Patriots Special Team's Coach Scott O'Brien addresses the media during his press conference at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday, August 3, 2010.
Q: How's everything looking so far?
SO: So far, we've progressed the way we've installed training camp. We have a lot of good numbers, good guys bracketed against one another, competing against one another. We like where we're at as far as the progress of the work. [It's] pretty good.
Q: Is it safe to say that while scouting the draft, you watched all seven of Devin McCourty's punt blocks?
SO: Oh, sure. I mean, here we usually see a lot of the plays, explosive plays, as a staff or if it pertains to what you do. With Devin it was obvious to us.
Q: So what skills does he have that allowed him to block so many punts in college?
SO: I would just say the overall on blocking kicks, like anything else, it's an instinct. The good ones, obviously, have been coached, and in a lot of cases they just have a knack for it. There are techniques in everything that we do, but the physical ability, the techniques of the feet and protections and all of those things that you teach them, some guys just have a knack for it. And in college, obviously, when you get your hands on the ball, you've got pretty good instincts for it.
Q: Correct me if I'm wrong, but in college Zoltan Mesko kind of punted on the run. How are you changing his mechanics?
SO: With Zoltan, a little bit. You're correct. He did have a little bit of that and with us, just evaluating college at a position that is very, very hard to find at our level as far as the young techniques you're looking for, the local motor skills they develop for that position. There is so much of that in college that you really have to do a good job of just singling out his physical attributes as a punter. But in Zoltan's case, there was enough - I mean, a lot of film - where there was conventional punting. The scramble punts is just a situation we all have in certain situations. If they have never done it in college, then we have to work on it and obviously on the things they didn't do in college and need to do for us we have to work on. In Zoltan's case, that's one thing he's done and worked hard on ever since he's been here
Q: When you assess the special teams units from last year, what is the one unit that you want to see improve? I know you want to see them all improve, but is there one specifically?
SO: I would say the overall return game, kickoff return, but it's like everything else. When you've done this for a long time, things constantly change, we change as coaches, schematics change, rules change and you're always trying to be sound at what you're doing, but you always have to be able to break down segments, either schematically, by players, or whatever, to find out where you can improve on everything that you do. You can be the best in the National Football League, and you're always still trying to improve. By looking at that, I mean, it's a combination. We're always breaking down, trying to get a better scheme. What are we seeing more of now, relative to the years before? How are we matching up personnel? How did the change in the rules last year with the wedge really affect us?
Q: How did it?
SO: I would say overall, obviously it went in to protect the players. I can't remember a collision in the wedge for the players' safety. I don't remember seeing any of that. I think it really kind of opened it up for the kickoff team, where the techniques started to change. There's not a lot of two-on-one anymore because there are three guys there and there are only two of us, so one of us has to take two of them, that type of thing. So that would probably be a big thing.
Q: You were right down the middle last year in the league in terms of kickoff returns. Is improving that as simple as getting someone as dynamic as Brandon Tate involved, or do the other 10 guys have just as much responsibility?
SO: Well, there're two things. Obviously, all of the returners in this league are good. They're only as good as those other 10 guys. Are there exceptions to the rule? Sure there are: the explosive guys, the playmakers. But that's what you're looking for. You're looking for that guy that not only has the physical skills, the eye control, the instincts of setting up blocks and that type of thing and the speed to make explosive plays, but it's the other guys that are giving him that opportunity to get started. So there's a combination and young returners really grow. Don't get me wrong, there are some really instinctive rookies -through the history of the National Football League- that are hardly taught anything yet, and then they really grow, understanding the principles of coverage here and how to set up returns relative to where they catch the ball. And then they start making everybody else's job a little bit easier as they start to learn that overall concept that we have. And then when you have a combination, you become more explosive.
Q: With the young guys that you are talking about like DeSean Jackson, Josh Cribbs and Percy Harvin, is that a cyclical thing or is that a trend you're noticing with these kids coming out and being so good right away?
SO: I think every year you can go back - not in Cribbs' case because Cribbs was a quarterback and you really had to project somebody like that, but the handful of college returners that come out that we evaluate, [whether] we look for one of not - just if you're doing that as a team, you're always evaluating because you never know when you meet them again or what their strengths are as a young player if you meet them. So you really look at the physical skills of a returner when they come out, but I would say, overall, every year there is a handful. Some years are better than other. I think the trend in college is to get those explosive players now, too, to make those explosive plays. So we're seeing more of them in college, as opposed to 'Hey, I can't get him hurt' and that type of thing. I think that's changed a little bit, too, philosophy-wise. But I would say that every year there is a pretty good group of what you're looking for as explosive returners that you're looking for.
Q: In your short time working with Zoltan Mesko, are you happy with his progress?
SO: What I would say with Zoltan is that he comes to work every day and knows what we're trying to do for him to be an NFL punter, like all of our guys. They've done a good job with coming in here and working hard. I mean, we've got a long ways to go, just like him - the consistency he's looking for, which really involves a lot of technique with all punters. Any punter that is consistent in the National Football League, or really anywhere, has to have a consistent grip on the ball so it drops consistently for him so he knows it's over his foot and all of those little things. But now a lot more mental information he has to take. He goes out and punts the ball, which he has to do. That's his number one job. Now it's 'What's the situation? Where do we want the ball? How do we want the ball? What is everybody else doing?' It's easy to talk about, but that's learning to be a professional and that's part of our evaluation on him. Right now he's here, he's working hard and we're evaluating him every day, like everybody else and there is a lot that he has to learn. He's showed progress, but we still have a long ways to go.
Q: Draft analysts said McCourty was the best special teamer in the draft. What was your reaction when you guys drafted him and how many different ways do you think you can use him?
SO: Well, obviously in all the different ways. Bill [Belichick] will have a lot to do with that, but everybody knows how Bill is. Everybody has roles. To answer your question, when we drafted him I was as happy as everybody else. I evaluated him covering kicks as a punter and blocking his kicks and doing those things. Everybody gets involved doing the big four phases Obviously he wouldn't be on the field goal, but he's on field goal block, so he's dealing with all five, like all of our players. And you try to get him into positions where physically guys can match up and do the things you're asking them to do and have a chance physically to do it. He's one of them. Again, when the team starts to develop then you start to place the guys in relative to how Bill sees their other roles and responsibilities.
Q: You mentioned multiple responsibilities - Sam Aiken has always kind of described himself as a special teams guru, and then last year he kind of took on a larger role in the offense. How does that affect his effectiveness on special teams?
SO: I think in Sam's case, like a lot of core players that are relative backups with a role offensively or defensively, the preparation on theme everyday is no different than any offensive or defensive player, but they get the load of the game plan of the kicking game. Obviously, he's a big four guy - all four phases. He's adjusting to our game plan, the opponent's strengths, their personnel, who he's matched up with, all of those [things]. That becomes one of the obstacles he has to get over, in his case, when he starts to play more offense, or anybody that starts to play more defense. I'll tell you, he did a good job. But it's the number of plays, too, that they play. The concentration as far as the mental capacity that he has to be able to have and then it's the physical load that he's taking. But it's like that in the whole league. That's what we deal with. One guy gets hurt, another guy moves up and we're adjusting somebody else, so we've got to do what's best for the team.
Q: Is Sam the primary personal protector last year on punts?
SO: Primary? Most of the time, yes, most of the time. But I can tell you this: you never have enough of them. You never have enough. It's like a MASH unit sometimes. He's one. We like to have a whole bunch of them right now.
Q: When you're deciding between someone like him and Patrick Chung for that role, what goes into that decision? What do both players bring?
SO: Well, hopefully you try to bring experience because Patrick hasn't had a lot. Sam has had some and it's like Thomas [Williams] or whoever, we're always trying to train, because seriously, I've been in games where there have been none - none - and you're training them right there during the game. So you never get enough, so we're training as many guys as we can. Obviously, Sam has been through it. He had a good background in it. Now Patrick is getting reps just like Thomas is getting reps. I mean we have a lot of guys that you have to train, because it's a long season. You don't know what is going to happen and the more you have, trust me, the better off you are.
Q: Last year Stephen Gostkowski had to break in a snapper (Jake Ingram) and this year it's breaking in a rookie punter in Mesko. How have you seen him handle that and kind of help with that process?
SO: Well, I think your question is good, based on he's an older guy that's been taught as a rookie how to be a professional. And a lot goes into that, not only doing your job and learning your techniques, but the routine of being a professional, mentally when to be able to back down, physically when to be able to back down and then prepare yourself situational-wise. And he's done a really good job with that. They did a good job with Jake [Ingram] last year, coming in and trying to earn a position and now with Zoltan trying to do it. It's just the little things that everybody is a little bit different [at] that he likes that we're trying to adjust to. He's like anybody else. It could be Brian Hoyer or it could be Kyle Arrington. Somebody goes in to hold and he has to do his job. Now, is it a concern if it's somebody new? It is for everybody. It is for everybody, but is he working with them and still being able to concentrate and do his job? Yes. But you're right, it's always an adjustment.
Q: On the punt return side, we had seen Wes Welker handle a lot of that. Even if he hadn't gotten hurt, would you look to install some young guys, given Wes's workload on the offense and the skills of the new guys?
SO: Well, obviously you never have enough. Everything being equal and everybody being healthy, I think where you are as a team and what Bill thinks the situation is for the returner - the return situation. Obviously, we want the best guys to play. 'Best guy' may mean a lot of things here. It may be a guy that has the most experience, that can play a good situation, or a combination of two guys backed up, handing the ball, weather conditions. [It's] a lot of things. To me, the more you have the better off you are and situationally, it's like all of a sudden you're game planning for one returner and you know all of his strengths and weaknesses and you know what he likes to do relative to what everybody else is doing, and then all of a sudden you show up for the game and it's a completely different guy. That's an advantage for you, so the more you have, I think the better off you are.
Q: Philosophically, if you have a guy who situationally is the surest decision maker, how do you weigh that with a guy that's a big playmaker?
SO: If you put a guy in because the big play is to handle the ball, make a good decision and catch it, to us, that's as important of a play as a guy when you got backed up that can make an explosive return for you. There are different situations for big plays and obviously two of them are like that. You can take a young player, any young player, who maybe doesn't have the decision making process down real good and is maybe going to take chances when he shouldn't or whatever. You start him when he has a lot of room and you don't try to put him in harm's way until he builds it. But eventually, he has to prove to everybody, whoever that player is, that he can make good decisions, handle the ball in traffic. That's what professional players do.
Q: Kyle Arrington came in the middle of the season last year and averaged two special teams tackles a game, which was far and away the best on the team. What allows a guy to come in to a new situation like that an essentially dominate compared to the other guys at that position who have been here?
SO: I think in Kyle's case, he plays positions where physically, he's a real fast player. He plays fast. He's very instinctive, but he plays positions where he has more opportunities early than a lot of guys, but that's what you're looking for. If you have a guy that you're going to put him in a position to be able to make a play early and he can't, then we probably have a wrong guy there. But he came in and fit right in and physically kind of matched up in the positions that we needed him in, and like you said, was very successful for us. Hopefully we can continue that on with him and this year even be able to adjust even more.
Q: You talk about players feeling more comfortable after their first year. Is it similar as a coach in your second year?
SO: The years are all the same, trust me. But no, the setting is different, the players. It's not really the young players my first year here because I came in with them as part of that group. It was the older players, even though some of the older players I had other places I've been, too. It was really fortunate for me last year because of coming in, being new, [but] not really new to Bill, so [there] was a comfort level and that helped. It's more like what's your personality? What's your demeanor? I have to know everybody because you have to deal with everybody and it's hard when you first get here and guys have been here. But this year it's a lot easier, obviously, in that aspect of it.
Q: With so many young players you are trying to integrate and so many question marks, how nice is it to have a guy like Stephen Gostkowski as a veteran on special teams?
SO: I think it's what you look for. I think when you have a head coach that knows exactly what he wants, the type of player that he wants, because we all want great players at the positions we deal with, but this is a little bit more. I think Bill does a great job of doing that part of letting us know what we need and being able to have a young player like that who obviously can give you what you need at his position is what you look for.