff; you don’t get three downs or four downs. You get one kickoff to cover. Hopefully, you don’t make a mistake.”
Then Gruden sought out Hayward, with whom he and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris had worked in Tampa. Hayward also had served as Tampa Bay’s special teams captain for the last three years, and the Redskins signed him to a three-year, $3 million contract in March.
“He didn’t have the big name in free agency, but he had the big splash for us,” Gruden said following Thursday’s practice, which marked the team’s return to Redskins Park. “We needed somebody to come in here and be a leader, take that group by the throat — not just Coach Kotwica but a player. I know what type of accountability he holds for the players on that group.”
Hayward, named by Gruden as a co-captain for the preseason along with DeAngelo Hall and Trent Williams, tends to lead by example. Kotwica conferred with him often during Thursday’s practice. Hayward, in turn, would call signals.
“Coach Ben will explain something to me; he’s always talking to me about what he wants,” Hayward said. “When I do it right, it gives him an example — ‘See, this is what I’m talking about.’ It’s easier for him to explain. And I can get with some of the younger guys and say, ‘This is what he wants.’ ”
But “Special Forces” is hardly a two-man operation under Kotwica. Multiple coaches are involved in teaching during the two periods that are set aside for special teams work in each practice, including wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard, who works with the return specialists, and running backs coach Randy Jordan.
Gruden and Kotwica have made some strategic personnel moves as well.
“Coach Ben does a good job of picking the people he wants — the guys who have done it for a while,” Hayward said. “[If] you’ve got those guys, you get the young guys going.”
By drafting Arkansas’s Zach Hocker in the seventh round, the Redskins created competition at place kicker. With Rocca cut, there’s also competition at punter.
Niles Paul, who handled returns last season, has been converted to a blocker — to Hayward’s delight.
“Niles and I compete at everything,” Hayward said. “We’re like two of the same. If we’re not arguing with each other on the field, then it’s not a good day. We compete on special teams and on offense and defense, just trying to make each other better.”
Safety Bacarri Rambo is now blocking the flyer; Aldrick Robinson also is in the mix. And for a handful of others facing logjams at their position, excelling on the unit is their ticket to the 53-man roster — linebacker Will Compton, running back Evan Royster and cornerback Bashaud Breeland among them.
“Everyone has a chance,” Young said. “For a young guy coming in undrafted, that’s how you get noticed: You go down there and hit a guy on kickoff.”