The Washington Redskins last week went back to Niles Paul as their kick returner after failing to get the desired results from rookie running back Chris Thompson and wide receiver Josh Morgan.
Paul isn’t the typical return man. For one, he’s the only tight end in the NFL that returns kicks, and at 6-1, 230 pounds, he’s one of the biggest return men in the league. (Minnesota wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who leads the NFL in kickoff return yardage is of similar size at 6-2, 220). Paul doesn’t have a lot of elusiveness, but instead, he uses a physical style of running, along with 4.41-second 40-yard dash speed, to get the job done.
Last season, Paul took over for a demoted Brandon Banks down the stretch of the season and returned 13 kicks for a total of 283 yards (21.8 yard average) with a long of 48.
Now having reclaimed his job, Paul – who early in the season was miffed as to why special teams coach Keith Burns opted not to use him – aims to give the Redskins a much-needed spark and help improve their average starting position on offense.
Last week when against the Vikings, Paul did that, averaging 24.7 yards on three returns.
In today’s Game Day Q&A, Paul discusses his role as a kick returner, his college experience in this department, his style and key to success.
MJ: You were back in your old role as a kick returner last week. How did it feel to get back to that?
NP: I was excited for the opportunity. I was trying to make the most of it by taking one to the crib and was so close. So hopefully I can continue to build on that and get better as a returner and we can get better as a return unit each week.
MJ: You’re a straight-ahead runner and not very shifty. What is it about your style that suits the kickoff return game well?
NP: A lot of people don’t understand how much the game has changed as far as kick returning. Yeah, you still have your Trindon Hollidays, who are just pure speed. But that’s rare. That’s 9.98 [second] 100-meter dash sprinter. But you’ve got your Dwayne Harrises and the other returners, who most of them aren’t the speed demons like the Brandon Banks. You need your returners who can run through tackles because with the coverage units getting downfield that much faster, you just need to hit the hole, and that’s what being a kick returner now is all about. It’s about being someone who gets downfield and hits the hole. That’s what I do. I’m not the most flashy guy, but I’m fast and I can hit the hole and I’m strong.
MJ: What kind of feedback did you get from your coaches?
NP: I watched film with Keith and went over things. I hit all the right holes. I was always just one block away or one miss away, and that gives me confidence because if I’m that close to busting a big return, all we need is for everybody to hold their blocks and I keep running hard and as a return unit, we’re bound to break one.
MJ: Did you ever find out why it took until nine games in for them to go back to you as the return man?
NP: I never asked. You know me. Like, [last year] they moved me [from wide receiver] to tight end and I said “All right. They moved me to tight end.” I won’t question it. They wanted me to be the off returner. They felt like I was a better blocker, so I was like ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ But now, being back as the return man, I’m ecstatic about it.
MJ: You did well in college both as a kick and punt returner, right?
NP: Yea. I was an all-conference kick and punt returner.
MJ: Have there been any discussions about you returning punts here?
NP: Naw, I’m not – we’re not – quite on that level when it comes to convincing them that I’m the type of punt returner that they want. Because, like I said, I’m a bigger guy, and they want a more shifty, quick – the Santana [Moss], the Nick Williams – those type guys. That’s what they want at punt returner. I’m the big guy that gets downhill.
MJ: How did you get your start as a return man in college?
NP: At Nebraska, it was the same story. My freshman year, they didn’t really want to give me a chance at kick returner. I was the off returner. I was the off returner my sophomore year and ended up busting a big return, and then after that, they were like, ‘We want you to be the return man.’ And I was breaking records since then. I took one to the crib the next game and they said, ‘Okay, we’re going to keep you here.’ And I was the kick returner for the next few years, and I was the punt returner.
MJ: Does it require a different mindset to be a punt returner than it does a kick returner?
NP: Yeah. It’s two different mindsets. Punt returner, if they asked me to do it, I would, but I’m not begging to get on that. That’s a whole different animal. You’ve got to track the ball, and you’ve got to look at your coverage. You’ve got to know when to call the fair catch, and you’ve got to know when not to call the fair catch. There’s just a lot that goes into being a punt returner. The ugly truth of it is there’s no punt returner that’s not going to have a dropped ball or a fumble here or there because that’s just the nature of being a punt returner.
MJ: You had bulked up over the offseason because of your duties as a tight end. How have you been able to maintain your speed?
NP: At the beginning of the year, I was like 240 because I thought, ‘Maybe me being 240 would make more sense.’ But I didn’t like how it feels. So, during training camp, I got back down to 230. This is more my natural weight, because when I was training in college, I got up to 230 and I had to dehydrate myself just to get to 224 at the combine. When I was 240, I definitely felt a little sluggish, and that’s not how I need to feel, so I had to get that weight off of me.
MJ: What weight did you play at last year?
NP: I was 228.
MJ: So, at 6-1, 230, you’re above average size for a kick returner, but undersized as a tight end. (Fred Davis is 6-4, 247, Jordan Reed is 6-2, 243, Logan Paulsen is 6-5, 261.) How do you compensate for a lack of size?
NP: Just, my initial strikes. I found out from Cooley that your initial strike is everything. I come off the ball, strike a defender and get under their pads. That’s what I’m good at. You’re going to win some battles and lose some battles. If they get their hands on me first – I learned the hard way from Ryan Kerrigan that if they get their hands on me first, then he’ll just flick me away like a flea.