Rams punter Hekker coming off big week
(Eds: With AP Photos.)
By R.B. FALLSTROM
AP Sports Writer
ST. LOUIS -- The perfect rookie kicker with the cannon leg has nothing on his rookie roommate with the St. Louis Rams.
Just like Greg Zuerlein, who's 13 for 13 on field goals this year, punter Johnny Hekker is fast making a name for himself. Together, the youngsters have made quite an impact. One has been able to put the Rams (3-2) in scoring position not long after they cross midfield this season and the other has done his best to pin down the opponents.
The 6-foot-5 Hekker was undrafted out of Oregon State, the alma mater of running back Steven Jackson. He set a franchise record with a 56.9-yard average in last week's victory over Arizona and had a 46-yard net average with three punts downed inside the 20.
A week earlier, the former high school quarterback threw a perfect spiral for a touchdown off a fake field goal attempt in a win over Washington. He's the franchise's lone punter to throw a TD pass since the AFL-NFL merger.
"I felt good, put the foot to the ball really well," Hekker said. "It's great when it can work out like that. It's not going to happen like that every game, I wish I could have my expectations set that high."
Now, they may be the first roommates to win special teams player of the week honors in successive weeks.
After watching with a wide grin while Zuerlein was getting interviewed the last few weeks, Hekker has turned the tables this week, calling out "check, check, check" for the tape recorders and TV cameras. This week, it was Zuerlein's turn to smile at the musings of the outgoing punter while waiting patiently for the crowd of reporters to clear away from his locker.
The pair share a two-bedroom apartment above a pizzeria in the St. Louis suburbs. The 22-year-old Hekker said neither does the cooking.
Special teams coach John Fassel marvels at the kids' composure, and said their success has nothing to do with teaching them the finer points.
"The best thing I do is just say `Hey guys, tell me what you need and I'll get out of the way," Fassel said. "Those guys have been good. They can definitely get better, but the last couple of weeks they've been pretty good."
During training camp, general manager Les Snead said the Rams could afford to part ways with veteran kicker Josh Brown and veteran punter Donnie Jones because they were rebuilding and were prepared for growing pains.
So far, there's been none of that with either one.
A week earlier, Zuerlein became the first kicker in NFL history to make field goals from 50-plus and 60 or longer yards. He holds the franchise record with a 60-yarder that had plenty to spare, and was the longest field goal by a rookie in NFL history.
Zuerlein finished his college career with 21 field goals in a row at Division II Missouri Western, giving him a personal streak of 34 in a row heading into Sunday's game at Miami (2-3). He missed just one of 24 attempts as a senior after beginning the year nursing a lingering hip ailment that cost him a season at Nebraska-Omaha before transferring.
Hekker had 52 punts of 50 or more yards in four years as the starting punter at Oregon State, and set a school record with a 52.5-yard average on six punts at Utah last season.
He's doing even better at the next level up with a season average of 49.5 yards, fifth best in the league, and a net of 41.2 yards that's 10th best. The Rams prized his directional punting skills out of college, the better to avoid some of the league's best return men, and against Arizona he twice avoided Patrick Peterson with efforts of 68 and 57 yards that bounced out of bounds.
On the punts that he hasn't been able to put into the corners, Hekker hasn't been afraid to mix it up. Running downfield after one punt that Peterson returned for 18 yards, the 227-pound punter sent the Cardinals' Justin Bethel sprawling with a push.
The hit landed Hekker's name on the Rams' "big board" for knockdowns, tackles and lockdowns.
"That's a legal play, get rid of the guys trying to block our guys," Hekker said. "He would have knocked one of our guys down if he had a chance, so I had to get him first."
Hekker added: "I talked to him after the game to make sure he was OK."
The Rams don't seem to mind the youthful exuberance. Attention to detail, too, from what he's absorbed in the meeting room.
"Like somebody said about him, he's a free spirit and he feels like he's a part of the cover teams," Fassel said. "So, he sees us in there talking about them, coaching some things for the cover guys and he must've thought I was also talking to him. I really wasn't, but at least he's paying attention in the meetings."
FB Brit Miller (ankle) was a full practice participant after being held out Wednesday. DE Eugene Sims (head) and DT Matt Conrath also were full go after being limited a day earlier, but DE William Hayes (back) did not practice after being limited Wednesday.
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Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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