Vikings Weigh In On Hester Factor

Devin Hester is the most dangerous return man in football right now, and he's a focus for Ryan Longwell, Chris Kluwe and other Vikings coaches and players. See what they and former Vikings punter Greg Coleman had to say about Hester's success and his place already in the history of NFL return men.

Surprisingly, Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was not asked about Chicago Bears playmaker Devin Hester because it seems nearly everyone else at Winter Park has been fielding questions about the league's most dangerous current return man.

Last year, Hester was listed as a cornerback and this year has been getting more attention as a wide receiver as well, making Bevell the only one of the top four coaches at Winter Park that doesn't have to worry about Hester's ability to "house" the ball just about any time he gets it in his hands.

With Hester, it's hardly hyperbole.

"I saw him as a junior in college and I thought he was the best returner in the country as a junior. I've got great respect for him and I think he's a tremendous player," said Vikings special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro. "… In most recent times, it is hard to find someone that is what he is right now.

Former Vikings punter Greg Coleman, who registered 820 punts from1977 to 1988 and stays involved in the game through his analyst and sideline reporting roles with Vikings radio broadcasts, rates Hester in the top three returners of all-time.

Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and former Cleveland Brown and Los Angeles Raider Greg Pruitt also rate in Coleman's top three, but anyone who has listened to Coleman even occasionally knows of his affinity for what Johnson, the former Houston Oiler and Atlanta Falcon, could do. Coleman said "White Shoes" is the only return man who really scared him.

"With Billy, I made sure that if he caught the ball, he was going to be out of bounds – 37 or 40 yards net out of bounds, versus the longer kicks and then giving him the opportunity to take one to the house on you," Coleman said. "Bud (Grant) would always say, ‘Give me the 40 yards out of bounds and I'll take it.'"

Johnson returned two out of his 123 kickoff attempts for touchdowns and six out of his 282 punt return attempts for touchdowns. That was over his 14-year career.

Hester, meanwhile, in only 21 games, has returned three out of his 35 kickoff return attempts for touchdowns and four of his 63 punt returns for touchdowns.

"Obviously, he's one of the premier returners in the NFL. He's got speed and he's got great quickness and he'll make guys miss," said punter Chris Kluwe, who was asked about kicking it out of bounds to avoid Hester's harassment. "It's up to the coaches with the game plan, but we'll try to get the ball in his hands as least as we can. Obviously, the less he touches the ball the better."

Coleman said he personally wouldn't kick it to Hester. His advice, if it were sought, would be to punt it out of bounds every time. However, he also cautioned that too much thinking about Hester on Kluwe's part wouldn't be a good thing, either.

"Just let Chris kick the ball and let his guys cover. Once he starts being concerned about Devin, then his focus goes away from kicking," Coleman said. "Covering, blocking, tackling – that ain't (a punter's) job."

But there is another facet that makes Hester even more dangerous this week – he's playing at home in Soldier Field, where the wind often affects kicks.

"I've been paying attention to (Chicago's) Brad Maynard and how he punts there, and a lot of his punts are actually not quite as much hang time," Kluwe said. "He just kind of drives them into the wind. We might be moving toward that, we might now. Again, it depends with Hester. It's sort of a bad situation because you either get the hang time and let the wind play with it or you try and drive it through and he gets a hold of it. Either way, it's a rock and a hard place."

Coleman said Maynard holds the advantage in being able to drive the ball into the wind because the recipient of his punts isn't the NFL's most prolific return man.

"The thing that Brad doesn't have to worry about is he doesn't have to kick to Devin Hester. You're either going to have to sacrifice distance vs. position. … I have no problem with (Kluwe) driving the ball if you're going to drive it out of bounds. And sometimes you may have to in that stiff Chicago wind."

With Hester, it's not just punters who have him on their minds. Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell must also be concerned with what the second-year human highlight reel can do with the ball.

"You want to get the odds in your favor, and anytime he gets the ball in his hands, there is a chance of him scoring six points because he's one of those special guys. There's only a handful of them that I've ever kicked to that you can say that about. He's one of them that whenever he touches the ball it can be a touchdown. The whole coverage unit has to be on the same page as to how we're going to attack this," Longwell said.

"Hester just seems to never go down. The great returners hit the hole hard and they're never, ever down. They can squeeze out of piles, squeeze out of tackles and keep the play going."

But teams also have to balance their fear of Hester with the risk-reward. Last week, the Packers kicked away from Hester and the Bears' average starting field position after kickoffs was their own 35-yard line. Before that, Chicago had averaged a starting position of its own 29.4-yard line.

Longwell says the penalty for booting the ball out of bounds on kickoffs is just too severe to consider that.

"It's just too good of field position to give the offense. Punting to him is different than kicking to him because punting to him you can use the sideline as your buddy. The penalty kicking off out of bounds is just way too big of a punishment to give them the ball near midfield, so you're forced to kick the ball down the field, whether it be to him or around him or whatever is part of the game plan. Unless it is at the end of the game, I would find it hard to justify," Longwell said.

But there are other options, such as kicking it low along the ground and having a big blocker fall on it or kicking it higher and shorter to allow the coverage units more time to get to the return man before he gets his hands on the ball.

Even there, Longwell said there are issues to contend with.

"Whether you have tight end type of guys or even linemen type of guys, you've got guys that are practicing taking ground balls and stuff. The thing is, most of them are taught if the ball gets to them quick, get it and pitch it back to the returner. If it gets down there slow, just fall on it and take the field position," he said. "Naturally, when you've got a guy as talented as (Hester), you're trying to get it in his hands at all costs. That's why the game plan and how you want to attack it is pretty intricate because you can't get it down there too fast if you choose to kick to him. If you do kick to him, you've got to cover as well as you're ever going to."

Longwell acknowledged Hester's game-changing ability, but there have been others in the league before him that have garnered as much attention from Longwell.

Michael Bates, who returned five kickoffs for touchdowns between 1996 and 2000 with the Carolina Panthers, was one of the first big threats Longwell had to contend with. In the early stages of Longwell's career, Bates was "hitting the hole a hundred miles an hour, faster than anyone ever had and he was a big guy, hard to bring down."

Then there is Dante Hall, the former Kansas City Chief who is now with the St. Louis Rams. In 2003, Hall had returned two punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns in the first five weeks of the season. Before their matchup with the Chiefs in Week 6, Longwell and the Green Bay Packers were busy worrying about Hall. In Week 6, Hall ended up returning punts of 32 and 30 yards, but he averaged a paltry 13.5 yards on four kickoff returns from the foot of Longwell.

Still, there are few like Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, Dante Hall and Devin Hester.

"If you return one kickoff a year or one punt a year for a touchdown, that's amazing. So when you put up the numbers he has or those guys have, people question if you're starting to lose a step when actually you are beating the league average," Longwell said. "Usually it's a two- or three-year window, but I don't see (Hester) slowing down any time soon."

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