Q&A: With Gary Zauner

With his high-priced punter on the shelf with an injury and a kick returner performing those duties after coming off waivers and an injury earlier this season, special teams coordinator Gary Zauner has a lot going on right now.

Vikings special teams coordinator 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.

This year, Zauner has Anderson and punter and kickoff specialist Mitch Berger back, but both are working with a new long snapper for the second consecutive year in Brody Heffner-Liddiard. Zauner is also working with a new punt and kickoff returner in Nate Jacquet.

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: How pleased have you been with the play of the special teams of late?

A: I think we are playing at a little higher level. The guys finally have been playing for several weeks together. We lost one or two guys, but I think the core of the guys have been there. We haven't given up any big plays, and with Nate Jacquet returning we've made some big plays on punt and kickoff returns.

Q: Jacquet's performance seems to have picked up since he was re-signed in late October, would you agree?

A: He's made plays. He has probably made one play every game in the past five or six weeks.

Q: Is there something that separates the Jacquet who left and the player who came back, or is it the special teams units coming together?

A: I think it's a combination of both. One, Nate got hurt. He had a hamstring problem, and no player plays that effectively when he's not 100 percent healthy. Two, I hate to say it, but we've got a lot more practice at kickoff returns. Three, I think the guys are playing together and finally playing in the same spots helps them get better at what they are doing. The personnel has been a little more solidified from week to week.

Q: What areas of the special teams are you most pleased with and where do you think the most work needs to be done?

A: I think kickoff coverage, besides the first game, the first play of the season (Carolina returned the kick for a touchdown), has been very solid. The kickoff return unit has probably made the biggest improvement. With the punt return team, there haven't been a lot of situations where we have been able to go for a punt return because the team sometimes is in pooch punt territory, where you have to play base defense. Other times, because of the down, the distance and the situation, we haven't been able to just call the proper return and get a great return out of it. You are worried about a fake or whatever. In punt coverage, there have been some good games and some so-so games. We have had a couple of breakdowns, but none of them have cost us big plays. I would say right now we are probably at about a B average.

Q: Brody Heffner-Liddiard is your third long snapper in three years. How has he been doing this season?

A: I think Brody has been getting better every game, and he hasn't had any bad snaps, what I would call bad snaps. He had one high snap in Chicago, but besides that he has been snapping quite well, I would say, over the last three or four weeks. He has been putting perfect snaps for Mitch (Berger), and Mitch has punted better. Usually on field goals, the snaps have been right there. Brody is just working on perfect laces. Gary (Anderson) has missed two kicks I think. Gary hasn't had a lot of opportunities, but that's not Gary's fault. That's just the way it goes. They practice every day, and it looks like as a unit they practice well and they have been very efficient.

Q: Is it tough for Anderson that he hasn't been getting a lot of opportunities to kick field goals in games (he had 12 attempts entering the Detroit game)?

A: We practice the same amount and he gets the same amount of practice on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Pregame he is always there. It's just a matter of does he get two or three field goal (attempts) or does he not? No matter what happens during the game he's always ready. He has been in shape and he still is kicking quite well.

Q: How concerned are you about Berger's neck injury?

A: We are going to see. Mitch wants to try to make a go of it. A lot of players, always their heart is right there and their mind is set on ‘I want to do it.' But it's if their body will let them do it. So, we signed Lee Johnson as kind of an insurance policy and we will watch Mitch do whatever he has to do. We'll also get Lee ready, and I think it will be a game-day decision.

Q: Could Berger hold and not punt?

A: Lee has held for 17 years, Lee's a great holder, Lee can punt, Lee can kick off. Lee can do everything that Mitch does, and that's why we signed him. If Mitch can do it, then Mitch will be up. If not, we would not have both of them up.

Q: Can you address the criticism that too many of Berger's punts have gone for touchbacks as opposed to going out of bounds inside the 10-yard line?

A: You work on doing that, but a lot of teams have gone in pooch territory to an eight-man scheme. They get up in an eight-man front and they give you a three-wide look where they are not going to let you punt to the corner. Their whole thing is when you are good at something, they are finding a way at how to not let you be good at it. They know we like to kick the ball to Chris Walsh's corner. So what teams are doing, and Tampa has done it for a long time, is they come up with an eight-man front and come after you as hard as they can to make you punt faster. They are not going to let you punt to the corner. What the fans don't know is it's part of strategy and it's an effective strategy. A lot of teams are doing it. It just so happens that if the guy doesn't catch the ball, it usually rolls in the end zone. But it's a technique that teams are doing more now. Mitch just has to get better at how to combat it and get a better touch on the ball. VU

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