Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Four questions with assistant coach Jeff Hammerschmidt: Criner dabbling in punt returns?

WR Richard Morrison, celebrating a touchdown in the spring game, is a prime candidate at punt returner. Photo by David Kadlubowski, The Arizona Republic

One of the people we caught up with for a few minutes after Arizona’s first fall practice was assistant Jeff Hammerschmidt, who coaches special teams and defensive ends.

We’ll save some of the talk about the defensive ends for another time as Arizona shifts through replacements at those positions for three players who are now in NFL camps.

As for special teams, Hammerschmidt is working with a new punter (Kyle Dugandzic, who was here in the spring), new returners (look for speedy Garic Wharton on kickoffs) and possibly a new placekicker. Junior college transfer Jaimie Salazar is here to compete with incumbent Alex Zendejas.

Here is some of our conversation with Hammerschmidt following the first practice, which began at 6:15 a.m. at the Rincon Vista Complex:

Q: What can you learn from the first day?
Hammer: “Everyone was ready to go. From the start of practice, I think the tempo was good. I think the guys were enthused about the special teams part of it. The kickers and everybody were got here at 5:15, got loosened up and were ready to go.”

Q: Who are looking at as punt returner?
Hammer: “There’s a good group. Richard Morrison. Jonathan McKnight. David Douglas has done it the last couple of years and has done a solid job of it. And if we really want to get dynamic, it’s Juron (Criner). Trevin Wade has good ball skills. We have a lot of good candidates, but right now we’re going to focus on Richard Morrison, Jonathan McKnight and David Douglas.”

Reaction: Morrison, a converted quarterback, came on strong at the end of last season as a slot receiver, and he has shifty open-field skills. McKnight is one of UA’s good-looking young athletes in the secondary, and he has the genes for the job (his brother Joe returned punts for USC). Douglas is the team’s “safe” option because of his good hands. As for Criner, he has proven to be tough to bring down after the catch, and returning punts could only help his NFL value.

Q: Has Juron caught a lot of punts in practice?
Hammer: “He did it in the spring and he’s trying to get a few every day. That’s what I told the guys. If they really want to do it, they have to get out there and do it on their own. They have to come out early and catch before (practice). When we’re punting, they have to run over there and catch a couple. We’re kind of putting it in their court. If it looks like they are working hard enough at it, then I’ll give them a shot to do it.”

Related: Arizona football camp Day 1: Criner hasn’t missed a step

Q: What will be the process as you try to differentiate between your placekickers?
Hammer: “We’re working on a rotation right now with Alex and Jaimie and, actually (returning kickoff man) John Bonano. He did a really good job in the spring, so we’ll let him take some whacks at it also. We’re going to do a lot of competitive stuff to start practice, then we’ll break off and do a lot of charting. We’re setting up drills for simulator-type stuff to challenge them. … We’re trying to put a little pressure on them with the two-minute drills at the end of practice. The first time, it is going to Alex, the next time it is going to be Jaimie and we’ll go from there. If Bonano has a chance to slide in there, I’ll do that, too. … We’ll be better at kicking this year no matter who it is because of the competition.”

Search site | Terms of service