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VeShaun Suisham (left) is battling upstart Dave Rayner
BY RICH CAMPBELL
ASHBURN--If you thought the Washington Redskins' offense was ineffective last season, imagine how that group would languish if Clinton Portis and Santana Moss were removed from it.
The results would be crippling, right? Well, that's the comparison Redskins special-teams coach Danny Smith uses to explain the tall task he faces this preseason. After linebacker Khary Campbell's offseason departure and wideout James Thrash's retirement, Smith will spend the next five weeks trying to unearth replacements for two of the Redskins' best special-teams players.
It's a conundrum that some might overlook, especially considering the Redskins' offensive struggles last season. But Smith knows it's imperative to prevent a drop-off in an area so critical to winning.
"It's hard, man. I miss those guys so much," Smith said, his voice hoarse after Saturday's hour-long special-teams practice. "You take away the top tacklers on your team, and there's a void."
The Redskins' offseason special-teams makeover will keep Smith busy during the preseason. Besides replacing Thrash and Campbell, he'll decide a placekicking battle between in-cumbent Shaun Suisham and four-year veteran Dave Rayner. He'll also incorporate new punter Hunter Smith into his plans.
Campbell and Thrash were Washington's leading special-teams tacklers in 2008. Campbell, a special-teams co-captain with Rock Cartwright, had 27 to lead the team for the fourth consecutive season.
His contract expired at the end of last year, and the seven-year veteran did not re-sign. He currently isn't receiving much interest on the free-agent market, according to Cartwright, who spoke with him via phone on Saturday.
"I don't know how you can replace somebody like that," fullback Mike Sellers said. "He still hasn't signed with a team, so it would be nice to get him back, hint, hint."
Thrash, who had 22 special-teams tackles last season, retired at age 34 because of a neck injury. The Redskins recently hired him to assist with player programs.
"I tell him all the time: 'You don't look good in that coaching shirt. I liked you better when you had that damn jersey on,'" Smith joked.
But Smith, understanding the business side of the game, is eager to find the next Campbell and Thrash. It's a difficult job, considering that he must determine replacements for them on four different units: punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return.
On the flip side, players recognize the void and their opportunity to fill it. For the young players in camp who aren't established in the NFL, it's clearly their best shot to make the 53-man roster.
"I knew that any team I landed on, all rookies would play special teams," said linebacker Robert Henson, Washington's sixth-round draft pick out of Texas Christian University. "My main focus is just staying in [Smith's] office, keep watching film and learning as much as I can."
Henson's special-teams play in college was a major reason the Redskins drafted him. He started only four games on defense during his first three seasons at TCU, but his special-teams contributions earned him honorable-mention all-Western Athletic Conference honors each year.
Henson, however, insists his experience doesn't give him any advantage. His fate and others' will be determined by their performance in the four preseason games.
"I think your ego kind of kicks in," Henson said. "You say, 'I'm going to be the first one down there and I'm going to make this play.' It's really just a confidence factor, just the will of a man, like Danny says all the time."
Henson was one of 54 players who participated in numerous special-teams drills on Saturday.
They sprinted downfield and practiced dodging blockers in pursuit of a return man. They worked on aligning to block for a kickoff returner, and they practiced different blocking techniques--all this while Smith's typical ceaseless chatter and energy amused anyone within earshot.
Afterward, Smith detailed the characteristics of his ideal job candidate. Whichever players possess them, no matter how obscure their names, could find themselves impacting wins and losses in the fall.
"The big thing is effort," Smith said. "If he'll give effort, my job is to coach him. And then I start looking for pad level. And do they take coaching? When I make a correction, do they have it right the next time? I get a lot more comfortable with people I know and trust.
"I think we have a good core and we'll fill [the void]. I feel good about that. Will I have that same trust to start? Probably not. I really trusted those guys. They're veterans, they're good at it, they like it, we were on the same page, so that's going to take time."
Rich Campbell: 540/735-1974
|TRAINING CAMP Redskins Park, Ashburn Open practices
Tomorrow: 8:30 a.m.
Wednesday: 8:30 a.m.
Thursday: 8:30 a.m.
Saturday, Aug. 8: Intrasquad scrimmage, 2 p.m.
Admission, parking: free