Q: We saw Aaron Hernandez returning punts a couple days ago. Is that just an opportunity to get the guy some work in an emergency situation?
SO: No, I think any time you're a ball handler, one of the hardest things to do is to catch punts. It's not only a great drill for any receiver, as well as punt returners, to focus in on trying to catch a ball that normally is tougher to catch than a quarterback throwing you a ball.
Q: What are the attributes of a good kick returner?
SO: There's toughness obviously. It's like having to run through a door and you don't know what's at the other end, that's number one. Great vision, instincts, cutting ability, but there's a process. Those are the instinctive things you're looking for; the mental makeup, besides the physical skills. But there is a learning process with all returners, no matter what experience they've had in the past because of the schemes and the coverage principles that we have to deal with here. It becomes a learning process of how they do things besides just the physical skills they do have.
Q: What are the attributes of the 10 guys in front of the returner?
SO: Well that's a good point because you're only as good as those 10 guys, no matter who it is. There have been some great specialists in this league through the history of it and there are some now too that make everybody look good, they make everybody look good. No matter who you put on the field, that guy is really only as good as the other 10 guys that give him an opportunity. You're just trying to get him one-on-one, let him to what he does, but they get him started.
Q: How does Ivan Fears help you out? It seems like he's always out there with the returners.
SO: The big thing is because through practice we're trying to not only run a certain phase, if it's the return game versus the coverage but we're trying to get combinations and trying to run certain situations. Ivan does a great job of putting in, following a script of the guys we want for that play so that we're rotating through and everybody is getting experience of the play. He does a great job.
Q: How would you assess the kick return guys last year? It seems like that could be an area for improvement.
SO: Obviously last year was an area of still inexperience for us. It's like any phase after a season – you're always looking to improve it, no matter how good you are or how poor you are. You're evaluating the schemes, personnel, what you have, what you can go forward with. It's like anything else, it's a point of emphasis for us but it always is. I think in our case, there's a good example of the learning curve of things that happened the way they happened that were either good or bad. Hopefully we learn from that experience and we continue to improve.
Q: From what you saw from him in college, what kind of skills can Nate Ebner bring to the field?
SO: I think physically he has the skill set to have a chance to do what he did in college here and to compete here. That opportunity is going to present itself but as far as being a skill guy, to us, it's really too early to tell because with all of our young players, we're starting with them at a position with every phase so they can just get acclimated to terminology, techniques, before you can even advance. What we always try to do is to put our players in positions, no matter what it is, with us in the kicking game, it's different from the standpoint of they have to have the physical skills with what we're asking them to do. It's not like being a running back or being a linebacker on offense or defense. We're putting them in positions to do something physically that they have to be able to have the physical skills to do what we're asking them to do and then work on the technique involved there. He's like all of our young players – he's starting at a position, he's learning the system and he's going out and working his technique. Overall, all the young guys are working hard and doing a pretty good job.
Q: There seems like there are a lot more core special teamers here than ultimately will be kept. Can you talk about the competition there?
SO: That's one thing I think Bill [Belichick] has done ever since I've been with him or have watched him when I've been other places, it's bringing in competition for everybody. Right now we have a lot of competition and it will sort itself out. With that, not just young players, there are experienced players there. Not only will it make us better with better competition, give you more options but they make each other better on some of the situations you get into with experienced players versus young players. Young players, they just haven't experienced a lot yet so they don't know much. The older players, when you're talking about a situation or play, they're alert for things that could come up during the course of the down which really is helpful.
Q: One of the areas where there isn't competition is your two kickers. Do you work with them or do you trust them to push themselves?
SO: No, I think again there's another case of the installation of the demand, the physical demand of those guys. When you're installing, especially in training camp and you're trying to go back-to-back kickoffs and kickoff returns, the competition is always good there. You're always having enough bodies, let's say, to have quality work every day from that position without risking anybody physically. For us it's really worked out really well.
Q: Specifically with Zoltan Mesko and Stephen Gostkowski – do you trust them to work out on their own or do you give them things to work on?
SO: Every day we go out, there is something specifically we go out to do. If it's field position, any type of various kicks that we have to be able to perform. They go out every day to get better at what they're doing. Nobody is ever, ever good enough. There's always something that they're focused on. If we come off the field one day and there's something we've noticed technique-wise that we weren't doing correctly, that becomes the emphasis the next time we go out there, along with situation we're building into that they may have to perform on the field. It's just hard. You never know what's going to come up during the course of a game. During training camp and during practice, we have to practice those situations. It could be a field goal attempt from the one-yard line, we have to experience that play. There's a lot to it. They go out every day to get better. They're pretty good self-starters. They know what it takes, they know where they're at, physically they're in good shape, they're getting their timing, they're getting their rhythm and trying to improve every single day.
Q: Can you talk about Jeff Tarpinian? He made the team last year as a special teams linebacker before he got hurt. Can you talk about his development and how he's coming along?
SO: Jeff last year came in from the University of Iowa that had a little bit of experience for some of the things we did. For example, like punt protection where we got to watch him play the left tackle at Iowa; similar footwork and rules and that kind of stuff that we use. Had the mentality we were looking for, had the physical skills that gave him a chance that we were looking for. He came in and worked hard and showed improvement and got better and it worked out where were able to keep him and then eventually got him an opportunity to play. I'm sure it's like all young guys – he went through a learning curve and had his ups and downs. I'd say in Jeff's case, every experience he had, either good or bad, he understood them and could learn from them and continued to do the things he was doing well and corrected some of the things that he didn't do correctly and showed us that improvement. So far he looks pretty good.
Q: Can you touch on Julian Edelman's development as a punt returner? It looked like he had a rough start in the beginning and now he's at an elite level, so to speak.
SO: In Julian's case, he's one example of a lot of examples through the history of the National Football League – had no experience doing it, had some natural instincts, pretty good ball skills. Again, it was a learning curve for him, not only catching the ball, understand what the ball was doing in the air, how it was going to come down and worked really hard on it. The biggest improvement for him, like all young guys, is not only learning our schemes and what our strategies are for certain situations but field awareness. When you're on the field, what's happening to the coverage that you're going to face? What do you have to do as a returner? What decision do I have to make? It's hard for young guys, even if they have experience, coming in with us at the beginning, let alone a guy who has never really done it. He's worked hard. He's still working on it. He still has some things that he has to improve on now but he's more comfortable now. It's like he plays everything before the play even happens and that's what you're looking for.
Q: I noticed that when Patrick Chung was out last year, Danny Woodhead was the personal punt protector. What led you to put him back there?
SO: There are a couple of reasons. He's had some experience doing it before. You always like the threat of any type of skill guy to handle the ball. You like the speed element he brings out of the middle of the field in coverage. I can tell you this – you never have enough of them. You try to train as many guys as you can because we all know from week to week, some guys you have, some guys you don't. That's one position, you have to have enough guys and Danny stepped up and did a really good job.