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Smith's Special Teams: They're All Starters

Last season, Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith instilled the notion into his players that they were all starters. In a sense, he was right. Special teams regulars such as Mike Sellers, Khary Campbell, Ade Jimoh and Rock Cartwright were always on the field for the opening kickoff of games last year.

It was all a part of building pride on special teams--and it showed in the end result.

In punt coverage, the Redskins ranked No. 2 in the league last season, allowing just 4.7 yards per return. In kickoff coverage, Smith's units were No. 6, yielding only 20.9 yards per return.

The Redskins were ranked No. 11 on kickoff returns, with a 20.9-yard average. Ladell Betts and Antonio Brown both returned kicks for touchdowns last season, helping to boost that average.

"If you start on special teams, then you are a starter," said Campbell, who led the Redskins in special teams tackles with 34. "You're expected to perform as a starter. Danny's pride in the special teams filters down to the rest of us."

Added assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams: "We always think that punt or kickoff coverage is the first play in a defensive series. It all works hand in hand. I approach it that way in our defensive meetings."

The one negative on special teams? The Redskins ranked 28th in the NFL in punt returns, with a 6.0-yard average.

So the Redskins addressed punt returns in free agency, acquiring Antwaan Randle El. The former Pittsburgh Steeler logged a 10.2-yard punt return average, with two touchdowns, last season.

"Certainly I don't want to give up the punt return," Randle El said recently when discussing his role with the Redskins. "I don't want to give up the role of being a wide receiver. It is just a matter of how my role will expand according to Coach [Al] Saunders and that's what I want.

"Even looking back to Pittsburgh there are some games where you wish you got a couple of more balls here or there but looking back you know that is just the way it happened. I am happy about the situation that I am going to be in now."

It's uncertain whether Randle El will return kickoffs next season. It's possible that Betts, James Thrash and Brown will compete for that job in preseason. The Redskins could add a kickoff return specialist in free agency or in the NFL draft.

Through some of the team's marquee signings this offseason, personnel officials have focused on maintaining continuity on special teams. The Redskins re-signed long snapper Ethan Albright, Campbell and Cartwright and tendered a contract to restricted free agent Jimoh.

Said head coach Joe Gibbs: "A big part of what we do is trying to get what Danny needs on special teams. We have Khary back who led us in tackles--we went after Khary real hard because he is real important to us and he can play linebacker--and Rock was second [in tackles] and James Thrash was third. We have Ade Jimoh and Mike Sellers coming back."

The 6-5, 265-pound Albright, who played in Buffalo for five years before joining the Redskins in 2001, has been the model of consistency. Among the league's best long snappers, Albright has played in 16 games for 10 consecutive seasons.

On field goals, Albright snapped to holder Derrick Frost for John Hall, who finished out an injury-marred season on an upswing.

Hall was 12-of-14 on field goals last year, including 5-of-7 from 40 yards or longer. But he missed five games early in the season due to a quadriceps injury. Hall also missed time in 2004 due to hamstring injuries and a groin injury.

Even though some top kickers were available in free agency this offseason, the Redskins have decided to stay with Hall for now. Gibbs said recently that team officials expect to bring in competition for Hall this offseason. The Redskins also have a kicker, Tyler Jones, playing in NFL Europe this spring.

Gibbs said the team may look to "take some pressure off" Hall by using punter Frost on kickoffs. That would allow Hall to focus solely on field goals.

"We talked over a little game plan there," Gibbs said. "We like John and we think he's a crucial part of what we do. You're going to lose games if you can't kick some field goals. [His injuries] are a concern--that's why we are looking to take some pressure off of him. We may lean toward taking some pressure on kickoffs, because Derrick can kick off. We may go in that direction.

"We feel like it's very hard to find a veteran field goal kicker that you can put your life on. And these games are going to come down to field goals as we saw last year."

At punter, third-year player Frost had 76 punts last season for a 40.4-yard average, with a long of 55.

It's possible that the Redskins will bring in some competition at punter this spring, but Gibbs believes Frost will continue to improve with experience.

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