New special teams coordinator intrigued by return possibilities
CLEVELAND — New Browns special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Bubba Ventrone met with reporters for the first time over Zoom on Thursday, showing off his determined personality and high expectations for a unit that has struggled in recent years.
Ventrone, who from 2009-12 starred as a special teams ace in Cleveland, seems to think Cleveland has the right guys on its roster to help the return game, is excited to coach second-year kicker Cade York, and certainly has a love of Cleveland.
During his roughly 15 minutes with reporters, it was also abundantly clear how important fundamentals are to him as a coach.
Here are three takeaways from Ventrone’s interview;
1. The return game has some possibilities.
It’s no secret Cleveland has struggled to manufacture any kind of magic with its return game in recent years.
Up until Week 13 against Houston this year, when Donovan Peoples-jones returned a punt 76 years for a touchdown, the Browns had gone since 2015 without any kick or punt return touchdowns — yes, the one prior was from the Johnny Manziel era, when Travis Benjamin returned a punt 78 yards for a score against Tennessee.
As Ventrone comes to Cleveland, though, he’s excited by what he has to work with in that particular area of special teams — not just Peoples-jones, but second-year back Jerome Ford, who shined with 723 yards on 30 kick returns, averaging 24.1 yards per return. He’s also excited by the possibility of adding into the mix Jakeem Grant Sr., who renegotiated his contract with Cleveland last month and is coming off a torn Achilles. The renegotiated deal will give Grant a chance to compete for a spot in training camp.
“After watching the film from last year, I think there are a lot of good things out of Jerome,” Ventrone said. “He has good speed. He has good vision. He runs aggressive and downhill. He had definitely a few productive returns as they did in the latter part of the season. I am excited about Donovan Peoples-jones as a ball handler. Jakeem Grant, we are hoping that he is back and healthy. (WR Jaelon) Darden, who they acquired later in the season last year form Tampa, is another good ball handler and returner. I am excited about the group I have to work with.”
Ventrone’s past special teams units in Indianapolis had plenty of success with kick and punt returning, with Dallis Flowers, an undrafted rookie, leading the league last season averaging 31.1 yards per kickoff return.
“We drilled the crap out of their footwork on kickoff return in our drops,” Ventrone said. “We ended up leading the league in kickoff return because we executed our techniques well, and we ran basic returns the entire season. I feel like the same
parallels show up whenever you are talking through the punt return unit. Good footwork. You can handle any type of rush in protection as long as you have the fundamentals and technique to be able to allow you to see those different types of exotic looks.”
Which brings us to our second point.
2. Ventrone loves fundamentals.
Fundamentals were something that came up repeatedly during the session, no matter which aspect of special teams he was asked about. Returning? It’s all about footwork. Kicking? All about moving on to the next kick after a miss, and making sure fundamentals are sound.
Ventrone cares so much about fundamentals and technique as a coach, because it’s what he cared about as a player. Talk about relatable.
It’s especially important for a unit that has struggled over the last few years. Too many times the Browns have had preventable penalties (like having the wrong number of players on the field), and just overall have had a special teams game that wasn’t really actively helping them — especially given the return and punt games in recent years.
“I am big, big, big — we will drill it to death — on the fundamentals of the game: footwork, hat placement and playing with the base,” Ventrone said. “I am going to emphasize that ad nauseam to our players, and ultimately, that is going to get us the best results. You can’t do anything unless you have good fundamentals and technique. That starts from Day 1.”
3. He seems like the kind of guy who can help York with his biggest issues.
By the end of the 2022 season, York said he learned that maybe his biggest issue with missed kicks — 10 total*
— was that he was too laser focused on his process as the season went on. That focus essentially left him unable to fully move on from his misses when his next kick approached, compounding the problem.
“Game mode is all that goes away and your body just takes over,” York said at the time. “That’s kind of what I’ve been trying to focus on the last three weeks.”
He made all eight of his kicks over the Browns final three games, and Ventrone, although he hasn’t gotten to meet with York yet, already has a good impression of his kicker. The LSU product was Ventrone’s toprated prospect on his draft board in 2022, and he’s confident he can coach a perfectionist like York.
“It is how fast you can make the correction and then move on to the next kick,” Ventrone said.
“I have not had a chance to sit down and actually meet with Cade, but that will be one of the things that I am going to influence for him.”