WR Justin Skaggs is shooting for a kickoff hang time of at least four seconds
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to run a special teams drill, and Justin Skaggs is on the wrong side of the ball.
The subject of this drill is kickoffs, and like all first-year players trying to forge roster spots any way they can, Skaggs is looking for a way in through special teams. Some of his fellow young receivers are doing the same; Mark Jones, Edell Shepherd, Marcus Knight and Fabian Davis are all taking turns returning punts and kickoffs.
But Skaggs isn't in that rotation, and he's not working as a 'gunner' on punts or auditioning as a long-snapper, either. His is a novel approach to meaningful work; you see, Skaggs isn't catching kickoffs, he's kicking them.
On NFL rosters, players names' are preceded with position abbreviations: C is center, CB is cornerback, LB is linebacker, etc. Some players have one or more slashes in their position abbreviations…nothing in Kordell Stewart's realm, just a G/T signifying a lineman who can play guard or tackle or a WR/KR giving a receiver credit for his prominent kick return role.
You could search a lot of rosters, however, before you'd run across a WR/K.
How does Skaggs explain it?
"Shoot, man," he said, "I'm just doing whatever I can do to make this team, however I can help this team win."
Really? What's next, a quarterback coming in as a situational pass-rusher? An offensive tackle working in the nickel package?
As strange as Skaggs' slash is, there is some solid reasoning behind it.
As an undrafted free agent out of Evangel, a 1,700-student Christian University located in Springfield, Missouri, Skaggs has already fought the odds since 2001, when the Washington Redskins signed him up. Two camps with the 'Skins, one with the San Francisco 49ers, one regular-season appearance (late in 2002 with Washington) and an NFL Europe season later, Skaggs is trying again in Tampa. This time he decided to hedge his bets a little bit.
It was Skaggs who approached Special Teams Coach Richard Bisaccia, not the other way around, with the idea of reviving the kicking career he had nurtured at Evangel. Believe it or not, the Bucs don't hold periodic kicking drills for their receivers, just in case.
That was a one-on-one meeting between coach and player, but one can imagine that Bisaccia harbored a bit of skepticism. Skaggs convinced Bisaccia to give him a shot on the practice field, then beat that doubt back with a series of high kickoffs floating down at the goal line. Skaggs was even given a few turns in the field-goal kicking rotation.
"I went to Coach (Bisaccia) and I said, 'Coach, you know I kicked in college,'" recalled Skaggs. "He was like, 'Whatever.' But I said, 'Let me kick for you.'
"I kicked for him on one of the OTA days and he said, 'Do you kick field goals, too?' And I said, 'Yeah, coach.'"
And, just like that, a plan was born.
At that time – and more importantly, still – the Buccaneers had only one kicker on the roster, sixth-year veteran Martin Gramatica. Now, understand that the Bucs are more than sold on Gramatica's talents, and not looking for an imminent replacement. Still, it is common to take two kickers to camp even when one is well established, if for no other reason than to give the veteran a rest.
Thanks to Skaggs, the Bucs don't have to find another kicker, and they don't have to cut a position player to make room for one. Skaggs says that he has been told he will handle the kickoffs during the preseason. At the very least, that would keep Gramatica's legs fresh for the regular season. In the best-case scenario for Skaggs, he will prove to be valuable in other ways on special teams and at receiver, and the team will keep him around to handle kickoffs during the regular season.
"That's going to be my job, and I feel like it's my job to earn," said Skaggs. "Martin's a great kicker, but I feel like they want to save his legs on kicks. If I can help the team on special teams as far as the kickoffs go, then it's my job to earn."
At Evangel, Skaggs handled kickoffs and was sometimes called upon to try the longer field goals. At one point, he made a 48-yarder. The Crusaders had a placekicker who was quite accurate on the shorter attempts, but Skaggs provided the big leg.
Since heading to the pros, however, Skaggs has understandably focused on the receiving skills that originally drew the NFL's interest. The Bucs, in fact, had no inkling of Skaggs kicking prowess when they signed him in January. They still plan to give him a chance to contribute at receiver in training camp.
But Skaggs is working his other angle, and that means extra time after most of the other players have gone back to the locker room. He is trying to get his kickoffs consistently in the 4.0-second hang-time range, hopefully also dropping them down near the goal line. He has been told to focus on hang time, and his average has been right around that golden four-second mark.
Skaggs believes he can improve further as he continues to work at it.
"I've just got to get better, do it every day and get my leg back in it," he said. "I haven't done it since college, so the more I do it, the better. Plus, with running routes and playing receiver, I've just got to get my leg acclimated to kicker again. It's coming along."
There would be an added benefit for the Buccaneers if Skaggs does emerge as a viable option on kickoffs. With no disrespect intended to the coverage ability of Gramatica or any of the NFL's kickers, the 6-2, 202-pound Skaggs would be another weapon when it came time to tackle the return man.
"I take pride in my speed, I take pride in my special teams ability, and that's a big part of it," he said.
Skaggs' approach to the roster competition may be a relatively novel one, but his pursuit is anything but unique. Every year, dozens of rookies and young players struggle against the odds to stand out during training camp. Skaggs certainly knows the drill...and the drills, even if he finds himself lined up in an unusual spot.
"I've been doing this for three years now," he said. "I know what it takes. Whatever gives me a better chance to help this team and make the team, that's what I'm going to do."