As Russ Purnell sees it, the future is as bright as the recent past.
Because as good as the Jaguars&39; special teams were much of the 2010 season, Purnell – a 25-year NFL coaching veteran in his third season as the team&39;s special teams coach – said there&39;s little reason the group can&39;t again make solid strides next season.
The Jaguars&39; special teams players, Purnell said, are generally a good group of guys, a group that works hard and perhaps most importantly, a group that wants to play special teams.
That, Purnell said, is a productive combination.
It&39;s also one that can continue to grow.
"I told Coach Del Rio last year was as fun a year as I&39;ve had coaching," Purnell told jaguars.com recently. "I had a good bunch of guys to coach – hard-working, want to do it right, receptive guys."
The Jaguars were more than hard workers on special teams in 2010. They were effective in several categories, and placed a player in the Pro Bowl for the first team in franchise history.
The Jaguars in 2010 ranked first in the NFL in kickoffs of more than 20 yards, with 55.They also were first in allowing punt returns of 20 or fewer yards, not allowing one all season.
Montell Owens, originally signed by the Jaguars as a free agent shortly after the 2006 NFL Draft, was named to the Pro Bowl as a special teams player, finishing the season 20 special teams tackles one season after setting a franchise record with 30 special teams tackles.
He also broke Brant Boyer&39;s franchise record for special teams tackles. He now has 95 special teams tackles, whereas Boyer had 94 from 1996-2000.
Purnell said the reason for the development of the Jaguars&39; special teams is simple: Consistent commitment to the area on a weekly basis.
"He (Del Rio) believes in doing things to make special teams successful," Purnell said. "He&39;s been very, very supportive in that respect."
That, Purnell said, is an often overlooked difference in high-level special teams units and the rest of the NFL. It&39;s one thing to say special teams are important, but it&39;s another thing – and a relatively rare thing – to work for a coach who dedicates practices time and resources to the area.
Purnell said while coaching Owens for two seasons has been a joy, the same was true this past season of veteran Kassim Osgood, a three-time Pro Bowl selection on special teams with the Chargers who signed with the Jaguars before last season.
"When we got Kassim I was thrilled, and when you find out what a great person he is, it makes it even better," Purnell said, adding, "Special teams is about finding some role players – guys who know, &39;Hey, I&39;m probably not going to be a starter in this league, but I can be a good backup linebacker/safety/tight end – whatever the position may be – and I can be a great special teams player. Whatever&39;s going to get me on the field Sundays and help me earn my paycheck and keep around.
"We have a bunch of those kinds of guys on our roster."
Purnell also discussed:
*Kicker Josh Scobee, who converted 22 of 28 field goals and 41 of 41 extra points in 2010 and whose 59-yard game-winning field goal beat Indianapolis, 31-28, in Week 4. "This past year, Josh worked hard in the off-season," Purnell said. "He spent some time refining his techniques and he came out and made his first 14 field goals in a row. He had the game-winner against the Colts – a huge kick. Then, after made his first 14 he made eight of his next 14. So, for him it was the tale of two seasons. He would have some really good games. He&39;d miss two one week, then come back and hit a big one the next week and I&39;d say, &39;OK, that&39;s passed.&39; The next week he&39;d miss another one, so he was awesome the first half of the season and below-average the second half. He worked extremely hard. He needs to be better and he knows he needs to be better. When he&39;s right, he&39;s a weapon – as a kickoff guy and as a field-goal kicker. The bottom fell out a little bit and no one felt worse than him."
*Fourth-year punter Adam Podlesh, who finished fifth in the NFL in net average with a 39.2-yard average. "The last two years he had his career-best year," Purnell said. "He battled some injuries when he first got to the Jaguars. A year ago, he did pretty good and this year, he did a really nice job. His arrow&39;s rising. We&39;ll just keep him going that way."
*Punt returner Mike Thomas, who averaged 10.5 yards a punt return, and rookie Deji Kareem, who averaged 25.0 yards on 50 kickoff returns. "They both have things they need to improve on," Purnell said. "With the ball in their hands, both of those guys can make people miss. Both of them have good quickness. Both of them anticipate well. Mike lost the ball three times (last) year. One time is too many. Deji mishandled a couple. I don&39;t think he turned one over. The ball came out a couple of times after he hit the ground. You don&39;t want to see that either. . . . I want our returners to be more comfortable catching the ball."
Purnell said while Osgood and Thomas had solid years, the basics of the roles – and pursuing punts and kicks – betrayed them at times.
"Were going to work on catching the ball," Purnell said. "You can get the Jugs machine out there, or a punter and a kicker and kick it right to them. They can go get that, but it&39;s the one where you have to run right, run left or run up and get a short kick. More and more teams are trying to place the ball.
"They&39;re not going to kick it right to a returner. They&39;re kicking it right or kicking it left. That&39;s an area we need to improve on – not letting balls hit the ground and not mishandle footballs."
Purnell said throughout the 2010 season there was a positive energy around the Jaguars&39; special teams – not only in games, but in practices. And he said that energy is what makes him optimistic about the area moving forward.
"Special teams is such a broad spectrum," Purnell said. "It&39;s hard to be good in all six phases every Sunday. Sometimes, you are and most of the time you&39;re upset about something. There&39;s always a fire you have to put out, it seems, on a week-to-week basis.
"Success begets success. We played well in the preseason and started the regular season fairly well. Guys expected to win the special teams phase every Sunday. I think for the most part we did."