Q&A: With ST coordinator Gary Zauner

Gary Zauner talks to VU about trying to find a return game and some of the top coverage guys on special teams.

Vikings special teams coach Gary Zauner was hired on full-time with the organization in 1994. Since, he has seen Fuad Reveiz's NFL record 31 consecutive field goals, Eddie Murray's NFL record for most consecutive PATs made, Gary Anderson's breaking of Reveiz's record for consecutive field goals and Anderson's climb to the top of the all-time scoring list.

Zauner has Anderson and punter and kickoff specialist Mitch Berger back for the fourth straight season, but both are working with a new long snapper for the second consecutive season in Brody Heffner-Liddiard. Zauner is also trying to find a full-time punt and kickoff returner that he can rely on for the season.

Before he was hired by the Vikings, Zauner was a kicking and special teams consultant for NFL teams and players. Zauner also coached at San Diego State, Long Beach State, the University of New Mexico and Brigham Young.

Q: Coming off the victory over Tampa Bay in Week 3, how pleased were you with the play of the special teams?
A: I just think that we played solid. We only punted one time, so that's great for the team. We downed that punt on the 16-yard line. Chris Walsh broke a Vikings record with that tackle. But everything else … punt returns (the Buccaneers) were pooch punting. On kickoffs, we were solid. Kickoff return, we did not get any big plays but they put two in the end zone and we fair caught one. We returned one out to the 27 and one to the 22. There was not a lot of excitement and that's good for us and the team. We played solid. I was happy with that. We eliminated that one bad play that we gave up in the first two games. As long as we win, that's the most important thing.

Q: Of course those bad plays are the ones people talk about. But how did you feel about the play of the special teams after the first two games?
A: Well, there were 27 plays and we had one bad play on the kickoff cover against Carolina (the Panthers returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown). The second game, basically it was one mistake made by (punter) Mitch (Berger, who attempted a fourth-quarter pass because he thought his punt attempt would be blocked). But again, it's 25 plays that everybody else plays almost perfect, but we still get blamed for it. That comes with the territory, so we accept that. As a team our job is not to give up big plays, our job is to make big plays and get field position for the offense or the defense. I thought we played solid. … We have a tough schedule and a lot of teams in our division are very good on special teams.

Q: With the amount of new players you have each season on special teams, there has to be some time for the players to jell, correct?
A: It's no different than offense or defense. Guys learning to play together, getting used to what the guy next to you is going to do. It's still teamwork. On the coverage teams it's like gap defense. If one guy makes a major mistake and the other guy does not cover for him, then there is a big hole there and a big play. It's more glaring when it's in the kicking game because usually a mistake is not a 20-yard gain. It's usually a touchdown or it's a really big play. If you don't block it correctly it's not a sack for a 10-yard loss, it's a blocked punt or blocked field goal.

Q: Chris Walsh became the Vikings' all-time leader in special-teams tackles during the victory over Tampa Bay, surpassing Walker Lee Ashley's mark of 120 tackles. Does he epitomize what you want from your guys?
A: He leads not only on the field by example, making plays, but he leads in the locker room — how he handles everything, how he talks. He's like our Cris Carter on special teams or our Robert Griffith on defense. And so he is invaluable to what we do. Harold Morrow has done an outstanding job, also. We do have some veteran players. Jim Nelson has done an outstanding job. And we've got some good young players like Fearon Wright and Patrick Chukwurah. They have to blend in with the older guys. Don Morgan, Keith Thibodeaux, those guys also are now playing more. So, I think it's just going to take a little time before we jell. I really thought last year, the last six or seven games of the season and the playoffs, we probably played our best special teams.

Q: Jim Nelson seemed to be a key pickup for the special teams last season. Would you agree?
A: Nelson was there, Lemanski Hall, Harold, Chris, Moe Williams. The only guy that is still not here is Moe Williams. Now Tyrone Carter is playing and Morgan is playing. We've got these three or four young guys that have to blend in. But like I said, the last six or seven games (of 2000) we played as good as anybody on the coverage teams and we have to get back to it. But I think it still takes the timing. In preseason, we had bits and pieces of everything because so many guys were playing on offense and defense. We never had everybody playing together. I still think it's going to take a couple of games, but we've got potential to have a really good unit on the coverage teams. We are still waiting for a return guy to come up and make plays.

Q: How big was the loss of Moe Williams?
A: He was a big part as far as the coverage team but he also was a kickoff return guy for us and right now we are kind of struggling. We don't really have a kickoff return guy. When David Palmer was there, Moe could usually fit in and was very durable and still made some big plays for us. Right now, we don't have that.

Q: Will Troy Walters and Nate Jacquet continue to battle for the kickoff return job?
A: Nate had an injury to his groin before the first game, and he still played but was not effective. We have tried to let that heal. Troy has been up and he made a couple of plays. But both those guys are more punt returners than kickoff return guys. We also are working some guys in practice in Doug Chapman and Travis Prentice and Harold Morrow. We are also seeing if one of those guys eventually will be our kickoff return guy.

Q: Do you foresee one of those guys getting a chance pretty soon?
A: We are waiting to see how well they practice at it.

Q: Has Troy Walters made strides since last season?
A: He's solid as a punt retuner; he's made some plays as a punt returner. Usually on kickoff returns you like a guy that is more of a running back. Running backs can usually break a tackle here and there. Sometimes guys that are slight, that are quick, they don't break a lot of tackles. VU

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