By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Two weeks ago, Redskins rookie Durant Brooks phoned his mentor, retired star punter Ray Guy, before making his NFL debut in the Hall of Fame game. Brooks ended up leaving a voice-mail message, but there is little doubt many legends will be watching him this weekend, his pal Guy among them.
Most of the football world will be tuning in to Washington's game against the New York Jets tonight to see future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre's debut with his new team. That nationwide interest means Brooks, 23, again will be auditioning for a job on a grand stage, which is precisely how his coaches like it.
When the Redskins selected Brooks (6 feet, 200 pounds) out of Georgia Tech in the sixth round of April's draft, they had no concerns about his size and leg strength. All of the quantifiable characteristics were there.
The true test would be if the youngster was mentally fortified to punt professionally, able to handle the responsibility that comes with being part of a billion-dollar franchise. Brooks came through admirably in his first opportunity two weeks ago and is slated for every punt against the Jets after incumbent Derrick Frost fared well last week against Buffalo.
"I call it executing under pressure," special teams coach Danny Smith said. "It's a factor for all of these athletes. You have to execute under pressure. The punter we have, it's going to be a guy we trust. That's going to be the key. After these five [preseason] games, Jim and I will sit down, and it's got to be a guy he can trust."
Smith and head coach Jim Zorn have tried to rattle Brooks during his first training camp. They study his expressions in practices and games, seeing if he looks awed by his surroundings. Thus far, he has done nothing but impress.
"It's how he carries himself," Zorn said. "Is he into the game? Is he talking to himself? When you look into his eyes, does he have that hollow, I call it the fish look, with the mouth agape and the eyes staring? I haven't seen that in either one of these punters."
Sometimes, it seems as if Brooks may not even grasp the weight of it all, his aw-shucks nature and naivete working to his advantage. He's happy-go-lucky and eager to please. Brooks had to rein himself in a bit at the Hall of Fame game, booting his first punt too deep, plopping it into the end zone when he should have pinned Indianapolis inside the 20-yard line.
But after those jitters he kicked well, exhibiting the hang time Smith covets and an ability to place the ball where he wants it.
"I think it went pretty well," Brooks said. "I've got a lot to work on, obviously, but for my first game in the NFL, somebody asked me how I'd grade myself, and I said B, B-minus. I think I did some good things."
Consistency must be the rule for Brooks. Frost has been erratic in his three prior seasons in Washington, fluctuating in effectiveness within the same game at times, and watching his efficiency wane in the latter half of seasons in general.
"I've looked really good at times, and I've looked below average at times," Frost said.
Frost and Smith surmised the veteran had been punting too much in the offseason and during practice, sapping his strength, and he is working on getting more loft. Far too often his punts have been line drives. The Redskins decided they needed an upgrade in the punting game, whether that change came from within -- a la a new-and-improved Frost -- or from an upstart challenger such as Brooks.
"If you're going to better the position, then we all need competition, and real competition," Smith said. "You can put a body out there and call it competition, but if a guy's never kicked in this league then it's a totally different animal.
"It was just a matter of, 'We're going to have a better punter this year.' Is it going to be Derrick, or is it going to be Durant? I don't know yet, but we're going to be better at that position. That's why we made the decision to draft him when we did and how we did."
The job requirements go beyond punting, however. The punter also is the holder for place kicker Shaun Suisham, and the Redskins cannot afford hiccups in that exchange either. Suisham missed a field goal attempt in the Hall of Fame game, though Zorn said Brooks was not to blame. Regardless, the rookie must instill confidence in long snapper Ethan Albright and Suisham as well.
"I did it in college, but I really didn't practice it," Brooks said of holding. "I did it, that was my job, but I started to concentrate on it more my senior year, knowing it could help me out and give me an advantage. But I have a lot to work on with that, the timing with the snapper and all of that."
Every practice, Smith puts his kickers and punters in last-second situations, calling out how much time is left in the game, shouting out a down and distance and trying to simulate the scrambles that ensue in late-game sequences.
Smith quizzes him on when he should try to toss aside a poor snap, on a third-down attempt for instance, and when it makes the most sense to try to complete a pass on a busted exchange. He even simulates real players with the rookie, telling him early in camp, for instance, the Redskins are playing Baltimore, with special teams dynamo and Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed creeping off the edge, trying to block a kick.
"Do you even know who Ed Reed is, son?" Smith asked, half-jokingly. "I'll tell you this, he sure as hell don't play for Wake Forest."
For now, the names and places are still foreign. But the Redskins have invested much in a position that is often overlooked, and surely want to see Brooks succeed.
"That's where the most even competition is," Zorn said. "I fully expect it to be a very difficult decision at the end of this, because they've both competed very well."