SnapShot: Mike Hayes

If his latest hunch is right, Steve Hoffman will be remembered as a key player in the Steelers' punting game over the next few years. <br><br> Then again, if undrafted rookie punter Mike Hayes fades into the September sunset, as expected, no one will remember that Hoffman swung and missed on his latest recommendation to Steelers special teams coach Kevin Spencer.

"Mike Hayes just never got a shot," said Spencer. "He was recommended to me by Steve Hoffman of the Cowboys. He's their kicking coach. He's kind of specialized in these kids nobody knows a thing about. He sees something special about the kid on film and he makes players out of them."

While the national media has made a celebrity of Cowboys special teams coach Joe Avezzano over the years, Hoffman has been the real story. The kickers coach is credited with recruiting six rookie or first-year free agent kickers to Dallas. Ken Willis, Lin Elliott, Chris Boniol, Richie Cunningham, Tim Seder and Jon Hilbert each kicked at least 15 field goals in their first NFL season. Hoffman has also brought three rookie free agent punters to Dallas – John Jett, Toby Gowin and Micah Knorr. They've combined to average more than 42 yards per punt over the last 10 seasons.

"Dallas has made hay with no-namers, which is economically nice. It's been good for them," Spencer said. "And so I ask him every year, ‘Who's your sleeper?' And he told me ‘I have this sleeper named Mike Hayes. I worked him out. I saw him on film. He's a little older but I think he's got some of the intangibles.'"

The 27-year-old Hayes hasn't kicked competitively since the 1998 season at the University of Akron. The Elyria, Ohio native was a three-year starter at Akron, where he averaged a career-high 43.8 yards per punt as a junior and 41.7 yards per punt as a senior. The 6-foot-3, 199-pounder had a career-long 71-yard punt as a sophomore and ended his career first on the school's all-time list with an average of 42.2 yards per punt.

Hayes has earned two degrees and four pro tryouts since he last played, but will work at his first training camp next month with the Steelers. He's currently on leave of absence from his job as a physical therapist at the Cleveland Clinic.

"He put the job on hold and he's going to chase the dream," said Spencer. "He's very athletic, a strong kid. He's just shaking the rust off.

"Is he going to push Josh (Miller)? I don't know. Josh has some things he wants to prove, that last year was a fluke. He's bounced back from his shoulder (injury) and has worked very hard this offseason."

Hayes disagrees with Spencer in one regard.

"I don't think I'm rusty," he said. "I've been punting and kicking ever since I got out. It's been an ongoing process."

Hayes sent tapes this year to 22 teams and Hoffman was the only coach to call. But the Cowboys recently signed Gowin to a juicy contract and the Cowboys "did me a favor by sending my stuff here," Hayes said.

After Hayes worked out in front of Spencer and Coach Bill Cowher, he was signed. Hayes asked his employers for "time to do what I had to do" and the leave was granted.

"I'm giving it another try because it's the dream I've always had," he said. "It's the dream that I never wanted to die. I've always wanted the opportunity and finally got the opportunity now."

By Jim Wexell

Steel City Insider Top Stories