Happy as a by­stander

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Gary Klein gary.klein@la­times.com

Rams punter Johnny Hekker is see­ing less ac­tion with the of­fense rolling. D8

He is a three-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion com­ing off a record-setting sea­son that helped him be­come the high­est-paid player at his po­si­tion in the NFL.

And yet, on a team that has sur­pris­ingly started 6-2, Rams punter Johnny Hekker can barely get onto the field to ply his trade.

“I love it,” he said Thurs­day.

With the Rams of­fense in high gear un­der first-year coach Sean McVay, Hekker’s op­por­tu­ni­ties have de­creased dra­mat­i­cally.

Last sea­son, Hekker punted 43 times in the first eight games, 55 in the fi­nal eight. He av­er­aged 47.8 yards a kick.

This sea­son, he has only 27 punts and is av­er­ag­ing 47.1 yards a kick.

Hekker has been most ac­tive as the holder for place­kicker Greg Zuer­lein, who has made 24 of 25 field goals and leads the NFL with 99 points.

“I’m re­ally ex­cited to hold for field goals and PATs and cheer­ing on the of­fense — they’re rolling right now,” said Hekker, who in Septem­ber signed an ex­ten­sion that in­cludes $10 mil­lion in guar­an­tees. “And I’m hav­ing a lot of fun in that role.

“I’m stay­ing ready, and when my num­ber’s called I hope­fully can still go in there and have good im­pact on field po­si­tion.”

Hekker is in his sixth NFL sea­son af­ter sign­ing with the Rams as an un­drafted free agent from Ore­gon State.

Team­mates, es­pe­cially those on of­fense, take it as a good sign that they have re­duced Hekker’s work­load.

“I’m pretty sure we wore his leg out a lot since he’s been here,” run­ning back Todd Gur­ley said. “The pre­vi­ous years he was our of­fense. We weren’t able to get yards, he was able to put the de­fense in a good po­si­tion. When we need him, he’s al­ways there for us.”

Hekker punted only twice in each of the last two games, a 33-0 vic­tory over the Ari­zona Car­di­nals and a 51-17 vic­tory over the New York Gi­ants.

He said he still was get­ting plenty of kicks dur­ing prac­tices and be­fore games.

“I don’t feel rusty — I feel fresh,” he said, “and just ea­ger to make those punts count.”

Hekker has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two sea­sons.

With fewer op­por­tu­ni­ties this sea­son, that streak would seem to be in peril.

As the Rams pre­pare for Sun­day’s game against the Hous­ton Tex­ans, Hekker said he was not con­cerned.

“It’s the kind of sit­u­a­tion where that takes care of it­self,” he said, adding, “There are plenty of pun­ters in the NFL that are very, very skilled and there are guys that are play­ing at a very high level right now that de­serve all the recog­ni­tion in the world.

“I will never be up­set when other guys get recog­ni­tion they de­serve.”

Re­ally fast start

Gur­ley ap­par­ently was not sur­prised that he hit a top speed that was faster than re­ceivers Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins in last week’s vic­tory over the New York Gi­ants.

Gur­ley was clocked at 20.62 mph, Woods 20.43 and Watkins 20.33, ac­cord­ing to the NFL.

“I’ve been know­ing that I’m faster than those guys, so I’m not re­ally wor­ried about that,” Gur­ley said, laugh­ing.

Gur­ley said that he and his team­mates reg­u­larly check with team train­ers and strength coaches for their times.

“We’re well aware of our speed and luck­ily Sun­day we were able to showcase our speed lit­tle bit,” he said. “So that’s al­ways a good thing when you can get a player over 20 mph, that means he’s prob­a­bly run­ning more than 30, 40 yards, so that’s al­ways a good thing for sure.”

Etc.

Run­ning back Mal­colm Brown is nurs­ing a knee sprain but will not re­quire surgery, McVay said…. Line­backer Robert Quinn (ill­ness) and tight end Derek Car­rier (ham­string) re­mained side­lined. … De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Wade Phillips, who coached with the Hous­ton Oil­ers and Hous­ton Tex­ans dur­ing his 40-year ca­reer, joked about play­ing the Tex­ans: “An­other vengeance game for me. I think I’ve got three more left af­ter this one — maybe four.”

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