STC Bubba Ventrone (9.7.23)
How has Dustin (Hopkins) settled in?
“He’s done well. He is getting comfortable with the operation. He’s very particular, so those guys have done a good job. They’ve worked really hard the last week or so, just getting that in a comfortable spot. So looks good.”
Mechanics and nuances to that kicking game, is that a real challenge to get a guy up to speed with that group in this short of a window?
“No, I think just the communication is important amongst him and Corey (Bojorquez), specifically on where the ball needs to be placed and how it’s leaned and all that type of stuff. So it’s been good.”
Was that a tough transition for you to have to make a tough decision and to be a part of to move on from Cade (York) and just say, ‘we’ve got to make a change here’?
“Yeah, I mean, you build relationships with players and things like that. As far as the kicking, specifically, I’ve worked with a number of specialists and kickers over the last five years as a coordinator, so I feel like I’ve had experience in that regard. So excited about Dustin and his opportunity to contribute to our team.”
With Jakeem (Grant Sr.) out for the season, what do you plan to do to try and fill that void?
“Yeah, I mean, it was disappointing for him. He had worked so hard to come back from injury, and obviously sustaining that in the KC game was heartbreaking for the kid because he had worked so hard to make it back. And then in football, injuries are going to happen and it’s a part of the game and we’re ready to take that next step and not replace him, but someone else needs to step up and contribute to those units.”
Yesterday you had Jerome Ford taking the reps at kick returner, but the guy kicking the ball was the practice squad kicker (Lucas Havrisik). Why was tha instead of Hopkins?
“We’re going to have our guys kick on different days at times, typically in a week of work. Dustin’s going to kick on Thursday and Friday. That’s what he’s done in his career. So just try to keep him as comfortable as possible with his process and Lucas will kick on Wednesdays and Thursdays.”
Is Dustin’s injury history the reason you guys kept the practice squad kicker? I think only five teams have kickers on their practice squad.
“I think that we’re always trying to improve our roster in some capacity, whether it’s as a specialist or a young developmental player in a big-four setting. So we felt that it was a good opportunity to have that guy on the practice squad.”
What do you like about Jerome Ford as a kick returner?
“Jerome does a lot of good things. He’s got good vision, he’s an aggressive runner. He’s fast, he’s got good contact balance. He’s strong. I think he’s got some toughness to him. Every Friday – and I shouldn’t really say this now because I hope none of the players see it – but every Friday I show a high school highlight film from one of our players at the end of my meeting. Just try to lighten it up a little bit, and I’m going to show his tomorrow, and it’s probably the best highlight film I’ve seen in the last six years. So excited to do that”
With Jerome, I mean, when you have a younger player who has to miss an extended time in training camp, what’s most important? Obviously it’s second year here, but to make sure he’s staying on top of things and how have you seen him handle that part of it?
“Yeah, I would say for ball handler specifically, for us he’s just got to get as many catches pre and post-practice, especially off the live foot. That’s important. He’s done a good job of that since he’s been back and excited to be able to see him moving forward.”
Young guys like (Mohamoud) Diabate and (Ronnie) Hickman, the undrafted guys that made it, what did you see in those guys as special teamers?
“Number one, they both made a lot of plays, so you want to have playmakers on the field in some capacity–whether it’s offense, defense, or special teams. Both of those guys made an immediate impact on defense when they had opportunities and we’re hoping that they can ascend and contribute to our units.”
How are you going to handle the fair catch rule? Does your thinking change at all without having a guy like Jakeem?
“Every game, every play, every situation is different. I’m not going to really give you my strategy on how I see that going, but we’ll be prepared and our players will be prepared to handle all the situations that arise throughout a game, throughout some type of whatever scenario you want to bring up. But we’ll be prepared and ready for whatever we need to do to handle that particular situation.”
Unusual that a kicker has been in the league nine years has never kicked here before in this stage. I know, there’s one game Hopkins had and just PATs in that particular game.
“I didn’t actually know that.”
How do you get him acclimated?
“So it was good to be able to get down there last week and hit in the stadium. That was his first time that we had really live operation, and it was at the stadium, so that was good. He hit the ball well. The thing that works to his advantage just overall as a specialist, as a kicker, even though he had been in LA the last two years, he’s been in Washington the previous however many, so he’s kicked outside, he’s been in the elements. He understands wind patterns and wind conditions. So that I think bodes to his advantage and our advantage as far as acquiring a guy this late in the game. He’s a true professional, he really is. He’s worked really hard at getting comfortable with those guys. So it’s been good.”
In terms of your job, what was it like to lose your number one returner and then have to switch up your kickers in the final week of camp?
“Yeah, I mean, things are going to happen. Things happen in sports and football, and it’s how you bounce back, it’s how you get back up off the ground, and how are we going to make it right? So things happen in a game. I mean, guys go down in the game, it’s how are you going to come back, how are you going to respond? So I feel like this is some adversity with our team, and we got to come back and come back fighting.”
Will DPJ (Donovan Peoples-Jones) be the punt returner?
“Donovan has been the primary returner back there. We have other guys that can do it so, we’re always going to go with the best available, depending on their offensive and defensive availability.”
But I’m sure you got geeked up as a player for Sunday’s. So how’s it different as a coach, or do you get geeked up in a different way?
“It’s different. I feel like as a player, you have more true nerves going into a game. It’s different. As a coach, you feel confident as long as you prepare well. I feel like I prepare well. I feel confident in my ability to get my players in the right position, but then you’re kind of at the mercy of them. You don’t have any real control over the performance. You’re just trusting in them that they’ve prepared well and have practiced well, and you’ve put them and trained them in specific situations. So there’s definitely differences. I would say me, personally, I got more nervous for games as a player.”
What is it that you like in Donovan as a punt returner? What about his skill set makes him good for that?
“I’ve been around a good number of ball handlers, punt returners. Guys like Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, that really tracked – all those guys, did a really good job of tracking the ball in the air, right? And adjusting. Like, I think that Donovan’s judgment is excellent. I think he’s got really good hands. He does a pretty good job setting up on the ball. Very reliable ball handler.”
Following up on that, one of his big things on offense as a receiver is contested catches. Does that sort of go hand in hand? No pun intended.
“I would say yeah, because I think the contested catches thing is, obviously you have to has good body position. He uses good body position to be able to put himself in a position to make those plays. He’s got strong hands and then being able to judge the ball in the air and track the ball in the air. So I think that’s obviously a trait that’s pretty good.”
So you know the numbers of your penalties during the preseason games, I don’t know them offhand, but did they improve from that first game in Canton?
“Yeah, I think a lot of the penalties happen with a lot of young players. I feel like we have done a good job on teams’ and throughout our roster of expressing how important it is to play a clean game, make good decisions at the point of attack, not make dumb penalties, don’t do dumb things that are going to hurt your football team. Really, I think a lot of the results of penalties are you’re using bad technique, bad footwork, you’re not in the right spot. And then just telling our guys we want to make good decisions.”
Is it to have core guys on your units, to have the special teams that you want? And who would you say are your core guys like the Matt Adams and those type of guys?
“I mean, I would say the guys that don’t have starting roles offensively and defensively. I think that you have those backups in those key positions. Typically I would say like amongst the league, most of your core is going to come from defensive positions. Linebackers, the third, 4th, 5th safety, the fifth corner on the roster. Hopefully you can have some offensive players that contribute in some capacity, whether it’s you know the third running back. Hopefully you can have a tight end contribute like Harrison Bryant helps us out, like that’s a positive because then when you get those contributions from the offensive positions then it pulls a little bit back off the defense. When you don’t have contributions from offensive players, if you don’t have a running back that really does much, if you don’t have a tight end, then it’s really stressing those defensive positions and you may need to carry another defensive player to the game to do so. Guys that can do multiple things, position flexibility is a big thing. Acquiring Pierre Strong was a good thing for us because he had special teams experience in New England. So I think that’s value, that’s having value.”
The guys on the bubble, how is the message from over the summer as they’re trying to make names for themselves and earn spots on this team? How does that translate now as you approach the regular season and week one?
“I mean Coach (Kevin) Stefanski and I, we’ve definitely hit our guys hard on special teams, especially if you want to contribute, you’ve got to be able to have a role on special teams. Even our starters have a role. You may be a corner that starts on our punt return unit or starts on our field goal block unit. Whatever it is, everybody has some type of role and I think that these young guys are realizing now especially that the roster has been cut down, that they may not be seeing as much offensive or defensive opportunities as they had hoped and now they’re hoping and wishing that they had these special teams opportunities. And when you make plays on teams then it’s noticed and then a lot of times you’re going to get more opportunities offensively and defensively.”
What’s it going to be like for you to be back out there at Cleveland Browns Stadium? I mean, have you thought about that? What it’s going to be like when all the fans are there and the lights are on and might you be running up and down the sidelines, or how do you think this is going to go for you?
“I’m excited. I’m definitely excited about this opportunity. I’m excited for our team and our season. Want to be able to help our team win in any way, shape or form. So going to do my best to put our players in position to make plays, and it’ll be exciting when we’re making them.”
Three or four punt return touchdowns last year, I think probably less than that, kickoff returns, why is that happening? Why is it so down?
“How many kickoff returns were there?”
Not sure. I thought it was less than three, right?
“Yeah. I would have to credit some of that, like as far as the punt return stuff to the specialists–the punters are doing a good job of placing the ball with hang time. There’s a lot of really good punters in the league currently. Coverage units have probably been better. And then as far as kickoff returns, not exactly sure. I’ll reiterate this, too, I think that play is a safe play. I really do. I think it is a safe play. Just after going back through a lot of film over the last six months or whatever it’s been, I think that is a safe play, and I’m excited to be able to coach it up this year.”
Going back to the returners, given his versatility and all the things he can do, could Elijah Moore be in play as a returner at some point?
“Yeah, so Elijah definitely works his ball handling. He catches punts every day. He did it in college, so if we need him, he’ll be ready to roll.”
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