Photo by Tony Gonzales
The Oakland Raiders took the field for their sixth practice of Training Camp 2014, presented by California National Guard. Progress continues to be made in each phase of the game – offense, defense and special teams.
"Lot better practice today," said Head Coach Dennis Allen. "I thought the guys came back and we challenged them a little bit, I thought they responded. That's what you expect out of a group like this with some veteran players. I thought they came out and responded. I think there are still some things where we've got to get some things cleaned up. We've got to be able to finish some plays when we have some opportunities. But, overall I thought both sides of the ball did some good things and I think we got better as a football team."
One area the Raiders have focused on significantly is special teams, both coverage and return. But most noticeably, the return game has been a point of emphasis. Rookies and veterans alike are getting repetitions catching kickoffs and running them up the field, as the Raiders search for the best fit for the job.
"Both of those positions, kick returner and punt returner, those are going to be positions that we're going to have to let play out throughout the preseason before we kind of settle into where we're going with those positions," said Coach Allen.
Rookie CB TJ Carrie is one of the players that has caught Coach Allen's eye on punt return. "I think TJ Carrie's a guy that's showing some signs as a punt returner," said Coach Allen. "I really think Denarius Moore's done a nice job back there returning punts. He's fielded the ball cleanly. He's made good decisions."
Carrie takes his potential role as punt returner seriously. "It is very important because I think one of the keynotes of my draft stock was my ability to punt return," said Carrie. "That's something I pride myself on each and every day and I try to catch as many punts after practice to continually be catching the ball. I take pride and I'm very anxious to get on the field each and every day to do that punt return responsibility."
Also fielding punts during practice is second-year wide receiver Greg Jenkins. "I feel like [the return game is] just as important as everything else," said Jenkins. "It's about field position. At the end of the day, that's what it's about – making plays and giving the offense good field position or taking it to the house."
Punt return is a tough job, according to Carrie. "You have to be able to locate the ball. It sounds simple, but I feel like the position of punt return is it's not a niche everyone can do," said Carrie. "You really have to be able to do that position. It's a hard position because the ball can spin in a lot of different directions and if you can't locate the ball in the air as well as be cognizant of where your defenders are, then the position doesn't work for you."
The kick returner position is also open for competition. The daily participants include veteran RB Darren McFadden, rookie RB George Atkinson III and second-year RB Latavius Murray.
McFadden has never returned kicks during his NFL career, but is working as though it's second nature. "I feel very comfortable back there. I'm just a ball player, so wherever I'm at on the football field, I feel comfortable," said McFadden.
The dynamic running back is keeping the kick-return game simple. "My thing is that I just listen to the advice that Coach Skip [Kelly Skipper] gives me; run with your eyes and your legs will follow," he explained.
Atkinson III is no stranger to kickoffs, on the other hand. At Notre Dame, he returned 88 kickoffs for 2,136 yards and two touchdowns. He continues to work at the position with the hope that it earns him a spot on the 53-man roster. "It's a great opportunity for rookies to get on the field early because of the most of the spots are already taken by the veterans," said Atkinson III. "So coming into camp, for me, it's essential for me to bust my butt out there and show the coaches that I can do a lot of work on special teams."
Atkinson III knows what it takes to be successful. "Just setting up your blocks and knowing who's blocking who on the return team and hitting it hard as fast as you can," he explained. "You have to be fearless back there, so just hitting it hard and trusting the teammates that they're going to make the blocks they need to."
Murray is returning kicks for the first time since high school. It has taken some getting used to, but he's finding his rhythm. The coaching staff is taking a look at the big back at the position. "I think being a running back and my speed too, just being able to make a guy miss, make a play and get out in the open field, and make something happen is why I could be successful," said Murray.
All of the players taking reps on special teams understand the importance of that phase of the game. "In a sense, it's the first play in the offense," explained Murray. "Field position is big, so anytime you can try to gain a few first downs, that's key. It just helps in field position and gives us a greater chance of scoring."
Special Teams Coordinator Bobby April, assistant special teams coach Chris Boniol and other members of the Raiders coaching staff are focused on improving the Raiders return game for the regular season. "Coach April and all those guys, the whole special teams staff, is great," said Atkinson III. "They really make you focus on the details of the game in special teams and blocking and things like that. I'm just trying to grasp everything they're teaching to us and use it on the field."
As the players progress through camp, they are all in on special teams. The mentality seems consistent across the board as the players make sure the coaching knows they're willing to do whatever it takes. "That's what I said coming in, anything they want me to do to help this team win I'm all for it, so if it's returning kicks, it's returning kicks."