Johnny Hekker’s football dream was to play quarterback.
“I grew up throwing the ball with my brother in the street, wanting to be Peyton Manning. I even wore No. 18 (at Bothell High near Seattle),’’ the Rams punter recalled. “I had some offers to play quarterback at smaller schools, but I’d always wanted to play in the Pac-10 (now the Pac-12). I remember driving past (the University of Washington’s) Husky Stadium and telling my dad that I was going to play there one day. I thought I’d end up at Washington, but ended up with an opportunity to walk on at Oregon State.’’
Arriving in Corvallis, Ore., however, Hekker encountered quite a crowd at his preferred position.
“They already had six quarterbacks on the roster, so I figured I’d better find another spot,’’ he said. “I’d really dedicated myself to working on my punting during that summer, and that’s where I ended up.
“I can’t complain. Things don’t always work out the way you expect, but I guess you end up where you’re supposed to be.’’
In his second season after signing with the Rams as an undrafted free agent after the 2012 NFL Draft, Hekker is one of the top young punters in the league. He enters this weekend’s showdown with the Chicago Bears at the Edward Jones Dome as the NFL leader in net punting average (43.5).
“Any time you’re at the top of a list, you’re going to be reminded of it,” Hekker said. “But for me to stand here and take credit would be selfish on my part. The success we’ve had to this point, I’ll hang on my teammates, the 10 guys who are getting off blocks, getting to balls in space and making the tackles quickly. And they’re protecting their butts off.
“One thing I’ve learned, you can’t bank on the past to predict the future. We have six games to play, so it’s important to just keep grinding and working to get better.’’
On 53 punts this season, Hekker is averaging 45.6 per kick. Opponents have returned 23 kicks for 73 yards, an average of 3.2 a return.
As a rookie last year, Hekker punted 82 times, averaging 45.8 per kick with a net average of 39.9. But his punting this season has been much more consistent.
“When we started with him last year, the goal was to have five or six out of 10 be great kicks. Now at seven or eight, we’re saying let’s try for 10 out of 10,’’ Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel said. “We have different goals for the season and throughout the season, but yeah, his focus has been on consistency. Both those guys, Greg (Zuerlein, the kicker) and Johnny, are doing what we’ve asked of them. They’re putting the ball where we need it to be and giving our young coverage guys a chance to attack down the field and make plays.’’
Hekker credits his improved consistency to hard work and experience.
“There’s definitely a level of comfort that goes along with getting through that first year,’’ the 6-foot-5, 236-pound Hekker said. “Just knowing how things work at this level gives you a much better idea of how to prepare.’’
A real plus in Hekker’s game is his athleticism and versatility. He is the team’s holder on placekicks and completed three of three passes, including a scoring strike to Danny Amendola on a fake field goal, last year.
His lone pass this season, against Dallas, fell incomplete.
“We all know what a great athlete Johnny is, but sometimes I think that overshadows just how good a punter he is,’’ said third-year pro Jake McQuaide, the team’s long snapper. “This year especially, he’s done a great job of putting the ball exactly where the coaches want it.’’
Hekker and the Rams figure to be tested on Sunday when they face Devin Hester and the Bears. One of the premier return men in NFL history, Hester has 19 career returns for touchdown, including 13 on punts, five on kickoffs and 108 yards on a missed field goal. This season, he is averaging 28.2 yards on 30 kickoff returns and is averaging 13.3 yards with a touchdown on 12 punt returns.
“He’s one of the best, arguably the best in NFL history,’’ Hekker said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us, trying to keep him from being a factor in the game.’’
THREE OF A KIND
As the specialists, Hekker, McQuaide an Zuerlein spend a lot of time together on the practice field and have developed a special bond.
“The minute we met, we hit it off,’’ Hekker said. “They’re great guys and we seem to have the same fun-loving personality. We’ll talk about the most random stuff, challenge each other in different ways, anything to pass the time and keep things from getting too mundane.
“We have our work to do, but while the rest of the team’s going through long practices, trying to learn the game plans, it’s a little simpler for us; it’s see ball, kick ball and do it as well as you can.’’
McQuaide agreed: “Our job’s a lot different than playing a regular position and so is our approach. If you miss a block, most guys get a chance to go right back on the next play and make another block or at least hit somebody. But if we miss on a snap or miss a kick or punt, we’ve usually got time to let it stew in our head before we get another chance. That’s where having two other guys around to encourage you and pick you up helps so much.
“Not every snap or hold or kick or punt is going to be perfect, so you have to be mentally tough enough to let the bad ones go and just move on.’’
Hekker, McQuaide and Zuerlein are part of a Rams’ special teams group coming off by far its best game of the season, a 38-8 drubbing of the Colts in Indianapolis. And they are anxious to keep it rolling.
“We were a little shaky on special teams early, but that’s because we had a lot of young guys playing positions they’d never played before,’’ McQuaide explained. “But Coach Bones (Fassel) and Coach (Jeff) Fisher stuck with the young guys and now it’s paying off. We’re playing better, but we’re still not playing as well as we’re capable, and that’s exciting to see.’’