College stars bolster draft stock through special teams

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) More and more college coaches are putting their starters and even their stars on special teams as they seek to pile up every possible point in an era of pedal-to-the-metal shootouts and never-safe leads.

Fading fast are the days when superstars would catch their breath on the sideline when the kicker or punter trotted onto the field with the scrubs.

NFL teams love it.

Watching how players handle themselves as a blocker, gunner or returner provides a glimpse into a prospect's range, selflessness and versatility. It also delivers a sneak peek into how coachable he'll be, says Phil Savage, the SiriusXM NFL Radio host who spent two decades as an NFL coach, scout and executive and now oversees the Senior Bowl.

''I think because of the landscape of college football where scoring is at a premium, you've got to figure out a way to put points on the board not only on offense but through your special teams and defensively, as well,'' Savage says. ''These coaches want to get these young players on the field as soon as possible, and a way to do that is utilize them on special teams.''

These tapes provide a bonus to pro scouts.

''Now you have a vision of what that player might forecast to in the NFL as a young player and, specifically, as a rookie,'' Savage said.

Offensive and defensive coaches have a better idea of the types of players they're integrating into their schemes, and special teams coaches no longer get blank stares and blank canvases from the rookie class.

''Not only do you like the fact that they come in and have experience doing it, but you love the mentality if you're a coach and a decision maker that this guy isn't a diva, he's got no ego about it, he understands the team and puts team before self,'' says ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.

''And he comes in with the mindset of `What can I do to help the team and how can I contribute?' Those are the guys that seem to make it and last longer in the league because they're just willing to do different things and whatever it takes.''

The prime example in this year's draft class is Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey , a ''dynamic player than can do it all,'' according to Broncos GM John Elway.

McCaffrey gained more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage in his college career and added almost 2,000 more as a returner.

''There's just a lot of big plays open in the return game,'' McCaffrey says. ''You see special teams have such an impact on the game today. Any time I can have the ball in my hands, I feel like I can do something dangerous, and that's really why I love the return game.''

Other highly touted draft prospects who polished their resumes on special teams include Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Washington wide receiver John Ross, and USC cornerback Adroee' Jackson, all of whom are projected as high selections.

McShay says ''we're seeing more and more programs put an emphasis on special teams and having their key players contribute in one or more areas on special teams.''

He pointed to Ohio State, where Urban Myers coaches special teams himself.

''It's a major emphasis there, and so you'll see some more guys typically lined up and contributing that are starters and stars,'' McShay says. ''It's an honor to be on special teams.''

Not a burden.

''It is not uncommon now to see people that are going to be picked in the first round having 100-plus special teams plays,'' suggests NFL draft consultant and former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt.

He pointed to the University of Florida, where Gators defensive backs cover kickoffs as well as they do receivers.

''Everyone's always trying to get their best guys on the field,'' Brandt says.

That's a change from years past when coaches feared exposing their star players to the extra hits.

The added value benefits the players, whose multiple talents allow NFL general managers to address many needs.

''We're seeing more emphasis on it in college, and I think NFL teams love to see it because if just means you're getting a bit more for your buck,'' McShay says.

Top talents who bolstered their value by playing special teams:

CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY , RB, STANFORD: He shined at the combine working out with the running backs and was as impressive running routes. Asked if there was anything he couldn't do, the son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey said then: ''I can't sing.''

JABRILL PEPPERS , S, MICHIGAN: He worked out with safeties and linebackers at the combine, where teams talked of him playing RB and WR in addition to returning kicks. ''The bottom line is I'm a ballplayer and I'm a hell of a ballplayer,'' Peppers said.

JOHN ROSS , WR, WASHINGTON: He caught 81 passes with 17 TDs last season but actually posted more return yards (2,069) than scrimmage yards (1,924) in his college career.

ADOREE' JACKSON , CB, USC: One of the best special teams coverage players in the NCAA, Jackson also scored eight TDs on punt and kick returns in college. His punt return averages rose from 6.0 yards to 10.5 and 15.8.

JAMAL ADAMS , S, LSU: Another star in coverage, Adams' defensive mentality extends to special teams. ''I love being on the field and just playing football,'' said Adams, whose father, George, was a first-round pick by the Giants in 1985.

ALVIN KAMARA , RB, TENNESSEE: In a deep running back group, Kamara separates himself with his special teams acumen. ''A lot of teams have been bringing up special teams,'' Kamara said.

DESMOND KING , CB, IOWA: He had eight interceptions as a junior and three as a senior. ''I had a really good special teams season,'' King said. ''Not being targeted as much, I still went out there and competed the best I could and was still making plays.''

CHRIS WORMLEY , DE, MICHIGAN: Wormley touts playing for Jim Harbaugh as one of his attributes. ''Coach Harbaugh came in and ran our program like an NFL program, like he had with the 49ers,'' said Wormley, who blocked three kicks his senior season.

ZAY JONES , WR, EAST CAROLINA: Like McCaffrey, he has good NFL bloodlines (son of Robert Jones, brother of Cayleb Jones). He caught 158 passes as a senior, but spent his first two seasons in college also making his mark as a returner.

---

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

---

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.