The first three practices of Rams training camp, Sunday through Tuesday, were full-squad affairs held in the heat of the afternoon. But the camp routine changed Wednesday with a morning special teams practice that was closed to the public.
"Clearly, special teams is a huge part of our game," coach Jeff Fisher said. "We start most every practice session with the special teams group."
But Wednesday’s hour-long session was all special teams, with special teams coordinator John Fassel running the show.
Fisher said he hired Fassel, the son of former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel, in part because of his creativity and energy.
"You can tell he’s very energetic," Fisher said. "He’s just like that in the meeting rooms. He’s taken a very complex scheme and simplified it. So the appearance is that it’s complex, but it’s simple for the players.
"Every position is interchangeable. The concepts are interchangeable as you move back and forth from the coverage units to the return units. You just plug people in. They were very productive from a fake standpoint at Oakland, from a block-kick standpoint, return standpoints. He’s very knowledgeable."
Fassel joined the Rams after four seasons with the Raiders.
About two-thirds of the Rams’ 89-man camp roster took part in Wednesday's session. The rest of the squad stayed inside doing what Fisher called "an intensive stretching routine."
** *Secret weapon?
The emphasis Wednesday was on the punt game, with both undrafted rookie Johnny Hekker _ who’s considered the favorite for the job _ and 28-year-old Tom Malone getting a chance to kick.
Hekker, from Oregon State, displayed the stronger leg Wednesday but remains erratic on his directional punts.
"We had a couple stray balls that have gone from one field to the other," Fisher said, with a touch of sarcasm. "So we’ll get that cleaned up. But we’re not concerned. We knew going in that may be the case."
One of the most interesting comments Fisher made about Hekker was: "He can throw, and that’s a big part of our punt team _ his ability to throw."
Fisher wasn’t kidding. From 1995 through 2005, punters threw 16 passes for Fisher’s Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans teams. Craig Hentrich, the pride of Alton Marquette High, threw all but one of those passes, completing 7 of 15 for 91 yards.
At Oregon State, Hekker completed four of five passes for 35 yards, and had a passer rating of 98.0.
* * *Amendola’s job
Fisher all but conceded that the punt return job belongs to Danny Amendola.
"We know Danny can do it," he said. "Obviously, we’re looking for a couple backup guys that we can trust to make the decisions."
Jannoris Jenkins, Isaiah Pead, Nick Johnson, and Chase Reynolds also worked as punt returners Wednesday.
Amendola may not be a home-run threat, but he has been effective. Coaches always say "get me a first down" on punt returns, and Amendola’s career average as the Rams’ primary punt returner in 2009 and ’10 is a little better than that at 11.3 yards.
* * *Coverage woes
When asked the keys to good punt coverage, Fisher replied bluntly: "If you’re punting to Devin Hester, then don’t punt to him. That was the case at Arizona last year. The design was to punt the ball out of bounds and it didn’t happen."
That was a reference to Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, who beat the visiting Rams in overtime (19-13) with a 99-yard return on Nov. 6, and also returned a punt 80 yards for a TD three weeks later in St. Louis.
"I think a lot of that has to do with the way you practice," Fisher said. "It’s one thing to have your punter on the practice field sit there and punt 10 straight times towards the right boundary. . . .It’s like being on a driving range _ you finally get in a groove.
"What you have to do is put him in practice every 15 or 20 minutes, and give him one shot at it to simulate the game. So we’ll get to that as we move forward."
* * *Ram-blings
_ Former Rams LB Pisa Tinoisamoa, now retired, visited Rams Park on Wednesday. He still has a place in St. Louis and is considering getting into broadcasting.
_ Les Steckel, who was Fisher’s offensive coordinator on the Tennessee team that lost Super Bowl XXXIV to the Rams, is in town visiting Fisher. These days, Steckel is president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
_ Safety Darian Stewart sat out Wednesday’s special teams practice with a tight hamstring.
_ NFL security officials, making their rounds of training camp visits throughout the league, spoke to Rams players Wednesday.
_ Former Rams tight end Billy Bajema has signed with Baltimore.
_ Following the morning special teams session, the Rams got a three-hour break, followed by meetings, a walk-through, and more meetings.