Hekker hopes to improve on record season

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Attempting to figure out what St. Louis Rams punter Johnny Hekker can do for an encore a season after setting an NFL record for net punting isn't difficult.

Even with the bar now set to a higher standard, the goal is simple.

"Do it again," Hekker said. "Last season at the beginning of the season Coach (John) Fassel sat us down and had some goals written down on a piece of paper. Mine was the Rams’ all-time net record. I didn’t even know what the mark was. And we went out and messed around and broke the NFL record, so it’s just a great feeling when you can set a goal, visualize it and then go out and achieve it. I think that’s something I’m going to try to do again this season. I’ve got a number in my head I’d like to attain, but that’s going to stay in my head for a while."

Considering Hekker exceeded even the goals set forth by demanding special-teams coach Fassel, it's hard to cast doubt that he and his coverage unit won't go out and reset the bar once again. It won't be easy after Hekker averaged 44.23 net punting yards on 78 attempts.

Entering his third season in the league, Hekker made great strides in 2013. As a rookie, he struggled with consistency and learning the ins and outs of directional punting, something Fassel demands from the position. The idea being that a well-angled punt with the proper hang time leaves little opportunity for return.

During his rookie season, Hekker hit his spot about half the time. Last year, Fassel and assistant special-teams coach Paul Boudreau Jr. were more surprised when he didn't hit the intended landmark.

"He was really good, and obviously the goal is to be better," Fassel said. "When you look at the all-time net punt record ... you don’t want to be worse than that, so I mean that’s a high standard. Johnny even knows, there’s some things that I’m not going to tell you that we talked about where he can improve and he knows he can improve.

"If we can make improvements in a couple of those things that we’ve talked about, then I don’t want to say it because it may give away some different things, but there’s room for improvement.”

Hekker also doesn't want to tip his hand on what some of his other goals are for the season. And considering his eccentric personality, it might be best not to try to dive too far into his mind. Hekker does openly acknowledge a few aspects of his game he'd like to improve.

Among the items on his must-improve list are adding hang time to force more fair catches, generally adding consistency and building a repetitive warmup routine.

Beyond that, Hekker is also looking to take a page out of the book of "Zoolander." Although his directional punting improved in 2013, Hekker says there's a noticeable difference between when he aims right and when he goes left.

"This offseason I put a lot of emphasis on working on left directional," Hekker said. "Last year I was pretty effective at putting the ball out of bounds and down the field going right, but going left is a little more difficult for a righty punter. But this season I want to be more effective at that."

Adding to Hekker's cause is the return of a young and talented coverage unit. Special-teams units are perpetually in a state of flux because those rosters spots are always up for grabs. But Hekker can rest easy knowing that at least core guys such as snapper Jake McQuaide, linebackers Ray-Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates, safety Rodney McLeod and receiver Stedman Bailey (after a four-game suspension) will be back in the mix.

That group struggled with silly penalties early last season, and though only a handful came on the punt team, there's reason to believe the coverage will improve with another year of experience and the addition of feisty defensive back Lamarcus Joyner.

Should Hekker and his teammates again find a way to break the net punting record, it will likely go with little fanfare as it did last season. That doesn't seem to be of much concern to Hekker. After all, he earned first-team All-Pro honors and his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season.

And Hekker can point to the Hall of Fame induction of Ray Guy as proof that even punters can earn a place among the game's greats. He even has an addendum for NFL Network's Rich Eisen and his "punters are people, too" campaign.

"Punters are Hall of Famers, too," Hekker said, laughing. "Take that Rich Eisen."

It's way too early to put Hekker in that kind of company, but if he meets his goal of setting an NFL record for net punting every season, he'll have an argument to make.