RICHMOND — Each morning at training camp, while the offense and defense jog through the motions of another 90-minute walk-through, the leader of the third facet of the Washington Redskins circles the field, out of sight and with plenty on his mind.
Every now and then during his 10 loops along the sideline, Keith Burns will raise his head and rustle through the right pocket of his jet-black shorts. Buried inside is a 5-by-7 spiral notebook filled with X’s, O’s and words of wisdom that the former NFL player hopes to successfully implement in his first season as the Redskins’ special teams coach.
“I keep a notepad on me all the time, just jotting down little things that we need to work on or did work on recently,” Burns said. “One of the guys that I met a while back told me any time that you’re around a lot of coaches and they’re giving you interesting wisdom, always write it down because you’ll never be able to get that information all the time or you may not be able to remember it.”
Burns packed 11 notebooks for his first Redskins training camp. Once filled, the pads will be stashed along with the hundreds of others he accumulated during his six years as an assistant special teams coach for the Denver Broncos, each one dated for the sake of easy recall.
Burns, 41, likely will rely heavily on his notes as he takes over for longtime special teams coordinator Danny Smith, who moved to the same position in Pittsburgh, and looks for a replacement for special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander, a Pro Bowler who departed for Arizona via free agency in March.
Burns, who starred at T.C. Williams High and Oklahoma State, was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the seventh round in 1994. Though the linebacker started his first three games, the next 13 seasons would see Burns carve out a niche on special teams, leading the Broncos’ unit in tackling during the first of Denver’s back-to-back Super Bowl wins under Mike Shanahan in 1998.
“My message to the guys is you can have a long career in the kicking game, but if you came in the NFL to have your name in the headlines and jerseys in the store, that’s not for everybody,” Burns said. “You can play special teams, enjoy it and play it with a passion. That’s all I ask for. We’re looking for consistency more than anything. We’re never going to be asked to win or lose a game, but we definitely will be asked not to mess it up.”
A heavy chunk of this responsibility will fall on Reed Doughty, who is now the senior member of Washington’s special teams. Likewise, players such as Niles Paul, the unit’s third-leading tackler last season, and Bryan Kehl will prove key in improving a unit that Shanahan noted last week has “room for improvement.” But while this trio’s experience is a welcome attribute, Paul admits it can also make for a larger initial learning curve.
“It’s going to take some getting used to with the guys who have been here for a couple years,” said Paul, who also plays tight end. “But all we have to do is trust the system and I believe we’ll be back to where we were a couple years as a special teams unit.”
The Redskins’ special teams coverage didn’t allow a punt or kick return touchdown last season. But Washington has gone two seasons without producing a return touchdown of its own.
Last year’s kick returner, Brandon Banks, is no longer with the Redskins, opening a preseason battle for a spot ripe with competition. Along with incumbent punt returner Richard Crawford, undrafted rookies Skye Dawson, Chip Reeves and Nick Williams have all received reps during training camp drills, thanks to their speed and big-play ability.
Another area of focus is blocked kicks. Last season, the Redskins had two punts blocked in the first two weeks after having five field goals deflected in 2011. On the other side, the unit hasn’t blocked a punt since 2006.
Burns spent both of Thursday’s special teams practice sessions honing the players’ punt-rush skills, setting up a circle to run around and a triangle of flags to sprint through before attempting to block the punter, played by Burns.
“Believe you’re going to block it!” Burns exhorted loudly. “Attack the lane sharp and smart!”
The next morning, Burns was back to circling the field, scheming techniques in the same notebook that serves him as both a student and teacher of the special teams game.
“Every year was my rookie year. That’s the mentality that I came to work with as a player and that’s the hunger that I still have as a coach,” Burns said. “It didn’t matter how much I knew. I just looked at it like I was a rookie with a veteran’s mentality because being a first-year coordinator, there’s a lot I can learn.”